The Italian Job, now being re-released for its 50th anniversary, seems at first to be an ensemble drama like Ocean’s 11, with a diverse sample of loveable rogues rotating through scenes showcasing their specialisms and speech patterns. In fact, it is hierarchy made mechanism. Most of the talking scenes belong to Michael Caine, as Charlie Croker, a chameleonic working-class project manager, and some to Bridger, a toffish prison kingpin played by Noel Coward (who was called “the Master” on set by director’s orders). All the others – the chinless wonders, the Cockney mechanics, William the Black British getaway bus driver, the boffin played by Benny Hill, Franco, Butch Harry, Camp Freddie – mostly do what they’re told, leaving not much of an echo.
The film has been acclaimed as part of Britain’s swinging ‘60s image, and its soft nationalism is evident from the news clippings of the Queen that paper Bridger’s cell to the red, white and blue getaway Minis. Just a few years before British accession to the EU, continental economies are deliberately othered: in the world of the film, it’s absolutely fine to rob the Italians, and in particular to rob them of gold earmarked for building an Italian car factory (in China). It’s fine to make jokes about spaghetti and to threaten an Italian gangster with violence against Italian immigrants in Britain. When the main part of the heist is completed, the inmates of Croker’s alma mater prison shout “England!” The scenes were actually filmed in Kilmainham Prison, Dublin, where the British shot Irish freedom fighters before independence.
Yet The Italian Job is also an Italian job. It would not be what it is without Gianni Agnelli, who made Turin and his factories available for filming, fixed the authorities, and donated cars to smash up – nor without French stunt driver Rémy Julienne and his team – nor without the graceful ironwork of the Irish prison, chosen as a main location to help Coward dodge tax obligations, and the Irish extras. It is also an American job, backed by Paramount and scored entirely by Quincy Jones, including an ersatz Baroque lead-in to “Rule Britannia” as well as the anthem “Get a Bloomin’ Move On (AKA The Self Preservation Society),” which Jones wrote after a few days hanging out with Michael Caine and picking up rhyming slang.
If the nationalism is cringey 50 years on, so are the gender relations. Scenes that would have shown Maggie Blye’s Lorna as more than a disposable Bond girl were cut. Because Michael Caine couldn’t drive, Lorna still drives Croker in their outings, but this is unremarked and easily missed. Benny Hill’s Professor Peach was originally meant to be an enthusiast for trains, rather than “big women” (seen as comedy at the time). With a nerdier, less lecherous Peach and a stronger Lorna, a more inclusive and durable script could have been written. The nationalism would have been tempered in the proposed alternative endings in which the Mafia grab back the (unrealistically light) gold bars, either by airlifting the bus at the end, or by turning out to be in charge of the Swiss banks, setting up a bank heist sequel.
But any of these changes would have undercut the fantasy of men flying away to freedom in cars. When the last car has left the scene, things begin to go pear-shaped and it is clearly time to end the film. The cars are more human than some of the characters (a scene of them contradancing to Strauss was shot, and cut), and suffer the worst tortures. Even a hardcore #numtot could fall for those Matchbox-bright Minis and sleek convertibles, behind which the glories of an Italian city appear as a dun-colored backdrop. A celebration of automobility and its extension to the rest of us, an allegory of show business life as almost criminal in its license, an evergreen comedy of confidence – this picture has wheels. Brexit, you say? Hang on, lads, I’ve got a great idea.
The Italian Job, 1969, dir. Peter Collinson, at Genesis Cinema tonight and eternally on DVD (two disc version with commentary and making-of recommended). 99 minutes. There is a remake with Mark Wahlberg which I’ve not seen.