The Italian Job (1969)

screenshot from The Italian Job

Directed by: Peter Collinson
Screenwriter(s): Troy Kennedy Martin
Starring: Michael Caine, Noel Coward, Benny Hill, Robert Powell, Maggie Blye, Raf Vallone, Tony Beckley
Genre: Heist / Comedy / Crime
Country: UK
Running time: 1h 36m
Rating: 10 out of 10

A perennial favourite on the Best British Films of All Time lists, The Italian Job was, surprisingly, not a big hit on release. A poor US marketing campaign, which featured a naked woman on a gangster’s lap, somewhat inappropriate for a cheeky little comedy caper, killed it dead in the States. But the small screen proved to be the perfect medium for its steady climb from quirky unknown to much-loved classic. Indeed, it’s a film ideally suited to DVD and video, as it has an absurdly high classic moment rate, which will have you reaching for the remote to watch again and again.

It wears its Rule Britannia heart firmly on its sleeve, from the royalist attitudes of Mr Bridger to the iconoclastic red, white and blue minis. The film’s producers were offered massive inducements by Fiat to use Italian cars throughout the film, but stuck by their conviction that the getaway cars could only ever be Minis, despite the fact that this cost them financially.

As for plot, you can tick all the boxes, as every heist movie staple is represented here. Mr Bridger (Coward) is treated like royalty in prison and still manages to run the largest criminal empire in Britain. He is approached by former inmate Charlie Croker (a perfectly cast Caine) to back a scheme to steal $4,000,000 in gold from Fiat. This involves an ingenious rigging of the Turin traffic computer to cause the world’s largest traffic jam and then the infamous getaway through the alleys, lanes and sewers. In addition, the plan has to be carried out right under the noses of the Mafia, who have already killed the originator of the plan, Beckerman (Rosanno Brazzi).

Right from the opening scene, in which Brazzi eases his little red sporty number through the Italian Alps to the sounds of ‘On Days Like These’ by Matt Munro, the whole enterprise exudes a sense of cocky exuberance that’s been sadly lacking in cinema recently. There are some lovely little unique touches, such as the getaway drivers being upper class lads and computer genius Benny Hill being bribed by appealling to his not-so-secret passion for larger ladies (“Are they big? I like ‘em big.”). It’s these little quirks which prevent the film from straying into cliché or, worse, Carry On territory, which is always the danger with 1960s British comedies.

Even the most minor roles in the supporting cast are a veritable Who’s Who of British comedy: Irene Handl as Benny Hill’s sister; John LeMesurier as the prison governer; Sir Harry Secombe as a guard; Robert Powell as one of Charlie’s gang; Simon Dee as a fey tailor; the list goes on.

Everything about this film is perfectly judged, from the Quincy Jones score right down to the literal cliffhanger of an ending (even if the writer and director hated it).

Special mention must go to screenwriter Troy Kennedy Martin, a TV veteran who bought the original idea from his brother Ian, switched the heist from London to Turin and injected some inspired dialogue and set pieces into the mix. And director Collinson, who was Coward’s adopted son, ensures that it all clips along at a brisk pace. Easily the best heist movie ever made.

The Italian Job was given the remake treatment in 2003.


Director Peter Collinson

Director Peter Collinson

When it came to filming the segment where the Minis drive into the back of the bus, only director Peter Collinson was brave (or stupid) enough to volunteer to be the one who guided them in. That is, indeed, Collinson you see in the film.

Collinson’s widow, Hazel, cameos in the scene where the Mafia are having dinner. She’s the blonde at the head of the table to Altabani’s left. She remembers Raf Vallone (who plays the Mafia head) as being “gorgeous and a terrible flirt.” Both Vallone and fellow Italian Rossano Brazzi were cast to give the film appeal in continental Europe, where both were still very big stars.

Coward was so ill that his triumphant Rule Britannia scene had to be filmed in stages, as he could not walk more than few feet at a time.

The prison scenes were filmed at the former site of Mountjoy Prison in Ireland, now a museum, but which had been used as a detention centre for Irish political prisoners prior to independence from Britain. (There is still a working Mountjoy Prison, but it’s not the same place). When Charlie’s gang discuss their plans in London, they used an office which was downstairs from the home of one Jeffrey Archer, who is also familiar with working prisons.

Stanley Caine, Michael Caine and Robert Powell

Stanley Caine, Michael Caine, Robert Powell

Stanley Caine, Michael’s brother, appears in the film as Coco. He’s the one immediately in front of Sir Mike in the picture on the left. In the bottom right corner, that’s Robert Powell making his film debut.

Theme tune “Get A Bloomin’ Move On” (better known as the Self Preservation Society) has now been used in many adverts, including Natwest mortgages and Sainsbury’s Blue Parrot kiddies’ range. And, yes, it is Michael Caine singing on the version used in the film.

Film tributes include the Stereophonics video for “Pick a Part That’s New”, in which they have red, white and green Minis, as befits their Welsh nationhood, and Kronenbourg 1664, who have redone the church steps scene with red, white and blue Citroen 2CVs.