The Italian Job review – cockneys, car chases and a 50-year cliffhanger | Action and adventure films

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All films now have to be inspected for Brexit resonance, and it’s pretty much inescapable here. The much-loved Brit crime caper The Italian Job is this week rereleased 50 years on. A feline young Michael Caine plays Charlie Croker, the cheeky cockney scamp who plans to pinch a fortune in gold bullion from an armoured car convoy in Turin, having fixed the traffic lights to create gridlock preventing police pursuit, and using as cover the thousands of English football fans in the city for an away fixture with Italy. (At the time we were still glowing from our 1966 World Cup victory.)

But first he must get the go-ahead from ageing crimelord Mr Bridger, played by Noël Coward, who runs things from his prison cell. Charlie tells him it’s a patriotic attack on “Europe … the Common Market … Italy … the Fiat car company …” Mr Bridger is convinced by Charlie and incidentally notes that all those football fans could be counted on “to help him if required”.

The director was Peter Collinson, whose flair for action was revealed in the exhilarating location sequences in chaotic Turin as Charlie’s red, white and blue Mini Coopers whizz along the city’s pavements and through its colonnaded piazzas. There are also those endless shots of cars crashing down mountainsides – which was a big feature of film and TV in those days and of course reached its climax in this film with the famed cliffhanger ending. The script was by Troy Kennedy Martin, except for those bits involving Benny Hill’s creepy and not especially funny sex-pest “professor” figure, which were written by Hill himself. (He was infuriated to be told to redub his Yorkshire accent with something more RP so American audiences could understand him.)

The brio and ambition of The Italian Job can’t be doubted and Caine has enormous charisma, especially posing as the super-posh tiger-shooting English gentleman picking up his 007-style Aston Martin after a couple of years “away”. Coward, in his final film role, is a good sport (in Coward’s biography, Philip Hoare ponders how far The Italian Job was removed from Coward’s first film role, in DW Griffith’s silent Hearts of the World, in 1918).

There are plenty of memorable touches in the script. Everyone quotes “You’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!” when one of Charlie’s underlings dynamites an entire armoured car during a practice session. But I find myself thinking about Charlie’s crude, borderline-racist threat to the Italian mafia chieftain threatening to block his plan: “There are a quarter of a million Italians in Britain and they’ll be made to suffer. Every restaurant, cafe, ice cream parlour, gambling den and night club in London, Liverpool and Glasgow will be smashed. Mr Bridger will drive them into the sea.” That’s what you call a hostile environment.

As for the 60s-style sexiness, well, I remember first seeing this movie on TV as a 12-year-old, saucer-eyed at the scene when Charlie gets out of prison, shows up at the Royal Lancaster Hotel in London to find half a dozen scantily clad women waiting for him in his suite. (“Hi, Charlie! Ciao, Charlie! Love you, Charlie!”) It was not until my 20s that I realised: of course, these are sex workers that his girlfriend has hired as a coming-out present. But then there’s that later scene when the very same girlfriend is outraged to find three women in his room. So maybe they’re not supposed to be sex workers. Maybe they’re just “birds”, entranced by Charlie’s attractiveness and all-around swinging London mojo.

And there’s that ending, which outraged me as a 12-year-old. When the credits rolled over the image of the coach half off the cliff edge, I thought it had to be a Pythonesque joke and the real ending would emerge after these fake credits had been wound back. I still think it’s a cheat and a failure of imagination and craftsmanship, though one we’ve all got used to. But the cheek of it undoubtedly helped to nail this movie into the public mind. As that gold bullion tantalisingly slides to the back of the teetering coach, it’s impossible not to think about our £350m, just out of reach.

Source: The Guardian
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