31: THE ITALIAN JOB: 1969. Director: Peter Collinson. UK. Comedy crime caper. Michael Caine. Noël Coward. Benny Hill. Raf Williams. Tony Beckley. Rossano Brazzi. Maggie Blye.
Written by Troy Kennedy Martin (1932-2009), Scottish-born film and television writer, known for his television police (1962-78) series Z-Cars, and the drama serial Edge of Darkness (1985). His filmography was from 1968 to 2004, television from 1958 to 1999. His brother Ian Kennedy Martin wrote another successful police drama series, The Sweeney, 1975-78. Edited by John Trumper. Producer: Michael Deeley. Production by Oakhurst Production. Distributors: Paramount Pictures. Music by American composer Quincy Jones (born 1933). Screen time: 99 minutes. Budget: $3million. Box office: £113,867. It was not popular in the USA, apparently due to a bad publicity campaign, and not much loved by the critics at the time, but has since evolved into almost cult status, not least for featuring Caine, Coward and Benny Hill, the car chase, and the ambiguous ending. Michael Caine played Charlie Croker, reappraising his small-time Cockney crook, who is taking on a heist a bit above and beyond his league. Thus Croker is a bit like Harry Dean in Gambit (1966). Noël Coward (1899-1973), playwright, composer, singer and character actor, played the criminal mastermind, Mr Bridger. Because Coward was a tax exile (his English patriotism didn’t extend to contributing to our well-being), he couldn’t film in the UK, so his interior prison scenes were filmed at Kilmainham Gaol, Dublin. Benny Hill (1924-1992), comedian, actor, singer, writer, played quirky computer expert, Professor Simon Peach. Hill was best known for his long-running television series, The Benny Hill Show (1955-1989), a mixture of old-time slapstick, mime, parody, scantily-clad girl-chasing and double entendre. The Peach character, with his purchase for pinching girls’ bottoms, fits into this persona perfectly. Other cast include Raf Vallone as the mafia boss Altabani; Tony Beckley as Camp Freddie; American actress Maggie Blye (1942-2006) as Charlie’s girlfriend Lorna; Rossano Brazzo as Roger Beckerman, who originally dreamed up the heist; John Le Mesurier (1912-1983) as the prison governor; Irene Handl (1901-1987) as Miss Peach; Fred Emney (1900-1980), British comedy character actor, as Birkinshaw; Stanley Caine (1935-2013, Michael’s brother) as Coco. He also played alongside Michael in minor parts in Billion Dollar Brain (1967) and Play Dirty (1968). Another minor cast member was Radio DJ Simon Dee (1935-2009), real name Cyril Nicholas Hentry-Dodd.
On location, we have already noted Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin, but the prison exterior is HMP Wormwood Scrubs, Du Cane Road, London W12, a favourite exterior film location. Charlie’s home is Denbigh Close, Notting Hill, W11. Other scenes are at Lancaster Hotel, Bayswater, and Crystal Palace Sports Centre at Upper Norwood, south London. The Turin traffic control building was actually Apex House, Hanworth, then the head office of the television rental chain (long since defunct) Domestic Electric Retails (DER). This was a distinctive three-sided 1960s modernist office block on Hampton Road West, at the junction/roundabout of Twickenham Road, Hampton Road, Staines Road and the Great Chertsey Road (before the M3 flyover sliced through in the 1970s), and which I passed countless times on the bus when I worked at nearby Feltham, from 1966 to 1983. It was demolished in 1994. The various locations in and around Turin include the Villa Della Regina; the Piazza di Citta (scene of the robbery); the Palazzo Carignano; the steps of the Gran Magre di Dio; the roof of the Palazzo a Vela, built for the Italia Expo 1961. Permission to film here was refused, but Peter Collinson reputedly told the crew to go ahead anyway, then made himself scarce! Likewise the Fiat factory Lingotto building rooftop stunt (by ‘stunt king’ Rémy Julienne) was so potentially dangerous that producer Michael Deeley had a ‘getaway’ car on standby. In the event of an accident he planned to get to the airport and fly out straightway, figuring better to be back in England than in an Italian jail! Another dangerous stunt was driving across the weir on the River Po (just down from the Ponte Vittorio Emanuele I in central Turin) – the current was strong and there was moss on the river bed. Julienne used tyres with spikes for grip. However, the sewer tunnel exit was Sowe Valley, near Coventry. Other scenes were filmed at the St. Bernard Pass and Cagnes, in the south of France. The final ‘cliff-hanger’ scene was filmed near Ivrea, Piedmont, the Via Lago Agnel, leading to the Nivolet Pass, which actually does not lead to either France or Switzerland, being a dead end. Two concrete barriers were removed for the coach to dangled on the edge, and apparently were still where they were left at least up until the 1990s. However, again the coach interior shots were at Twickenham Studio, back in England.
Producer Michael Deeley was apparently not satisfied with the various options for the film’s ending, and the abrupt, but literal, cliff-hanger many found rather disconcerting, although potentially it was a good set-up for a sequel; which, however, was never made. Michael Caine also disliked the ending, and even later suggested how Charlie Croker might have up-righted the coach, by running the engine for four hours until the petrol was used up. The gang members would get out, but the gold went over the precipice. In 2008 the Royal Society of Chemistry suggested another alternative. Deflate the front tyres, smash the heavy window glass and drain the fuel tank to change the weight ratio, then place rocks at the front of the bus. Once it was stable again, unload the gold, before hijacking a passing vehicle to escape. The end was certainly unexpected, but has since helped make the film into a cult classic, whilst being spoofed and parodied even since, even in The Simpsons. In 2012, the artist Richard Wilson exhibited Hang On A Minute, Lads, I’ve Got A Great Idea (the final Michael Caine/Charlie Croker quote), with a replica bus teetering on the rooftop of the De La Warr Pavilion at Bexhill-on-Sea, East Sussex.
Which brings us to the other ‘stars’ of the movie – the vehicles. With the exception of addition vehicles acquired in Switzerland and Italy, the vehicles were all driven over from the UK to Italy, and (those that survived) back again. The coach used in the Alpine adventure was a Harrington Legionnaire Bedford VAL 14, registration ALR 453B. After filming it was sold and returned to being a school bus in School, after which – sadly, with no thought to its cinematic heritage – it was scrapped in 1990. In a 2019 BBC TV Top Gear programme, one of the English stunt drivers, David Salamone, recounted how his mother drove one of the ‘E’ type Jaguars, and his then girlfriend one of the Mini Coopers, from England to Turin. Later, he, Barry Cox and Richard Essame – all young 20-year-olds – drove the surviving Minis (there were at least ten originally) back from Italy. In the UK, however, Cox was stopped for speeding, in a car with a fake registration plate and tax disc, and apparently a boot full of gold bars. Naturally unaware of the film in process, he was straightway arrested! Such were the stunts being planned in Kennedy Martin’s script, that top European stunt driver Rémy Julienne and his team were brought in – as Salamone confessed, they were “in a different league”. Although the Minis were stripped down, they had standard engines, and were “fun and manoeuvrable” – “like go-karts”, but had “dodgy handbrakes” – a feature I can confirm the time my first wife hired a brand-new Mini to drive from West London to Scotland and back. After driving along what was supposed to be an ‘A’ road coming back south from Fort William, but roadworks and torrential rain had turned into driving through a muddy field, we pulled up onto the sloping driveway of a B&B stopover, she applied the handbrake, and it just rolled backwards – the brake cable had snapped! Kennedy Martin chose Minis because they were both quintessential British and then the symbol of the 1960s. Ironically manufacturer British Leyland was only prepared to offer six Mini Coopers at trade price, whereas their Italian arch rivals supplied the stunt drivers, allowed access to the Fiat rooftop test track at Lingotto, and put up $50,000 to the production costs. Which company had the better PR? Not all the vehicles survived, of course, including the 1954 ex-Post Office Morris van filmed at Crystal Palace Park, that inspired the famous Michael Caine line, “You’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!” Yet again, the actual explosion really was greater than anticipated, breaking a number of windows nearby. Apparently the film crew promptly did a runner! Another casualty was the Austin Martin DB4 which was supposed to explode after being pushed over the cliff. Instead it blew up prematurely, necessitating a frantic search for a replacement. Eventually, with the filming schedule looming, a Lancia Flaminia 36 was acquired, stripped down and mocked up to look similar to a DB4, and that went over the cliff instead – only for the wreckage to have vanished the following day, presumably scavenged by the locals. The two ‘E’ types, one 1961, the coupé from 1962, were originally purchased for £900 each. Both were later restored and the coupé is said to be in a private collection. One of the Fiat Dino Coupés used in the film by the ‘mafia top brass’, was later purchased by director Michael Collinson. As an example of movie licence, it has since been calculated that, with the 1968 cost of gold being $38.69 per troy ounce, $4milllion of gold would be the equivalent of 3,200kg or 7,000lbs. Therefore, to transport by the Mini Coopers, that would mean 1,070kg (2,300lbs) each, plus the additional weight of the driver and passenger. The weight of the 1968 cars being used was 630kg (1,400lbs), so each Mini would be carrying one and a half times its own weight in gold alone! By the physics it’s just not doable!
Again, The Italian Job is not included in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, although the editor finds room for Planet of the Apes, The Producers, and even If…., all 1968 – how many people now remember, or want to watch, the Lindsay Anderson movie? Paul Taylor, in a later review for the Time Out Film Guide, is brief, but comparatively complimentary: “The planning and execution of a Turin bullion heist take, for once, a back seat to the stunt-riddled getaway (subsequently pastiched, after numerous TV screenings of the film, by at least one car commercial). As a modest fun movie, it works, much helped by deep casting contrasts and a nice sense of absurd proportions from scriptwriter (and Z Cars originator) Troy Kennedy Martin.”
And, for me, this is its enduring quality. It is one of those 1960s, very British, comedy caper movies, whose humour is often incomprehensible to many non-Brits, including Americans, rather in the original The Ladykillers mode – a gang of criminal incompetents who almost pull it off. It is light-hearted, silly, but entertaining and fun, as well as again now being a window onto that period – clothes, cars, interiors, exteriors, pre-mobile phones or the worldwide web. Latterly, post-2016, the film has become revised as something of a jingoistic, flag-waving, Brexit favourite – not helped by Brexit supporter Michael Caine, with his idiotic “Better to be poor, but free!” nonsense, from a now elderly movie actor whose own wealth or freedom has never been under threat – unlike the rest of us, who have helped make him rich and successful. Certainly there does exist an uncomfortable underlying subplot of ‘we bashed Johnny Foreigner’: English criminal gangs vs. the Italian mafia, bumbling incompetent Italian cops outsmarted by Charlie Croker’s gang of young hoodlums. But at the time Fiat were more cooperative than British Leyland, and bizarrely, in the clips where Mr Bridger celebrates the successful heist in prison, the prison inmates are Southern Irish extras shouting “England! England!” in a former prison (closed in 1924) where Irish Republican Nationalist martyrs were once executed by the British.
In his article celebrating the film’s fiftieth anniversary, in the May 23rd/29th 2019 edition of The New European, Roger Domeneghetti attempted to rebalance this post-Brexit, anti-European interpretation. He points out that, at the time of its release, it “was just one in a long line of heist movies produced in that era. The popular and profitable sub-genre included films such as Topkapi [1964, with Peter Ustinov], How to Steal a Million [1966, Audrey Hepburn and Peter O’Toole] and even The Great St Trinian’s Train Robbery, whose title aped the real life robbery in 1963 that captured the imagination of the public and film makers alike.” However, he concedes, “The Italian Job has risen above its contemporaries and has repeatedly been voted one of the best, if not the best, British film of all time.” He attributes this lofty accolade to be “Thanks to its bright paisley colour pallet and kitsch iconography [so] the film has come to epitomise the Swinging Sixties, or at least an idealised version of the decade.” The first change to the original concept came when Ian Kennedy Martin tried to interest the BBC in the idea of a television play, set in London. When they showed little interest, he sold the rights to older brother Troy, who saw the better potential as a movie, and moved the main action to Turin. Domeneghetti takes up his persuasive counter-argument: “As Troy Kennedy Martin was starting work on the new film script, British identity was in flux. That identity had long been defined in contrast to Europe. An imperial world view that often treated its continental neighbours with aloofness, even belligerence, was only reinforced by that empire’s solitary resistance to the Nazis in the early days of the Second World War. By the late 1960s, the empire was dissolving into the Commonwealth and Britain’s economic and political status was on the wane. By contrast, the European Economic Community, a forerunner of the European Union, was on the up and as Britain made several, initially rejected, attempts to join, the country was starting to have to think of itself not on the edge but as part of Europe. It was a change of mindset that would not come easily and one that is seemingly resisted in The Italian Job. The soundtrack speaks of ‘the Self Preservation Society’ suggesting of a nation determined to remain independent, while the ship that takes the gang across the Channel is called The Free Enterprise. Most obviously the getaway cars were iconically British Minis painted red, white and blue, which the film producer, Michael Deeley, said ‘obviously made a statement about “us” and “them”’. Some 30 years later, when lamenting that a 2003 remake was to be set in Los Angeles, Deeley went further, arguing: ‘It misses the entire point of the 1969 film, which was about us kicking the European ass. It was the first Eurosceptic film.’
“But that is not how it was originally conceived by Kennedy Martin when he was building on his younger brother’s idea. Heavily involved in left-wing politics, he saw the story as both a satire on Britain’s relationship with the Common Market and a hard-edged political and social commentary. ‘Europe was kind of in flames in 1968,’ he would later say, ‘Revolution was happening everywhere especially among young people like myself.’ That this more subversive side to The Italian Job has long been overlooked is down to Peter Collinson’s light-touch direction, which obscured the more biting satire of British chauvinism in the script, allowing the film to instead become a celebration of British superiority. Thus, to fully understand The Italian Job the creative tension of Kennedy Martin’s and Collinson’s competing visions must be considered. It reflected the antagonism between the Europhile and Eurosceptic approaches to Britain’s relationship with the EEC in the years immediately before membership, antagonism that continued through to the 2016 referendum campaign and has only become more stark since. And while Leavers…might claim the film for their side of the argument, you don’t need to scratch too much below the surface to detect Kennedy Martin’s critique. Look beyond Collinson’s focus on capering and it becomes a somewhat different film. Mr Bridger, the criminal godfather played by Noël Coward who ultimately bankrolls the robbery, is a patriotic isolationist distrustful of Johnny Foreigner. Strains of Rule Britannia! can be heard whenever he is on screen, his cell is decorated with photographs of the Queen and he expresses displeasure that some of the younger prisoners are not standing for the national anthem. Yet he spends the whole film behind bars. He is imprisoned, isolated from the outside world. Croker, unlike Bridger, is not motivated by xenophobic patriotism. On the contrary, he wants to break free of the rigid class-based strictures of British society any way he can. Indeed, when he appeal for backing is initially rebuffed by Bridger, Croker considers taking his plan to the Americans who, he says, ‘recognise young talent and give it a chance.’ The plan for the robbery is not Croker’s. Instead it is the brainchild of an Italian criminal, Roger Beckermann, who is murdered by the Mafia in the opening minutes. Croker has no qualms in fully embracing his European colleague’s plans. Ultimately Croker exploits Bridger’s bluff xenophobic Euroscepticism to gain his support. He offers him the chance to take back control by imploring: ‘This is important; four million dollars, Europe, the Common Market, Italy, the Fiat car factory!’ Furthermore, the film’s production belies the notion of the independent ‘self-preservation society’. Far from a wholly British endeavour, it was actually the result of a union of European talent. The Minis were designed by Greek born émigré Alec Issigonis and were driven by Belgian stunt team L’Equipe Rémy Julienne. While the cars’ manufacturers, the British Motor Company, offered no support, backing from Turin-based Fiat was fulsome. Kennedy Martin’s original ending had the gang making it to Switzerland only to find the Mafia waiting for them. However, Deeley conceived the cliffhanger to cut costs and facilitate a sequel which was ultimately never mind. In doing so, he had unwittingly created an denouement which is a perfect metaphor for the current  state of the Brexit process.
“As the camera pans away and the credit music kicks in, Croker and his gang are left teetering on a cliff edge with no Plan B and the gold tantalisingly beyond their grasp. If they get out of the vehicle and return to safety, they will lose their prize. However, the more they reach for it, the more likely they are to go tumbling with it into the abyss.”
Alas – as remarked above – in 2003, it was yet another great classic non-American movie to be remade and murdered by uncomprehending Hollywood – director F. Gary Gray, starring Mark Wahiberg and Charlize Theron, with the action moved to L.A. and Venice. It would appear to be more bloodthirsty, no humour, with killings, so just another US crime action thriller… Yawn. Only the Charlie Croker and Bridger name survived the transaction. 110 minutes long, the budget was $60million, and box office was $176.1million, so American audiences – ignorant of, or uncomprehending, the original – obviously loved it. It was described as “two hours of mindless escapism”, but why not just write a completely new mindless story with a different title? Why even bother? But it was part of the revivalist trend of the time to take good 1960s-era movies (with great actors) and ‘reboot’ them, as the expression goes, into basically dull-witted, inferior ‘team film’ remakes – example: The Thomas Crown Affair (remade 1999, original with Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway, 1968); and Oceans Eleven, remake 2001, original with the Frank Sinatra/Dean Martin/Sammy Davis Jr., 1960.
Finally, in February 2021, Paramount are proposing a television sequel series of Crocker’s grandchildren presumably trying to find where the gold is hidden. Again, yawn. Oh, do we really care?