Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Italian Job (1969)

Peter Collinson's film The Italian Job didn't do well in the United States upon its release in 1969, which is probably why the sequel that was so brazenly set up by its producers never got made. And so Michael Caine's Charlie Croker remains stranded on the floor of the bus, halfway between his terrified gang and the fortune in gold they've just stolen, as their Harrington Legionnaire creaks and teeters on the precipice of a cliff in the Italian Alps.

At the end of the film, I have to admit that I really didn't care. It's not that The Italian Job is a bad film; I wouldn't even call it mediocre - it has style and drive and makes you walk away with a half dozen indelible images in your head, and the ending is undeniably audacious. It may be one of the ten best car films ever made, but as a story about plausible, sympathetic people it's an utter failure. It's a good thing that pop culture doesn't really care about that sort of thing, which is why we're still talking about The Italian Job over forty years since it made us believe that a Mini loaded with over two thousand pounds of gold bullion can fly.

If you're a car guy, you know you're in for something special when the camera pans down to the beautiful, dangerous roads of the Italian Alps to focus on a Lamborghini Miura, the Bugatti Veyron of its day, its handsome driver working the gear shifts with the obvious effort it took to drive a car this powerful on roads this tricky. Even back in the late '60s, a car like the Miura was rare beyond imagining, and on streets that were still filled with either boxy little runabouts (Europe) or great long sleds of chrome trim and dun-coloured paint (Canada and the U.S.), it was an alien apparition. While Matt Monro croons "On Days Like These," the film's misleadingly wistful theme, you can't wait to see more of this amazing car, and the man driving it.

Tough luck. Before the first line of dialogue is spoken the Miura and its rakish occupant drive headlong into the bucket of a front-end loader waiting at the end of a tunnel. The smoking wreck is tipped over the road's edge and down into a raging mountain stream as a black-suited line of mafiosi give the driver a solemn send-off. In our current age of Wikipedia, Google search and audio commentaries, we now know that the Miura we saw driven was sold as new after the film finished shooting, while the wrecked Miura was a junked stand-in. It still smarts, though, but we've been given notice: Don't get attached to anyone or anything you're about to see, especially if it has four wheels.

The scene cuts from sunny Italy to the slate gray skies of England, as Caine's Charlie Croker is being let out of prison, where he finds his American girlfriend Lorna (a woefully stilted performance by Maggie Blye) waiting for him in a Daimler Majestic Major stolen from the Pakistani Ambassador. She takes him to his tailor and shirtmaker, neither of whom can be bothered putting much effort into pretending that he's anything else but an ex-con, and finally the manager of his garage, who dusts off the Aston Martin DB4 he's had in storage.

The dialogue between the two men was apparently improvised, the two of them doing a piss-take on public school toffs from what we presume to be less elevated origins. It's as close as we get to a hint of character development in the film, and unlike most of the comic relief in Collinson's film, it survived editing that ended up favouring caper over japes.

The next half hour of so sets up the heist - a master plan put together by the man in the Miura, delivered to Croker by his widow, and funded by Noel Coward's Bridger, the gangland boss running his syndicate from the prison Charlie just left. Charlie intends to steal four million dollars being invested by the Chinese in a Fiat-built auto plant by hijacking the convoy transporting the gold in a traffic jam, to be caused by infecting the computer controlling Turin's traffic control system. Bridger initially turns him down, but changes his mind when his patriotism is pricked when news of a trade imbalance, caused by Chinese money, hits the front page of his paper.

There's a running joke - the film's only overreaching metaphor, really - that there's no difference between the interests of legitimate government and organized crime, underlined by Bridger's suborning of the criminal justice system to his own whims, and the Italian mafia's violent insistence that money intended for the Italian economy will not leave the country. In the "making of" documentary included on the Paramount DVD, one of the men behind the film jokes that it's the first "euroskeptic film." That's probably why it's hard not to laugh when you glimpse the name on the ferry that transports Charlie's team and their vehicles from England to the continent:

Back in the Italian Alps, Charlie splits up his team and heads off with the three "fast cars" meant to act as backup getaway vehicles along the beautiful switchback roads where the Miura met its end. It's a trio of British sports car excellence featuring Charlie's DB4, and two Jaguar XKEs - a coupe and a convertible in blue and red. They meet the same mafiosi and their Caterpillar front-end loader, who proceed to make their economically protectionist point by crushing the XKE coupe...

...then the convertible...

...before taking care of Charlie's Aston.

By this point most grown men will be weeping as hard as kids learning how Sounder or Old Yeller died, but once again Google offers relief - the DB4 that gets tossed over the cliff was a mock-up built around a Lancia Appia, and the XKEs were later restored. Since Collinson's film takes a rather cavalier approach to plot, it's only upon further reflection that it becomes apparent that Charlie, warned of the mafia's opposition to his plan by Bridger, decided to sacrifice the trio of British sports cars as a decoy. As the scene unfolds, however, all the car destruction feels decidedly gratuitous.

As the heist begins, we finally get a full-on view of the sleek but sinister black car that the mafiosi are driving. It's a Fiat Dino, a Bertone-designed coupe, and it's a beauty, with the same beautiful lines that are echoed in the Datsun 240Z or the Porsche 944. While the Jags and the Aston are classic car porn, and the Minis are the film's iconic motors, I think the Dino is the prettiest car in the film, and Peter Collinson obviously agreed - he bought the mafiosi Dino when the film was over, but it later rusted away, leaving nothing behind but the doors. It's an anecdote that probably sums up Italian cars in the '60s and '70s for most of their owners.

The gang's sabotage of Turin's traffic control system begins right on cue, and the resulting footage of the snarled streets is a fantastic document of the time - streets full of Alfa Romeos and Fiats: Giulias and 124s, 1100s and 1500s, 2600s and 500s and the odd VW Bug. To a North American, they're all such little cars, and Collinson has a lot of fun with a sequence showing their occupants blithely accepting yet another stifling afternoon of gridlocked traffic, as they eat, read, gamble and flirt in their tiny autos, a bustling society on the movie, but only just.

In typical British fashion, Italian technology and law enforcement gets set up for a few gags, the highlight being the havoc when the carabinieri decide to use a Fiat car transporter to batter down the door of the building where the gang has retreated to load their gold into the Minis. Unsecured autos on the top level of the transporter come loose and land on a police Super Giulia, prompting a broad comic reaction from the strutting officer in charge:

The final third of the movie really stars the trio of Minis Charlie's gang use to make their getaway, ostensibly piloted by three poshly-accented rally racers but really led by stunt driver Remy Julienne and his team, who give the red, white and blue Minis with their rally stripes and headlights more actual personality than most of the actors in the film.

A production backstory revealed later is how Fiat had offered massive support to the film, both in money and cars, if the producers would replace the Minis with super-charged Fiats. British Motor Corporation, makers of the Mini, were as stingy with cars as Bridger was in the story; accepting the Fiat offer would have saved the filmmakers a lot of money and headaches, but it would have sabotaged the "Limeys Vs. Wops" theme behind the plot, and they wisely turned Fiat down.

The car chase itself is a marvellous but wholly improbable thing. It begins on the grand staircase of some Piranesian palazzo and heads out onto the covered shopping arcades of the Via Roma before going down into what looks like a subway entrance. The Minis resurface on the stairs in front of the Gran Madre di Dio church, making their way to the roof of the breathtakingly modernist Palazzo a Vela sports arena and the steeply banked turns of the rooftop race track of Fiat's Lingotto factory.

They drive along the banks and through the Po River, and finally evade the police after escaping into the sewer tunnels. The DVD comes with a deleted scene where they pirouette through and around a trio of olive drab police Giulias in Pier Luigi Nervi's Exhibition Hall, home of the Turin auto show, while an orchestra plays the Blue Danube Waltz. It has to be understood that none of these locations make sense as a plausible escape route, but they're giddy fun to watch, and comprise most of the lingering images viewers take away from the film.

Equally implausible is the jump the Minis take over a long gap between buildings at Fiat's factory, made up to look like a Turinese street. According to calculations based on the weight of gold and inflation, each Mini would have had to carry nearly twice their weight in gold bars, so nearly everything about the best part of The Italian Job is magnificent, boldface and - literally - gilded bullshit. Not that there's anything wrong with that, cinematically speaking.

After watching the Minis race, drift, glide, dance and swim, we see them splash in a stream and run off through a forest glade when they make their final escape from the police. The only feat left is their high speed scramble up the improvised ramp dragging behind the six-wheeled Legionnaire bus the gang uses for their final escape. Once aboard, the gold is unloaded and the the gang makes their final run back through the Italian alps to Geneva.

Unfortunately, this is where the Minis endure the final indignity that seems inevitable for any car with an ounce of heroism in The Italian Job. As the bus swings through turns in the switchback road, Charlie and his gang shove the Minis out the back door of the bus and over the side of the sheer cliffs, first the blue Mini, then the white, and finally the red one, the de facto "leader" of the trio, which explodes into flame as it exits the bus and careens down the rocky slope.

While nowhere near as lovely to look at as the XKEs or the Dino, the Minis had ample charm and agility, and The Italian Job cemented the reputation they'd already been making on rally courses as a deft, fun little car that could hold its head up against more expensive makes and models. I'd go so far as to say that the film's enduring popularity as a Mojo magazine icon/Cool Britannia antecedent kept the Mini's reputation alive as fewer of them survived on the roads, and probably contributed to the marque's survival and BMW's decision to revive it in its slightly bigger, much heavier and far more luxurious form in 2001.

So as Charlie and his gang teeter on the precipice, I didn't find myself wishing that we came back to them in a sequel - The Brazilian Job or whatever it was supposed to be called. Frankly, if they were going to treat their steadfast, eager-to-please Minis in such a brute, cavalier fashion, fuck them. Let them hang over the edge of that cliff forever, waiting for Charlie to come up with his great idea.

Oh, they did a remake of this film a few years back, but I'm not going to bother writing about that. Fuck remakes.

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