What can you say about The Italian Job that hasn’t already been said? There are so many good things about this marvellous British film that it’s hard to know where to begin. There’s Michael Caine in another of his iconic roles as Charlie Croker, Noel Coward as the behind bars sophisticated career criminal Mr Bridger, Tony Beckley as Camp Freddy and the wonderful Benny Hill as Professor Peach who likes big women. There’s great comic cameos from Irene Handl, John Le Mesurier and Bill Fraser. There’s the preparation for the robbery and the robbery itself, the fantastic car chase through the streets of Turin that follows and the sublimely brilliant ending. And then there’s the endlessly quotable dialogue.
|The original poster for The Italian Job|
When one of Mr Bridger’s lackeys tells him that Charlie is going to do a job in Italy, Bridger replies, “Well I hope he likes spaghetti. They serve it four times a day in the Italian prisons.” When Charlie picks up his car from storage he tells the manager that he’s just back from India shooting tigers. “There’s a bounty for shooting tigers, you know,” he tells him – then when the manager notices the large amount of money in his wallet and says, “You must have shot an awful lot of tigers, sir,” Charlie responds: “Yes, I used a machine gun.”
It seems that everyone in Britain, no matter what age they are, love this film. Kids who weren’t even born when the film was released can do an impression of Michael Caine saying the line for which he will always be remembered, “You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!” And my son, William, has got a new pair of glasses of which he is particularly fond because – he says – they make him look like a young Michael Caine.
|My son William as Michael Caine|
I remember going to see the film on its original release and walking out of the cinema, like everyone else who saw it that day, with a huge smile on my face. All I wanted to do after I’d seen it was see it again and I’ve lost count of the times I’ve watched it since then.
The fast moving and funny screenplay was by Troy Kennedy Martin, who had written several episodes of the TV series Z-Cars and would later go on to script Kelly’s Heroes (1970) and the terrific six-part conspiracy thriller Edge of Darkness (1985) for the BBC. The Italian Job was directed with great flair by Peter Collinson, who had directed two successful British films – The Long Day’s Dying and Up The Junction – the previous year. And to cap it all the music was by Quincy Jones.
It’s a film that gets better and better with subsequent viewings and you go along with it even though you know the outcome and can quote most of the dialogue verbatim, especially that final optimistic line from Charlie, “Hang on a minute, lads – I’ve got a great idea.”
The Italian Job is a film that is so embedded in our national psyche, that when it was discovered that it was being remade – by Hollywood – it was greeted by the British public with derision and horror. It was as if an American at a party at Buckingham Palace had announced that he was going to assassinate the Queen. How dare they even consider remaking a national treasure like The Italian Job that was so quintessentially British? But Hollywood has never had any qualms about plundering great European films and remaking inferior dumbed down versions of the originals. Whilst I’ll admit there’s been some good remakes – True Lies (French original: La Totale!), The Departed (Hong Kong original: Infernal Affairs) and Let Me In (Swedish original: Let the Right One In) there have also been even more truly terrible ones – three that spring immediately to mind are Luc Besson’s kinetic French thriller La Femme Nikita (1990) which was remade into the thoroughly forgettable The Assassin (1993); George Sluizer’s atmospheric Dutch psychological drama Spoorloos (1988) became the limp The Vanishing (1993) and Francois Veber’s wonderfully funny French comedy Le Dîner de Cons (1998) was made into the awful Dinner for Schmucks (2010), which was twenty-four minutes longer than the original and about a million times less funny.
When the remake of The Italian Job was eventually released in 2003 it – not surprisingly – didn’t do good business in Britain. I was one of many thousands of cinema goers who steered clear of the film because I thought it was a disgrace that America should take such a revered British classic and Hollywoodize it. I didn’t go and see it because I knew that I would hate it, which, with the benefit of hindsight, is a shame because it’s actually a pretty good film.
It’s got a great cast – Mark Wahlberg, Donald Sutherland, Charlize Theron, Jason Statham, Seth Green, Mos Def and the excellent Edward Norton. It’s well directed by F. Gary Gray and it has a great script by Donna and Wayne Powers. But the thing is, and this is what I like about it most – it’s not a remake. It’s an homage or – to use the current epithet – a reimagining. When Charlie (Mark Wahlberg) and his team decide to get their ill-gotten earnings back after being double-crossed by Steve (Edward Norton), Charlie quite clearly states, “Let’s do it like The Italian Job.” Mind you, the film would have quite obviously been better received in Britain if it hadn’t been called The Italian Job, but the powers-that-be in Hollywood must have thought differently. And for those who have put aside their prejudices and seen the film watch it again and try and spot Spider-man running through the crowd – it’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment, so you have to pay attention.
Although it has its humorous moments it has a more serious air about it than the original. There’s no gunplay in the original, and no-one gets killed. There’s no villain apart from the villains who carry out the job and its laddish cockney characters are almost blueprints for the likes of Soap, Eddy, Bacon and Winston in Guy Ritchie’s stylised comedy noir Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels in 1998. It doesn’t have the memorable dialogue and quotable lines that original had in abundance. And it didn’t have Michael Caine.
Despite struggling for a few years with minor parts Michael Caine hasn’t stopped working since his debut as a leading man in the three films that made his name – Zulu (1964), The Ipcress File (1965) and Alfie (1966). He’s also not averse to doing the odd popcorn movie and he’s honest enough to say that he did such-and-such a film in order to buy his mum a house. I read an interview that Richard Harris gave in the Sunday Times Magazine many years ago where he was highly critical of Michael Caine’s success and was virtually accusing him of prostituting his art for financial gain. Now, I happen to think Richard Harris was an exemplary actor who took on difficult roles in such films as Lindsay Anderson’s This Sporting Life (1963), Ken Hughes’ Cromwell (1970), Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992) and Randa Haines’ Wrestling Ernest Hemingway (1993). But let’s not forget he also did The Return of a Man Called Horse (1976), Triumphs of a Man Called Horse (1983) and Strike Commando 2 (1988) as well as playing Dumbledore in the first two Harry Potter films before his untimely death in 2002.
As Michael Caine has grown older he has taken on a whole raft of diverse characters – as the vicious Mortwell in Mona Lisa (1986), the clapped out show-biz agent Ray Say in Little Voice (1998), the ether addicted Dr Wilbur Larch in The Cider House Rules (1999), the protective butler Alfred Pennyworth in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy (2005-2012) and the loyal magician’s assistant Cutter in the outstanding The Prestige (2006), also directed by Christopher Nolan.
But I think that it’s his eternally optimistic Charlie Croker that he’ll be forever remembered. It’s a classic performance in a classic British film.
But is The Italian Job the best British film ever made? I don’t think so – that honour belongs to Carol Reed’s superb version of Graham Greene’s The Third Man (1949).
But I have to say that The Italian Job is definitely the most entertaining.
And what is there left to say after that except, “Hang on a minute, lads – I’ve got a great idea.”