Back in 2003, I was on vacation with my parents in Florida for a week at New Smyrna Beach. One night, there wasn’t much going on, so I decided to check out a movie at the local multiplex. The theater had limited options, so I ended up seeing the remake of The Italian Job. Mark Wahlberg and Charlize Theron starred in the fast-paced film, which was inconsistent but had some good chase scenes. The stars were pretty flat, but fun supporting performances from Mos Def and Seth Green helped them out. I’d always intended to see the 1969 original version of The Italian Job from England but just never found the time. This marathon has finally given me the right opportunity to check out the British original and compare it to the uneven American remake.
What’s this story about?
Charlie Croker (Michael Caine) has been released from prison and is ready to take on his next job. Picking up the plans for a daring heist from a dead former associate, he seeks financing from crime overlord Mr. Bridger (Noel Coward). His gang for the robbery includes his striking girl Lorna (Margaret Blye) and Professor Simon Peach (Benny Hill), a strange but ingenious computer expert. The heist’s location is the gorgeous town of Turin, Italy, which could bring them into conflict with the mafia. After much planning, they grab three Minis for an inventive armored-car heist that could net them $4 million.
How ingenious and exciting is the big heist?
The definite highlight of The Italian Job is watching the three Minis escape from the police through all types of impressive locations. The cars’ small size allows them to go down the stairs of a museum, right through the Via Roma shopping arcades, and up the unique roof of the Palazzo a Vela. They also drive through sewer pipes, leap across the gap between two buildings, and perform other remarkable feats. The heist requires a massive traffic jam, created through Peach’s computer skills. It’s one of the more unique plans that I’ve seen on film and is the major selling point. Unfortunately, much of the build-up is fairly pedestrian and doesn’t match the action scenes’ excitement.
Do I want the characters’ daring attempts to succeed?
Croker is a likable guy, and despite his dalliances, he does seem to care for Lorna. She seems a bit dense about the dangers posed by the mob, but they work as a couple. On the other hand, most of the other robbers aren’t memorable. They’ll throw in an oddball line or two, but they’re not easy to identify. I was hoping they’d succeed because of the leads and daring nature of the heist, but not because of the full group. The remake did a better job of providing unique supporting players that were entertaining. I should mention the appearance of Benny Hill as Peach, and he creates an eccentric character. We even get a quick scene of slapstick hijinks that feels like an episode of his long-running TV show.
What are some of the most memorable scenes?
Beyond the heist, the signature moments involve the world of the swinging ‘60s shown in the early scenes. After exiting jail, Croker’s first stop is his tailor to get some modern clothes. Looking fine and hitting the road in a stunning Aston Martin DB4, he’s ready for anything. When Lorna brings him a present of a large group of attractive girls, there’s no hesitation. With an Austin Powers-like response, Croker’s ready for everything. The other memorable scenes typically involve the great writer/actor Noel Coward in his final film role. As Mr. Bridger, he brings grace to the powerful guy, even when Croker interrupts his grand trip to the lavatory.
Are the events outside the heist worth seeing?
I'm surprised that The Italian Job has maintained such a grand reputation over the years. The heist is an exciting sequence, but it doesn't occur until the final act. There's more than an hour of preparation that seems fairly excessive. The scenes with Mr. Bridger, especially his speech at the fake funeral, are excellent, but he occupies a small portion of the screen time. The testing of the cars and the planning is interesting at first and then becomes less-exciting as it drags along. There are a few enjoyable moments in the mix, however. Caine's signature line of "You're only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!" after an associate blows up the truck doesn't disappoint. There's enough cheesiness to keep it from becoming overly tedious, but it's not a film that I'd like to revisit soon.
What fatal flaw ruins the perfect plan?
There’s no single flaw that kills their plans at the end, but overconfidence may lead them towards an untimely end. One of this movie’s most notable parts is its cliffhanger ending, which comes out of nowhere. I actually rewound the DVD and made sure that I hadn’t missed anything after the credits rolled. Without giving anything away, I’ll say that one wrong turn could make even the perfect plan end in disaster. The group seems united, which is rare for a heist film, but it still might not work out in their favor. It’s difficult to say more without spoiling the surprising finale.
Comparing The Italian Job to its 2003 remake, their success is actually pretty similar, for different reasons. The best part of the original is Caine, who makes Wahlberg look extremely flat by comparison. That’s an easy win for the 1969 version, but the remake does include some interesting updates that raise the stakes. First of all, Donald Sutherland's Bridger is actually a father figure for Wahlberg’s Croker, which makes his downfall early on more effective. There’s also a love story with Theron as Bridger’s daughter Stella that adds an extra element. Her performance is also middling, but it makes the story about more than the heist. Finally, Edward Norton gives Croker a straight-up villain to compete against while committing the heist. On the whole, I’d give a slight edge to the original, though both versions offer mild entertainment.
Next week, I’ll be joining Elliott Gould in the ‘70s as he works at a bank and becomes The Silent Partner. Finally, a heist that doesn't involve an armored car! Later this week, I'll also flee from the mob with Walter Matthau in Charley Varrick.