The Italian Job (1969) Directed by Peter Collinson, Michael Caine, Noël Coward, Benny Hill (99 min).
The 1960s were the heyday of the caper film, as well as the peak of cool Britannia. A breathless chase marshalling an army of Mini Coopers teams dishy Cockney Caine with jolly old Coward for $4 million worth of mischief in scenic Torino, Italy, in this British comedy classic.
Michael Caine was born Maurice Micklewhite in an impoverished area of South London. His father hauled boxes of iced fish at Billingsgate Market, and his mother was a charlady. He often spent his school lunch money at the cinema, where he preferred American movies because they were about regular people, and not the upper classes, as British movies often were. At 18 he was drafted into the army and sent to serve in Korea. When he returned, he decided to pursue his dream of becoming an actor. He found a job in a small regional theater, occasionally playing bit parts, but mostly doing just about everything backstage. From time to time, a more experienced player would give him some advice on acting, for example, that it was important not just to say your lines, but to listen to what the other actors were saying.
He was part of a generation of young British actors including Peter O’ Toole, Richard Harris, Terence Stamp, Albert Finney and Sean Connery, all of whom he knew, and all of whom found success much earlier than he did. He thought, after a supporting part in Zulu, that his fortune was made, but he was released from the 7 year contract he had signed because the producer decided, with his curly blonde hair and long eyelashes, he looked too gay (which he wasn’t) to be a movie star. Shortly afterwards, he was cast as spy Harry Palmer in The Ipcress File (he was glad to wear his glasses, so to escape the type casting that was haunting his friend Sean Connery, now forever identified as James Bond) and then in the title role as Alfie. He was surprised to be cast as the womanizing cad in the latter, because he had auditioned for the part on stage and been rejected. In fact, he got the movie part only because Christopher Plummer turned it down, so he could play in the decidedly bigger budget The Sound of Music. Caine was beginning to suspect that big plans for Alfie were afoot when he was asked to loop his lines in a Cockney accent the Americans could understand. When the latter two films were released almost simultaneously, Caine became the overnight success he had been laboring towards for thirteen lean years. He was always offended that audiences sometimes thought, especially as Alfie, he was just “playing himself” belying his hard work.
“ Michael Caine was too hard for Barbara to handle, and among hep girls he does have a dangerous reputation as a heartbreaker. Not that he cares, this millionaire.” I’m not sure what this fan magazine caption means, exactly, other than Caine was playing the field before meeting Shakira Baksh, to whom he has been married since 1973. It certainly does seem to refer to the idea that Caine shared character traits with Alfie.
The Beatles started it, at least in this country, but in the 1960s, there was nothing cooler than being British. In his autobiography, Caine summed up the era pretty well, “The sixties have been misunderstood they should not be judged by the standards of talent, skill, artistry or intelligence, or by the great works or artists that those years produced. The reason for the notoriety is far more simple than that. For the first time in British history, the young working-class stood up for themselves and said, ‘We are here, this is our society, and we are not going away. Join us, stay away, like us, hate us—do as you like. We don’t care about your opinion anymore.’ We created our own moral code, which may not have been ideal, but was at least honest, especially in comparison with the hypocrisy of the rest of British society” (Caine 177-78). Young people everywhere wanted to share in the cool, and for the first time in movie history, an actor with a working-class accent became a leading man. After his double whammy of The Ipcress File and Alfie, Caine became a new “it boy.” Shirley MacLaine requested him for her leading man in the caper film, Gambit, and Caine journeyed to Hollywood, where all his wildest boyhood fantasies of movie stardom began to come true.
I loved Gambit as a teen.
The Italian Job was about a motley crew of crooks who go to Italy to commit a $4 million robbery. The film stars Caine at the height of his leading man glamour, and the last movie role of the great playwright and actor, Noel Coward. The film was not a big hit in the US for a couple of reasons, one, because the plot involved hijinks during a England-Italy soccer match, a game almost unknown in the States at the time, but also because the advertising was shockingly misleading, as the poster portrayed a naked woman and a machine gun wielding thug, neither of whom appeared in the film. If my teen aged scrapbooks are any indication, the film never played the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio, where Caine’s other films of the era are well documented, except for this one.
The original American poster
Director Peter Collinson grew up in the Actor’s Orphanage in London. His mother was an actress, and his father an orchestra conductor, and they placed him at the orphanage when he was a small boy; they never returned to claim him. The orphanage’s patron was Noel Coward, a role inherited from the British stage actor, Sir Gerald du Maurier, and he became Collinson’s unofficial godfather. When Collinson left the institution at 14, Coward recommended him for a succession of small jobs, leading to tv and then, films. The Italian Job was Collinson’s 4th film as a director, and his most successful one. He died of cancer in 1980 at the age of 44.
Screenwriter Troy Kennedy Martin wrote a much darker script than the film you see on the screen. The hero of the film is the Mini, which was a political choice, “He considered the Mini to be classless: it represented the new Britain, which was ‘cheerful and self-confident’” (Field 23). He stuck to the Mini, even when he had an extraordinary offer. Although the film was planned for Milan, the terrain was not quite right for the car chases, and the nearby town of Turin was suggested. One advantage to Turin was that a film had never been made there, and so inhabitants had no clue to what a pain it can be when a film company takes over your town. Turin’s main industry was Fiat cars, owned by Gianni Agnelli. Agnelli was enthusiastic about having a film made in Turin and could make sure that the film company got all the permissions it needed. He offered an unlimited number of Fiat cars to crash and smash, as well as the gift of a Ferrari to the producer. But the whole point was for the plucky little British Minis to take on Italy, and by extension, the European Common Market. In spite of Fiat’s generosity, it had to be the Mini. Although The Italian Job would be the best possible feature length commercial any car could hope to have, the British automaker just didn’t get it, and their cooperation was minimal, and grudging. The film company had to buy all the cars you see on screen. In appreciation to Agnelli and Fiat, you see many Fiats in the background shots, and the Mafia drives Ferraris. Other shots were filmed in the Alps “where we spent days throwing little Mini cars off the top of Mont Blanc” (Caine 288).
“You’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off.”
Michael Caine was the star right from the beginning. The script was written with him in mind, in the height of his leading man glamour period. Noel Coward was cast for his marquee value; he worked for 10 days and was paid a flat 25,000 pounds. He was rather frail, and was assisted on the set by his partner, Graham Payn. Coward needed help on the set (an actual Irish prison, Kilmainham, closed in 1924) so Payn was costumed to appear on camera, and given a few lines, so he would be close at hand. Cameos for many popular British tv stars were written in as a lark, the one you will most likely recognize is Benny Hill. Caine had been looking forward to working with the comedian Benny Hill, but found him rather solitary and sad, although courteous and professional on the set.
Michael Caine, Graham Payn and Noel Coward
Noel Coward was a different story, witty and sociable. Caine and Coward had a standing Wednesday night dinner date at the Savoy Grill while shooting continued in London. “I always think of those occasions as one of the most quintessentially English things I have ever done. Noel had a free room for life at the Savoy, he told me, because during the war he had been playing cabaret there and had sung right on through a night of terrible bombing and kept the hotel’s clients occupied and unafraid” (Caine 289). Coward poo- pooed tales of his bravery but did enjoy the hotel’s grateful hospitality.
Coward had similarly fond feelings towards Caine, writing in his diaries, “Michael Caine is a darling to work with, swift, efficient and with a comforting sense of humor…We had a lovely time working together and I enjoyed every scene I played with him” (Field 55).
The stunts were directed by Remy Julienne. He was a talented stunt driver himself, and he brought his own team with him. He was much more skillful than any of the British stunt drivers working at the time. He prompted, “’I can do this, I can do that, where can we fit it in?…I dreamed up my ideas, the production never stopped me, but encouraged us.’” (Field 39). The Minis came straight off the production line; they did not have to be modified like many stunt cars. Their only disadvantage was because they were so low, they had very little ground clearance. He regretted the fact that the most spectacular stunt, where the Minis jump a gap between two buildings, wasn’t shot to show how amazing it was. Michael Caine never appears behind the wheel, because at the time, he did not know how to drive!
Stunt Man Remy Julienne
Unbelievably, the traffic jams are real. Agnelli told the Italian police to do whatever the director requested, and for several hours Turin traffic was brought to a complete halt. The angry horn honkings are frustrated residents trapped in their cars on their lunch break. The camera had to be hidden, or the crew would have been lynched.
The Italian Job was remade in 2003 with Mark Wahlberg, Charlize Theron and Edward Norton. Although a few character names are retained, and there are gold bars and Mini cars, the film bears little resemblance to the earlier one. The new version is a slick, big budget action film, directed by F. Gary Gray, with excellent stunt sequences including a speedboat chase on the Venice canals, and Minis pursued by a low flying helicopter, but it exists at a completely different level of fantasy. The 1969 The Italian Job, is scruffy, charming and believable unlike the current style action film, which includes such unlikely incidents as underwater safecracking, armored cars falling through a part of Hollywood Boulevard rigged to explode, etc. It’s fun, but much sillier. The fact that none of the Mini cars in the original film were modified in any way for their breath-taking stunting speaks volumes. Edward Norton as the villain (a new character) steals the film from the heroes, none of whom has Caine’s movie star charisma. And the classic version ends with an ironic ambiguity that no big-budget modern film dares attempt.
Here is the solution to the cliffhanger ending, 40 years later: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/science-news/4315767/Cliffhanger-climax-to-The-Italian-Job-solved-after-40-year-wait/ (But this URL is no longer working)
Ian Freer in Empire summed up the re-release of this beloved British cult film, “Blessed with enough 60s swagger, swinging music and quotable lines to make it quaint, while equal amounts of laughs, story spinning brio and cunning stunt work keep it fresh.” The audience at the NC Museum of Art screening, who chuckled at the jokes and gasped at the stunts, would seem to agree.
Michael Caine and Maggie Blye. In his superb autobiography, Caine wrote: “Love scenes are also difficult from married actors’ point of view. When your wife sees a film—and you can be playing anything from a serial killer to an SS officer—she will complement you on a wonderful performance. If you put the same realism into a love scene, she will say, “You’re not that good an actor, you must have fancied her!” In my own defense, I’ve learned to be slightly bad at love scenes.” (Caine 481)
(Photos from Field, except for the two clippings from Moviediva’s teenaged scrapbook and clippings. Sources include: What’s It All About? By Michael Caine, The Making of the Italian Job by Matthew Field, Coward on Film: The Cinema of Noel Coward by Barry Day, Michael Caine: A Class Act by Christopher Bray. Thanks to Tom Wallis, who clued me in on finding the solution to the cliffhanger ending).