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BRIAN VINER: The Italian Job is dubbed ‘the quintessential British crime caper’ as it returns to cinema screens 50 years after premiering
Despite the irresistible combination of Michael Caine, Noel Coward and Benny Hill, and a starring role for one of the great success stories in British engineering, the Mini Cooper, The Italian Job was not a hit following its glitzy West End premiere 50 years ago this month.
If early Fleet Street reviews were lukewarm, in America they were downright chilly. The film bombed at the US box office.
What a difference half a century makes. Now, The Italian Job is considered the quintessential British crime caper and perhaps the definitive Sixties movie, with one of the most spectacular of all cinematic car chases as the crooks make their daring escape through Turin in red, white and blue Mini Coopers.
Back again! The Italian Job was not a hit following its glitzy West End premiere 50 years ago this month
Its enigmatic ending, with a coach full of stolen bullion teetering on an Alpine cliff-edge, is deemed one of the finest ever.
The exasperated rebuke delivered by Caine’s character Charlie Croker, ‘You’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off’, has been voted the best movie one-liner of all time. The song ‘Getta Bloomin’ Move On (The Self-Preservation Sociey)’ has become a famous celebration of Englishness.
And The Italian Job itself came top of a 2017 poll, just ahead of The Full Monty and Zulu, in which Caine also starred, inviting cinema-goers to name the greatest British film ever made.
The journey towards such hallowed status really began in 1972, when it was re-released in a double-bill with the car-rally comedy Monte Carlo or Bust.
Shocker: If early Fleet Street reviews were lukewarm, in America they were downright chilly. The film bombed at the US box office
Audiences loved The Italian Job second time around, and by the time it made its TV debut, in January 1976, it was well on its way to becoming the revered classic it is now.
But how had it come about? The story of the making of The Italian Job – told in meticulous detail in a handsome new book, ‘The Self-Preservation Society: 50 Years of The Italian Job’, is itself a classic tale. Improbably, it involves a lift, an orphanage, and large dollops of what we would now call Euro-scepticism.
It begins with the screenwriter Troy Kennedy Martin, who had created a hugely popular TV show, Z-Cars, but was keen to get into movies.
His younger brother Ian, himself a successful TV writer who would go on to conceive The Sweeney and Juliet Bravo, had written a drama about a jewellery robbery in central London, in which the dramatic getaway is facilitated by chaotic road congestion, caused by sabotaging the computer system controlling the city’s traffic lights.
When the idea proved too ambitious for telly, Kennedy Martin paid his brother for it, and redeveloped it for the big screen.
He then decided to set his heist in Italy, which enabled him to explore British uncertainty about the wisdom of joining the Common Market, a huge issue at the time. He liked the idea of putting his very English thieves at odds with the mafia, symbolising a disunited Europe.
Love it! Audiences loved The Italian Job second time around, and by the time it made its TV debut, in January 1976, it was well on its way to becoming the revered classic it is now
And Coward’s character Mr Bridger, a debonair Mr Big funding the heist from a prison cell festooned with pictures of the Queen, is distinctly Euro-sceptic.
‘The Italian Job is the perfect Brexit movie, whatever your view,’ asserts the film’s producer Michael Deeley, now 86. ‘The whole point of the movie … was the theme of “us against them”.’ He adds that the film is ‘the cinematic love of my life’, his personal favourite from an illustrious list of credits that includes The Deer Hunter and Blade Runner.
The key to securing the funding, it turned out, was the recruitment of Caine. At the Cannes Film Festival promoting The Ipcress File, he found himself at a swanky lunch seated next to a rich Austrian industrialist called Charles Bludhorn.
Although Bludhorn recognised Caine immediately, the actor didn’t have the slightest idea who his neighbour was. He asked him what he did. ‘I won’t tell you what I do but I’ll tell you what I did yesterday,’ Bludhorn replied. ‘I bought Paramount Pictures.’
Speeding around: And Coward’s character Mr Bridger, a debonair Mr Big funding the heist from a prison cell festooned with pictures of the Queen, is distinctly Euro-sceptic
Bludhorn then told Caine that he’d loved Alfie, the 1966 film in which Caine played a promiscuous, Cockney man-about-town. ‘We’ve got another script,’ said Caine. Bludhorn was instantly hooked.
Even with Bludhorn’s support, however, Kennedy Martin still had to sell his idea to Paramount’s chief of production, Robert Evans. He flew to New York, where Evans challenged him to win him over in the lift before it reached his offices on the fifth floor.
Charming and eloquent, Kennedy Martin literally rose to the occasion, summarising the plot in three pithy sentences. Evans was beguiled by this so-called elevator pitch, and by the time they stepped out, had given the project his blessing. But he wanted Robert Redford for the lead. Kennedy Martin insisted on Caine.
With Deeley in place as producer, another Englishman, the dashing but little-known Peter Collinson, was hired to direct. Collinson, only 33 when his breakthrough film came out, had been raised at the Actors’ Orphanage in Surrey, sent there not because his parents were dead but because they were deemed unfit to take care of him.
The orphanage’s president was Noel Coward, who on spotting a young boy weeping in a corner one day, took pity on him and became his surrogate godfather, later getting him started in show-business as a stagehand.
The big one: For Benny Hill, a loner who made little effort to bond with other members of the cast, working on The Italian Job was somewhat less fulfilling
When Collinson eventually became a film director and was hired to make The Italian Job, he suggested his beloved mentor for the part of Mr Bridger, the king of Wormwood Scrubs. Coward, who was frail by then and would almost certainly have refused anyone else, agreed to do it.
He was rewarded with one of the more enjoyable experiences of his professional life. At Collinson’s insistence, everyone on set called him ‘Master’, and despite an age difference of more than 33 years, Coward forged a strong friendship with Caine; they dined together every Wednesday at the Savoy Grill.
For Benny Hill, a loner who made little effort to bond with other members of the cast, working on The Italian Job was somewhat less fulfilling.
The saucy comedian was hired to play Professor Simon Peach, the eccentric, bow-tied boffin who corrupts the Turin traffic-control system. In Kennedy Martin’s original script, Peach was lured into crime by the gift of a model train set.
But Hill felt that his character needed more motivation, and insisted on rewriting the part himself, making Peach a sex pest with a particular predilection for overweight women – or as Hill less delicately put it, ‘fat crumpet’.
Mini: The saucy comedian was hired to play Professor Simon Peach, the eccentric, bow-tied boffin who corrupts the Turin traffic-control system. In Kennedy Martin’s original script, Peach was lured into crime by the gift of a model train set
Kennedy Martin was aghast. But Hill didn’t get it all his own way. He played Peach as a Yorkshireman, only for Paramount to rule, once filming was finished, that US audiences wouldn’t understand the accent. Hill was forced to dub over his own voice, and felt the comic nuances were lost. He was so furious that he resolved never to make another film without full creative control.
On the other hand, he at least gathered some decent comedy material for himself. Although he was far from clubbable, Hill did occasionally deign to have dinner with his fellow-actors, and would encourage waiters to talk to him in broken English while he frantically scribbled in a notebook. ‘Two years later you’d be watching The Benny Hill Show and you’d suddenly see an Italian waiter and think “bloomin’ eck, that’s the guy who served us in that restaurant in Turin,”’ one of his castmates later recalled.
The character of Professor Peach wasn’t the only thing that changed between the first draft of the screenplay and the completed picture. The heist was originally going to take place in Milan; there was even an ambitious plan to drive the Mini getaway cars across the stage at the city’s famous opera house, La Scala, during a performance.
But it soon became clear that shooting wouldn’t work in Milan, Italy’s busiest city. Rome and Naples were rejected as impractical too, the latter because it was completely run by the Mafia. Then Deeley mentioned his conundrum to his friend Lord Harlech, who happened to know Gianni Agnelli, the owner of Fiat, the giant car company which more or less controlled Turin.
Agnelli loved the script, and effectively gave Deeley the keys to the city, instructing the police or ‘carabinieri’, to co-operate. Under Agnelli’s strict orders, the carabinieri had to sit back while the six getaway Minis, choreographed by one of the world’s greatest stunt drivers, Frenchman Remy Julienne, raced through Turin’s colonnaded shopping arcades and galleries, and even across rooftops.
Only one scene, in which the Minis whizzed through a sewer, was not shot on location. That took place near Coventry. But otherwise Agnelli was at the root of everything.
‘Gianni Agnelli was one of the most charismatic men I have ever met,’ says Deeley now. ‘He certainly knew how the world worked, and how to work the world.’
Yet not even Agnelli’s charisma and clout could persuade Deeley to replace the Mini Coopers with Fiats, hard though he tried, magnanimously offering as many of his cars as the film-makers needed. When Deeley told him that the Mini had to stay at the heart of the story, Agnelli still cheerfully agreed to provide dozens of Fiats for the traffic-jam sequences.
Famous: ‘They refused to hand over any Minis free of charge, let alone customise them. ‘No wonder BMC went out of business,’ says Caine, contemptuous even now
Meanwhile, the manufacturers of Mini, the British Motor Corporation (BMC), were as obstructive as Agnelli was accommodating. In Kennedy Martin’s words, they were ‘totally ****ing useless’ and either couldn’t or wouldn’t see that they were being offered the greatest, and longest, Mini commercial of all time. They refused to hand over any Minis free of charge, let alone customise them. ‘No wonder BMC went out of business,’ says Caine, contemptuous even now.
So the irony was that a film intended to showcase the best of British was hugely reliant on Italian generosity and, in the form of Julienne’s extraordinary stunts, French expertise. Moreover, the celebrated soundtrack was composed and arranged by Quincy Jones, from Chicago.
In other ways, of course, The Italian Job was British through and through. There aren’t many moments in British movies as cherished as Croker’s ‘You’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off,’ aimed at his associate Arthur (Michael Standing), after an excess of gelignite has destroyed a van.
Standing and Caine weren’t actually there when the van blew up. Collinson only needed reaction shots, and the actual explosion (rigged up in an old Post Office van, sprayed grey) took place separately.
That was probably just as well, since in life as in art, the blast was much more powerful than anyone expected. It blew windows out of surrounding houses, and fragments of the van rained down on venerable cinematographer Douglas Slocombe, who had positioned his main camera in what he thought was a safe place, 300ft away. Before he died in 2016, aged 103, he recalled that he’d felt like bellowing much the same rebuke as Caine did, only less politely.
As for the film’s unforgettable cliff-edge finale, that wasn’t planned, either. In Kennedy Martin’s original draft, the gold was delivered to a bank in Geneva. In another scripted conclusion, Croker and his gang get the bullion back to England.
But the film was running over budget and both those endings were rejected as too expensive. Nobody could think how to end the film until Deeley proposed the coach wobbling precariously with the crooks at one end, the bullion at the other, and Croker saying ‘Hang on a minute, lads, I’ve got a great idea’.
At first, Collinson hated the ending and refused to shoot it. Caine wasn’t keen either. But for Deeley, it was the perfect solution, not only wrapping up the shoot but also leaving the story open for a sequel. Unfortunately, the picture’s feeble performance at the US box-office killed any chance of a follow-up.
If only they had all known then what we know now, that over time the inconclusive ending of The Italian Job would become as iconic as the film itself.
The Self Preservation Society: 50 Years of The Italian Job, by Matthew Field, is published by Porter Press International.