I solito Ignoti/ Big Deal on Madonna Street (Mario Monicelli, Italy, 1958)
I love caper films; European (Rififi, Bob le flambeur, Topkapi) and Hollywood (The Ocean’s, The Thomas Crown Affair (both versions). And I love post-war Italian cinema more than any national cinema of that period: Francesco Golisano struggling to find a place in the sun beam to get warm in Miracle in Milan; the exhausted look on Mastrioanni’s face from having to keep Sofia Loren pregnant in order to keep her out of jail in Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow; Rocco and His Brothers, which feels as much the story of my family as that of post-war Italy; the fresh faces of dashed hopes in Olmi’s young men in Il Posto and Il fidanzati; Fellini, Antonioni, Rosi, the Taviani Bros…one could go on forever. So combining those elements today I chose Mario Monicelli’s I Soliti Ignoti/Big Deal on Madonna Street with a big name cast (Vittorio Gassman, Mastrioanni, Renato Salvatore, Toto) playing small time crooks. Unlike most caper films, this is about the various bunglings of the robbery: at the end, all the crooks manage to get away with is pasta and chickpeas. It’s got great slapstick moments, great warmth towards its characters, and a va bene, fa niente, a cool resigned shrug at the worst that life offers, that I find particularly endearing. There are many wonderful moments but one I particularly treasure is when Mastrionni, completely in love with his baby, and raising him alone whilst his wife is in jail, is told he should put his baby in the marvellous daycare jail offers and says, ‘no, no, no my baby will only go to jail when he’s grown up…and then only if he wants to’. It’s the first movie I heard the if you don’t do this ‘you’ll sleep with the fishes’ expression. The ending, where Gassman and Carlo Pisacane hide amongst a crowd to escape the police, and it turns into a work queue where the former is rumbled into factory work whilst the other yells his horror at what’s happening, is superb. There’s a very mediocre remake with George Clooney called Welcome to Collingwood.