Screenplay by Troy Kennedy Martin.
The Italian Job is considered to be a classic example of quintessentially British comedy. When I first saw this as a child, it definitely was. This is the first feature I can remember seeing, and is the one I’d cite as being responsible for my love of cinema all these years later.
But is it a classic?
Now I don’t know what determines a classic myself, but honestly, watching The Italian Job back now makes me reconsider its classic status. Because a lot of it is dated. Many of the attitudes have now changed, and its treatment of some groups would be condemned if released contemporaneously. The misogyny, homophobia, racism and sense of national superiority would trouble someone watching it for the first time today, even if it’s an archetypal example of 1960s Britain.
To say The Italian Job is an “us-against-them” tale, a lot of it makes the United Kingdom look really divided. For a start, there’s the way everyone cheers for England rather than the United Kingdom (or will I have to explain the difference to idiots?), as well as portraying specific demographics within England as being the people actually made to look clever, rather than England on a whole.
But it’s the mentality of that patriotism that matters. At one point, Fred Emney’s character says the line “bloody foreigners”, which The Making of the Italian Job author Matthew Field expressed in the commentary as representing everything The Italian Job‘s about. But I had to check the end credits to actually know the name of Emney’s character, which they tell me is Birkinshaw. And that’s the main problem with The Italian Job – there are only a few distinct characters. The main group who actually perform the job are named, but we never see any character from them. I can remember the names, but can’t place any to their faces. In the midst of the action, and at the cliffhanger ending, I don’t know who’s who and what makes them different from anyone else. Mainly because they all wear blue overalls. And Prof. Peach is nowhere – the last we see of him is as he follows what they’d call a “fat bird”, never to be involved in the story again. It’s as if he, having fulfilled his role, was then immediately ejected from the story. Surely, the responsibilities of each character could have been shared a bit more, making there less people, but more character. The plot’s been written in such a way that characters become facilitators rather than people, and there’s the overwhelming sense through all of this that none of the characters feel real – they just do what they do because that’s what the plot requires of them. Nothing that happens feels important to them, and that makes it look almost like a montage of fly-on-the-wall scenes. And a lot of these are totally irrelevant. Croker at the tailor, for example. And then the shirtmaker. Yes, this is what he did upon leaving prison, but is there not some way that could have been established without being shown? Plot structure is a real issue with it, and it’s the lack of attachment between each scene that makes the first half hour much slower than it is. Rather than it being a consistently-paced story, it looks more like a series of non-sequiturs that only follow the previous scene because they do. There’s so much wrong with the build-up to the main event in the sense of basic filmmaking principles, because it doesn’t flow together. There isn’t a through-line. It’s almost as if director Peter Collinson didn’t really know how to either fit it all together, or add or remove scenes.
Which is a shame because the chase sequence is the best of any motion picture. Three minis, already iconic looking, in three bright colours, with amazing engine sounds, going over and under the city, culminating in a getaway scene taking them through the sewers. That’s the best bit. The red mini at the front, trying to loop the loop, with the music hitting the highest note yet, and in that moment, I swear, in that moment, I orgasm a little inside. It’s just that exciting to me. And everything that follows, right to the end, is the best. Just the best. I love it. The problem is that the build-up to it was so strenuous that the getaway sequence is the only real highlight to The Italian Job. Had it not been executed in the way it was, and had certain things been done differently, it might not have been very memorable. The Italian Job would be easily forgettable were it not for that element to it. Yes, there’s the quintessential sixties patriotism, and it’s very archetypal of the period, but a part of me knows that the only real thing to like about it is that last third.
But that last third more than makes up for it. It defines it. My love of cars, and action sequences, and my enthusiasm for filmmaking is all an attempt to recreate the way I was made to feel by it. I’m not a professional critic, I’m just a blogger. But in an every-more subjective world, where the Internet lets people voice the opinions that have simply always been here, if not heard, I do determine that The Italian Job is a classic. Because it inspired what I do right now.
The Italian Job — exemplary chase excuses poor build-up 7/10.