Starring Michael Caine, Noël Coward, and Benny Hill; The Italian Job from 1969 is a comic caper with heart, exuberance, and is a quintessentially British film of its time and for its time, but the stars that truly steal the film away from it’s humanity are the MINI Coopers.
Here’s the breakdown, Charlie Croker (Caine), is getting released from prison. And his friend Roger has a genius plan for a heist, that he’s been working on.
Before getting out of prison, Croker stops by to say goodbye to Mr. Bridger (Coward), and Bridger, upon learning of this heist in Italy says “I hope he likes spaghetti… They serve it four times a day in the Italian prison…”
Once on the outside, Charlie is picked up by Lorna. But that’s a relationship that is not without it’s dangers. “Typical, isn’t it? I’ve been out of jail five minutes, and already I’m in a hot car.” To which Lorna replies, “I just wanted you to come out in style, baby!”
Then, after going to his tailor and picking up his car, he’s presented with as swinging a swinging sixties present as ever there was, which is a suite full of “birds” as they would have been called at the time, but now it would just be a lot of scantily clad women.
From there he stumbles to meet with the now deceased Roger, where he is met by Roger’s widow. This is where the heist is explained.
To quote Roger, who dies in the first five minutes while planning the heist, from the film his widow Mrs. Beckerman sends Charlie: “Charlie Croker, I am dead. I have arranged for my widow to get material to you in England. There you must find the backing to do the job. You must, Charlie. Because it is a work of genius. Just think of it. A city in chaos, a smash-and-grab raid and four million dollars through a traffic jam.”
And after receiving the plans, and having a little fun with Mrs. Beckerman who’s still in her “widow’s weeds,” Charlie gets to the point of putting together a team to do the job.
First he attempts to contact Camp Freddy, to get word through to Mr. Bridger. But it doesn’t go so well, as Camp Freddy replies to Croker’s big job with, “Charlie you wouldn’t even know how to spell, big!”
Next, Croker breaks into the prison to give Mr. Bridger his proposal. This upsets Bridger who turns around to send Camp Freddy and a few men to give Croker “a good going over.” After this turn of events Bridger turns around and tells Camp Freddy that “Croker can handle it. He’s got everything going for him. There’s even a football match in Turin the day before the delivery. England versus Italy. The English supporters can cover his movements, even help him, if required.”
And so Charlie Croker builds his team to do this difficult job, and to quote Croker, “And the only way to get through it is to work as a team, and that means to do everything I say.”
Aside from the drivers and the muscle, in order to pull this job off, they’re going to need some brains to compliment the brawn, and this introduces us to Professor Peach, played by the enigmatic Benny Hill. In arguing with Mr. Bridger, Camp Freddy asks what if the professor isn’t bent, meaning, what if he won’t do it, to which Bridger sternly replies, “Camp Freddie, everybody in the world is bent!”
And that’s it. Croker has the plans, and he has his team, but in order to pull of this job he’s going to need some hardware, and aside from some computer stuff, it all relies heavily on the cars, which are the stars of the film.
Now we get to talk about the real stars of the film, which says something given the legendary actors like Caine, Coward, and Hill taking the top billing. I’ll get to the MINI Coopers in a moment, but they are hardly the only cars to feature prominently in the film. Did I mention this film is part car porn?
There’s the first car we see in the film, Roger’s Lamborghini Miura, then Croker’s Aston Martin DB4 Convertible. For the heist, the other two fast emergency getaway cars are two Jaguar XKE’s, there’s also a Land Rover Series IIa Station Wagon, and a Ford Thames 400E van. While the Mafia is following some of the exploits of the heist in a Fiat Dino.
And of course there are the true stars of the film, the three Mini Coopers. And while the Minis get all the great stunts in the film, there is one scene that ended up on the cutting room floor of note. There exists a scene from the main chase sequence where the Minis end up on an ice rink with the cars dancing around the ice to the music of Johann Strauss’s “The Blue Danube.” Though the scene was cut for time, it is available on all subsequent DVD and Blu-Ray releases.
Behind the wheel of one of the Minis and the man responsible for most of the stunt driving is the legendary Rémy Julienne, who also worked on 1981’s The Professional, 2013’s Getaway and a handful of Bond films such as, For Your Eyes Only, Octopussy, A View to a Kill, The Living Daylights, License to Kill, and GoldenEye. His work on this film cannot be underestimated, because without those stunts with those cars, this film would not have been nearly the spectacle it turned out to be.
As a side note, BMC (British Motor Corporation), the owners of Mini, did not donate any of the cars to the film. Meanwhile, Fiat Motors, based in Turin, where the movie was filmed, offered to donate all the cars necessary. They even tried to get the Minis replaced with Fiat 500s, however it was not to be as the film was essentially very British, and the Minis held their starring roles.
The lack of cooperation from BMC is startling, because this was a feature film, that was probably the best commercial for the Mini Cooper that ever existed, period. And with sales of over a million cars between 1969 to 1972, the fastest selling of it’s years in production, it is hard not to point to this film as part of the reason.
Now, back to Fiat who also offered their factory grounds for filming, and not to be too cliche, but the Italian Mafia, the actual Italian Mafia that is, stepped in and helped shut down parts of Turin for filming the traffic jams, which were actual traffic jams.
So let’s talk about the Mafia in this film. Croker seems to write them off as an afterthought, while Mr. Bridger is taking them more seriously. And on a mountain road, similar to where Roger was killed by them, the Mafia stops the crew and destroys their cars with the head man saying “Well, gentlemen, it’s a long way back to England… And it’s thataway!”
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t mutual animosity on both sides. While Croker could care less, aside from the loss of his cars, Mr. Bridger is very much on the Mafia’s mind with the question asked to Croker, “Does Mr Bridger think he can take over Europe from a prison cell?”
The subtext is that even from his prison cell, Mr. Bridger is well known at least in Europe.
But the score of this film is not from Europe at all. This essentially British film, taking place in Italy is scored by the master jazzman Quincy Jones! That’s right, Quincey was the man behind the music, and he has said he got into the mindframe from talking to star Michael Caine about Cockney rhyming slang, much of which ended up in “Get a Bloomin’ Move on” also known as “The Self Preservation Society.”
It all lends itself to the fact that this film is very much of its time and for its time; The late Sixties. Lorna’s coming out present and the free love movement is all there. Even a line from Mr. Bridger to the Prison Governor from when Croker breaks into his “toilet” (the bathroom), like “You are symptomatic of the lazy, unimaginative management which is driving this country on the rocks!”
But there is more to this film than just a heist. It’s for money and for country, too! “A question of prestige” if you will. It’s not to be underestimated the pride in one’s country displayed in this picture. Bridger is backing Croker’s plan because it will help Britain. The Mafia is trying to protect gold that is not even their own because it would be bad for Italy. And, let us not forget that it all takes place under the backdrop of a football match between the two countries.
So with all of that, we’re not done yet, we have to discuss the ending. After the successful heist, and an amazing climactic car chase scene to the tune of “The Self Preservation Society,” we get to the point where Big William, the getaway bus driver takes a turn in the Alps a little to hard and the bus ends up literally over a cliff. After taking countermeasures to make sure they don’t go over the cliff, because the gold is pulling them over, Croker says “Hang on a minute lads, I’ve got a great idea…” and the movie ends.
To me, no matter the reasons, this is a brilliant ending. Of course, I’ve heard all the reasons, the Motion Picture Association didn’t want to glorify criminals by letting them get away with the gold or it was a setup for the Mafia to come rescue the bus and take back the gold, setting up a sequel. But it doesn’t matter… Ending on “I’ve got a great idea,” was in fact a great idea!
The film, which is now a classic, didn’t originally do well in America. The poster for the release showed Michael Caine’s Charlie Croker as more of a mobster. Which is ironic because in the film, after first being turned down by Mr. Bridger, Croker’s character laments “I can always take it to the Americans… They’re people who appreciate young talent and give it a chance.”
But since then, the cult classic has become more of a classic sans cult. Though it was only the 14th most popular film at the UK box office in 1969, it consistently makes it into lists of the greatest British films, and has been anywhere from #36 to #27 of the greatest British Films of All Time. Meanwhile, Croker’s now famous, “You’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off” line is often voted near or at the top of favourite movie one-liners.
So why does the film endure? It could be the power of English humor. And unlike Croker’s exchange with his tailor about style when he first gets out;
“I don’t want to be rude Charles, but times have changed.”
“Adrian, when I went in that was all the go.”
“What did you do? Life?”
“You know, you could put all these in a museum.”
This film does belong in a museum, but it also hasn’t gone out of style. It’s supremely optimistic, and is just too much fun to be ignored. After all, Michael Caine himself described the film as both “fun” and “irresponsible” during the 40th Anniversary celebration.
Seriously, what’s not to like? It’s truly a brilliant film all around. Now, to quote Mr. Bridger in his “pep talk” to the crew “We’ve come here to pay our respects to Great Aunt Nellie. She brought us up properly and taught us loyalty. Now I want you to remember that during these next few days. I also want you to remember that if you don’t come back with the goods, Nellie here will turn in her grave, and, likely as not, jump right out of it and kick your teeth in.”
Taking it one step further, just go watch the film and see for yourself and if you don’t watch the film, I’m sure it would be just another reason for Nellie to kick your teeth in.