“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.”
Ian Kennedy-Martin was a television writer for the BBC in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. When London adopted one of the world’s first computerized traffic light systems, it gave him an idea for a series or television movie. The idea was pretty simple. A group of crooks would hack into that system and use a traffic snarl to get away with a big bank job. The problem was that the idea was too large a production for the BBC staff to pull off. So he sold the idea to his brother, Troy Kennedy-Martin, who wrote the final script for The Italian Job. He moved the action to Turin, Italy where one of the most sophisticated of these early computerized systems was in use. The rest is pretty much history.
Charlie Croker (Caine) is a small-time hood who is just getting out of prison. He rushes to meet with an old pal, Beckerman (Brazzi) to become a part of his latest heist. But Beckerman is dead, as we witness in an elaborate hit scene that starts the film. The Mafia has taken him out, and now it’s his widow who meets with Charlie. She gives him a reel of film that Beckerman left so that Charlie could pick up where he left off and finish the heist. The target is a transfer of over $4 million that really belongs to the mob. Now we know why Beckerman was killed. The plan involves hacking into a computerized traffic system to create a huge traffic logjam and the use of three small Cooper Mini’s to get out with the cash because they’re small enough to maneuver through sidewalks and plazas. But the heist requires resources that Charlie can’t put together on his own. So he goes to Bridger (Coward), who runs England’s crime empire from the prison that Charlie just left. His reputation for small jobs makes it hard for him to get Bridger’s attention. He pulls all kinds of stunts to get his attention, including busting in on Bridger while sitting on the toilet. Eventually he wins over the boss and gets the team and resources he needs.
The group heads to Italy to pull off the heist, but they have not just the law to deal with. They also have the Mafia, headed by Don Altibani (Vallone), who has no intention of letting the heist happen. They also need a computer expert and find him in the guise of Professor Simon Peach, played by British television royalty Benny Hill. Peach has gotten into a bit of hot water because of his fetish for rather large women, and it’s this fixation that helps Charlie get Peach to come to Italy for the job. In those days it wasn’t plugging in a small flash drive to get into the computers. It required replacing a huge 15-inch reel of computer tape.
“You’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off.”
The job progresses. We catch the team testing their procedures, a process that leads to the above quote which has become one of the most iconic in film history. The testing is over and the heist is on, with so many moving pieces that it gets a little hard to keep up. Speaking of having trouble keeping up, it all leads to a nearly half-hour car chase as the Mini’s are loaded with gold and heading out of Dodge … or at least Turin. This is the imagery from the film that remains and is duplicated on the inferior remake in 2008. The cars go up and down plaza stairs. They zip through underground sewers. They drive on the roof of the actual Fiat plant and even on the plant’s test track. It’s a mesmerizing bit of filmmaking that must have made audiences dizzy by the time they left the theatre. Now thanks to Kino Studio Classics it’s out in 4K, and the film is now there to stun audiences all over again.
The car stunts were incredible for the day, but as much as the cars are featured, it was the collection of slightly odd characters that made this film the joy it is to watch. Michael Caine had just started to pop with his award-winning role in Alfie, and the energy and mania he brings to Charlie is enough to power all of the cars in the film with juice to spare. I’ve been a fan of Caine’s for years, but this really is one of the most fun portrayals in his career. Noel Coward was the godfather of director Peter Collinson, and that’s why he did the film. It’s unfortunate that he was not in good health and died three years after the film. He was one of Britain’s greatest talents, and even as a shadow of his former self he is quite brilliant here. Most of his scenes had to be broken up into very small and manageable segments, but when the camera is on, Coward was something more than he had become. It was to be his final appearance.
The film is considered a very British film, and that’s owing mostly to the script and cast. But it’s quite an international showcase. The Italian locations bring in some wonderful scenery, and Turin wasn’t a city that had shown up on film before. The stunt drivers were all French, and the score was composed by the legendary American Quincy Jones. Jones ended up going away from his own comfort zone here, having to compose both an Italian crooner song and the very famous British cockney slang song Get A Bloomin’ Move On that was sung by the cast with Michael Caine very prominent. Be careful. It’s a tune that gets stuck in your head.
“Hang on a minute, lads. I have a great idea.”
The film’s ending will be somewhat of a disappointment in hindsight. The British censors would not allow the film to depict the crooks escaping with the gold. So there’s a literal cliffhanger as their escape bus is sent teetering off a cliff in the Alps. The film ends with the above line, and that’s the end of the film. Consider this more of a warning than a spoiler. You see, there was going to be a sequel that would pick up from this moment. The film did gangbusters in Europe but flopped rather badly here in the States. Michael Caine was quite ready for doing the sequel, but it never happened. In 2008 when the remake was made, the Royal Society Of Chemistry in London offered a prize to the best follow-up ending to the problem.
The Italian Job is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The ultra-high-definition image presentation is arrived at with an HEVC codec at an average of 70 mbps. The film was shot on 35mm, so is native 4K. There has also been extensive restoration here, and it shows. The HDR upgrade shows itself from the beginning credits that are stunningly bright red. It’s also not hard to see how the shooting locations added production value to the film. The shots of the Alps are beautiful. It all holds up with enough restoration to make sure the print looks good without wiping away the grain that adds the organic flavor so necessary in this film. The red, blue, and white Mini’s look pretty good in the long chase, and while some of those long shots don’t maintain the same level of detail, the film certainly goes above and beyond what you have any right to expect here. Black levels are fine, but there’s not a lot of dark scenes here for it to matter a whole lot.
The DTS-HD 5.1 audio presentation is mostly there to support the dialog. The car chases are rather quiet, honestly, and there isn’t a ton of power in the few explosive scenes. That’s pretty much appropriate and true to the original intention and atmosphere of the film.
The extras are found on the Blu-ray copy and feature only the 2009 and 2006 extras.
Much of what you see here might seem old hat to you. That’s because it is. But 1969 was long before we had movies that promised action to be fast and furious. This was also one, if not the first, of the heist films to feature hacking into a computer system, which is so very common today. It’s a cheeky couple of hours that will go as fast as the cars they drive. It’s a bit of irony that Michael Caine did not know how to drive at that point. He was still early enough in his career that he couldn’t afford a car and hadn’t yet learned. You never see him actually drive in the film. I promise some fun. It’s kind of like “singing songs and drinking wine”.