The Italian Job: Memo to Croker

Made in 1969, the year following Roeg/Cammell’s Performance, The Italian Job is an interesting counterpoint to that Borges-gone-gangster head-fuck. The storyline has a similar relay race quality. Fresh from prison, the flash Charlie Croker (Michael Caine) receives a 16mm film. A thief has left his will on film. It is a plan to lift a payroll from an armored car in the middle of Turin. The gist of the scheme is neatly summed up by Croker as “4 million dollars through a traffic jam.” Clear some space on the poster.

Croker breaks back into prison to get the patronage of criminal boss Mr. Bridger (Noel Coward, having a relaxed time). Initially reluctant to commit his resources to the idea, the patriotic kingpin is swayed by news of an Italian-Chinese trading pact. Once this hurdle is cleared, it remains for a gang to be assembled, drivers recruited, and the mob to knock over the truck. Somebody says, “You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off.” The remainder of the film is devoted to a car chase with three Mini Coopers easily outwitting the police and their fiats. With the cars driving up, down and over anything in their path, the sequence may be one of the greatest car adverts ever filmed.

Any comparison with Performance will be just a little glib. But Croker is cut from the same Saville Row cloth as Edward Fox’s confused Chas. Both characters are sexually super-charged. While Chas is introduced smacking around his girlfriend for kicks, Croker’s bit of crumpet celebrates her man’s freedom by presenting him with a bevy of beauties for his orgiastic amusement. Neither fellow is much deeper than their flash motors and well-tailored clothes. They both evince the air of being out of their depths among the criminal fraternity. Bridger makes no bones that Croker is strictly small-time, and Chas is much more dispensable to the mob than he believes. The presence of Coward, accompanied onscreen by his real-life partner Graham Payn, provides the necessary homosexual frisson that had become associated with the British underworld in the wake of the Kray Twins. The two movies also have A-listers providing the music. Quincy Jones gives Job a chic sound, while Jack Nitzsche composed Performance‘s score.

Both films play with the narrative chain to their own ends. Where the claustrophobic Performance crawled even further into its protagonist’s interior as things got crazier, The Job sets any notion of character aside–here the cars are the stars. Like Bullitt, Job succumbs to pure form before applying a joke as its punctuation. The cliff-hanging finale gives the entire feature an elliptical tail, while Performance collapsed into a mobius strip.

Although weaned at the BBC, director Peter Collinson gives the film the bright colors and bold contours of a double-decker-bus-side advertisement. These Sixties are so swinging that David Bailey should have been hired as a consultant. The suits, cars and women are all examples of London at its fashionable height–no wonder Antonioni was lured there for Blow-Up. Collinson includes dandified characters like the pink-suited Camp Freddy (Tony Beckley) and staffs both the Turin traffic department and the boardroom of Bridger’s operation with attractive women. (In spite of the surfeit of dollybirds, they’re all blankly interchangeable where Anita Pallenberg and Michele Breton were cast as more mysterious ying-yang opposites. Croker’s girlfriend Lorna (Margaret Blye) barely registers as a presence.)

The most notable tone is the celebration of jingoism. The crooks disguise themselves as England supporters in Turin, and the Mini Coopers are painted red, white and blue. (The crew also use Range Rovers to navigate the traffic snarl-up.) Bridger even collects pictures of the Queen and is accompanied by the strains of “Rule Britannia” as he marches around prison. Squally searched for key 1968 indicators to account for this tone in vain. England may have won the Eurovision Song Contest that year, but it’s harder to find details of the tension between England and the Continent that runs through the film. (“Remember,” says Caine, “They drive on the wrong side of the road.”) The Italian Job did emerge at an interesting time. Shortly before Job‘s summer release France had been paralyzed by the upheaval of May ’68. It could be argued that the film is a kind of palliative, extolling English good humor as a virtue when Europe appeared to be on the brink of collapse. Maybe it was a pre-emptive strike against Italy before the 1970 World Cup.

Job is entertaining and frivolous, although the demands of Panavision insist that it is seen on the big screen rather than TV. Job was photographed by Douglas Slocombe, whose adept flair for action served him well on the first three Indiana Jones movies. Scriptwriter Troy Kennedy Martin also got his start on television, winning a Writer’s Guild Award for his work on Z Cars. During the 1970s, he continued to write scripts for series like The Sweeney while following up The Italian Job with the similarly ludicrous gang banger Kelly’s Heroes.

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