The Italian Job
Updated: Jan 6
Talk about a cliffhanger ending, The Italian Job (Peter Collinson, 1969) leaves us dangling with our protagonists trapped in a bus balanced precariously over the edge of the most picturesque of Alpine precipices. Collinson’s film’s ‘British cult classic’ status has been cemented by the reams of articles dedicated to this ending and other notable moments of the film, some of which have become staples of British culture (from Michael Caine’s Charlie Croker yelling “you were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!” to the iconic Mini Coopers).[i] Far from simply capping off a legendary film with a suitably legendary ending, however, I would argue that these final shots epitomise the flaws in The Italian Job whilst simultaneously helping to paper over them in the collective memory of British society.
Too many films considered to be classics of cinema rely on moments: a handful of shots, lines or, if you’re lucky, scenes that capture the essence of something, be it a distilled emotion or, in the case of The Italian Job, the cultural zeitgeist, with such cinematic sublimity that the collective memory deems them truly great movies worthy of canonical status. The problem comes when you revisit these films and find little outside of these memorable moments, fleeting seconds of perfection in an otherwise unconvincing feature length film. Even worse, upon revisiting a cornerstone of cinema, a viewer may find that the moments that were once so magic are now outdated or unrelatable and no longer hold the emotional or cultural power that they once did. Can we accuse The Italian Job of succumbing to these fatal flaws? The answer (and truthfully the answer for any classic film accused in this way) is a complicated yes and no.
The plot of the film involves Croker (Caine’s version of James Bond) getting out of prison and immediately going back to a life of crime, signing up to the titular Italian job, assembling a team of crooks and then carrying out the job in true heist movie fashion. It really is quite Bond-y at the start, with stunning mountain locations from which glorious supercars are thrown; beautiful women who Croker sleeps with and then who are completely forgotten from the narrative; and mysterious, seemingly omnipotent Mafioso villains. This is all well and good, but if there is one thing Bond movies and heist movies share it is their fast, action-packed pacing, and this is where The Italian Job begins to fall down. Everything just takes too long, from collecting all the characters, to working through the plan, to finally executing it. Oh, and Collinson seems to have a bit of a fetish for sending cars off the edge of cliffs. Once or twice is cool and exciting, but by the sixth version of basically the same shot, it’s beginning to get a little bit old (I’m surprised he wisely resisted the urge to throw the bus off the edge at the end of the movie). Additionally, if we consider how dated the jokes and references are, we find a mixed bag. There is some genuinely funny material here, some gags that still feel really suave and modern, if perhaps not quite as original as they would have been 50 years ago. However, there are some jokes that you can only hope were funny once, but which are simply atrocious now – I mean, what the heck is going on with Noel Coward in that prison? I just do not get it, so much time spent following a side character who, to 21st century eyes, appears painfully unfunny and downright bewildering. The consequence of all this is that the famous moments get lost like droplets in a sea of mediocrity, the 99 minute runtime really dragging with too much repetition and the failure of a collection of scenes that do not gel as well as anyone would hope.
The slow pace also means it takes ages to get to the bit we’re all waiting for – the Mini chase. This is easily the best part of the film, exciting, funny, iconic, clever in parts, silly in others. Nevertheless, in typical style, The Italian Job even manages to drag this section on too long, making us grateful when the cars finally board the bus and we can move on to the next section of the film. And I suppose I should again reinforce this criticism – Collinson’s movie comes in sections: set pieces that are somewhat detached from one another and which are all extended beyond their natural length. A collection of potential moments, a good many of which land, but which ultimately leave an impression of patchiness, a feeling only emphasised by the tense yet unsatisfying ending, a mixed finale to a mixed movie.
At time of writing, The Italian Job is available to watch on Now TV/Sky Cinema.