At the movies: Rewatching The Italian Job

When Peter Collinson’s The Italian Job first debuted in 1969, The Times of London called it a “one-song musical,” and Leonard Maltin described it as “forgettable… an average caper film” with “a truly bizarre ending.” It was a dismal failure in the United States. As soon as Michael Caine arrived in America to promote it and saw the marketing campaign that depicted him with a naked woman and a machine gun, when there were neither naked women nor guns in the movie, he claimed he got on the next plane and went home. Yet the film has managed not only to endure but become a cult classic, as beloved as Bullitt and Smokey and the Bandit.

The Italian Job brims with the swagger of the swinging ’60s, yet it feels timeless. With its red, white, and blue Mini Coopers, a chase across Turin, and Michael Caine in one of his most iconic roles, it’s shocking to think this film was ever less than adored.

The Italian Job is a charming caper about equally charming English crooks stealing $4 million in gold from the Italian mafia by orchestrating the world’s worst traffic jam. Although it boasts a sexy, stylish score by Quincy Jones and expert cinematography by Douglas Slocombe. Michael Caine himself admitted that The Italian Job was “not Hamlet.” But what some critics regarded as The Italian Job’s weaknesses are also its strengths: its gleeful anarchy, its silliness and camp, its vulgar humor, its complete lack of pretension. And even critics who didn’t love the film as a whole could agree that the chase was its crowning achievement.

The Italian Job 1969
Paramount Pictures

Although the film’s stars were Mini Coopers, it was the head of Fiat, Gianni Agnelli, who enthusiastically assisted the production of The Italian Job. Having Agnelli on board meant Turin’s police force was also happy to help. Agnelli allowed the crew to shoot and practice on Fiat’s private premises, even gave them three Ferrari Dinos for the mafia to drive. The British Motor Corporation was completely uninterested—it sold the production crew six Minis at trade price, but 30 more had to be purchased at retail.

As uncooperative as BMC was, screenwriter Troy Kennedy Martin insisted on using a Mini: “Minis were classless, very fast, and sort of cheeky. They represented the new Britain, which was kind of laddish, cheerful, self-confident, and didn’t take itself too seriously.” The cars were patriotic, and they had to be modified very little for stunts. Stunt driver Rémy Julienne explained that the Mini Austin Cooper S “benefited from being designed for racing purposes. It meant that the cars were able to deal with the most exceptional obstacles in comparison to a normal car.”

Julienne was responsible for the beauty of The Italian Job—even Caine credited him with the film’s success. Julienne was the French motocross champion of 1956 and a distinguished stuntman who had his own stunt driving company, L’Equipe Rémy Julienne. Julienne was given complete control over stunts after an accident with a driver who was not associated with him. He planned his stunts meticulously, never took risks, and loved the hell out of working on the film: “It was a dream opportunity to be able to express all my fantasies and dreams and ideas.”

Shooting The Italian Job’s stunts was extraordinarily stressful for cast and crew. Perhaps its most stressful shoot was all three Minis jumping between buildings. An Italian cameraman ran off in tears, and was found two hours later. Journalists were banned from the set in case of disaster. The crew placed a truck filled with polystyrene between the buildings so the drivers would at least land on something soft if they hit the wall. If things went really bad, producer Michael Deeley had a plan in place to flee the country.

The Italian Job Austin Mini Cooper
Paramount Pictures
Austin Mini Cooper in The Italian Job
Paramount Pictures

Approximately 600 Fiat workers watched that day. Julienne didn’t speak Italian and believed they’d come to wish him well—in reality, they were there to say goodbye, convinced the stunt drivers would die. Julienne recalls, “They all touched their Virgin Mary medallions and made the sign of the cross. It was a time of very intense emotion… We eventually took the jump at 110 kph. One car broke its suspension, another broke its engine. Nobody died.” As soon as they’d finished the jump, Peter Collinson ran up the staircase with his jacket full of champagne bottles to celebrate.

The Italian Job’s playful chase takes us down stairs, through a shopping arcade, between the rooftops of Turin, across a weir, into the sewer, then up into the back of a moving bus. In a scene cut from the film, the Minis drive around on an ice rink while an orchestra performs The Blue Danube in a number not unlike a car-chase musical. The chase’s only real failure is the rooftop jump—although executed perfectly, an aerial view would have given a better sense of just how impressive the stunt is, and even the crew regretted not getting more coverage of Julienne’s spectacle.

Bullitt’s chase lasts less than 10 minutes, but The Italian Job’s chase is its centerpiece, taking up the film’s last half hour. It’s as unique as the rest of the film—although you may remember the chase vividly, you may have forgotten its weirdness: a staged funeral; Noël Coward as Mr. Bridger, a patriotic crime lord who rules the London mob from prison; Benny Hill as the perverse Professor Peach; the film’s ingenious ending, which is a literal cliffhanger; in one scene, Michael Caine defends himself against an angry girlfriend and mob heavies using a giant teddy bear as a shield.

The Italian Job’s chase is not choreographed for audacity as much as for idiosyncrasy. It’s a chase with personality. The chase features moments like a fed-up janitor who walks away from his job after a motorcycle cop wipes out on the floor he’s just cleaned. When the chase interrupts a wedding on church steps, one of the Mini drivers yells, “Good luck!” The drivers briefly evade the police by hiding in a lot full of Minis. Michael Caine did not know how to drive at the time The Italian Job was filmed, and he spends most of the chase in the passenger seat, backseat driving.

If Bullitt’s pared-down, gritty car chase was conceived for authenticity and tension-building, The Italian Job’s theatrical chase is played as much for thrills as it is for fun, laughs, and showing off. The Italian Job is still as shiny and colorful as the Minis it spotlights.

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