On Sept. 3, 1969, Michael Caine’s heist film The Italian Job made its way stateside to theaters. The Hollywood Reporter‘s original review, headlined “‘Bullitt Style End Gives ‘Italian Job’ Hefty Boost,” is below.
Director Peter Collinson’s fourth film, The Italian Job, may at last reward Paramount’s extended investment of confidence with a popular success. The film is yet another international bullion raid yarn, familiar and not especially well developed, its best early moments largely technical. The Oakhurst production was written by Troy Kennedy Martin, creator of the BBC’s Z Cards teleseries. It ultimately allows for some good sight gags and a few rewarding lines, though too great a portion of its humor belabors the “Rule Brittanina” manner and Mafioso caricatures.
What The Italian Job has to revive the viewer of the drowsy first 70 minutes is a whopping good third-act mini-car chase, one which will inevitably compared to the daredevil hill vaulting of Bullitt, the sort of sequence an audience walks out talking about and continues to talk about long after all of the reservations about the rest of the film have been forgotten.
Climaxed in a grand old-fashioned cliff-hanger ending, the sequence owes much of its potential for profitable word of mouth to Collinson’s successful collaboration with second unit director Philip Wrestler, a veteran film editor, writer and documentary filmmaker; second unit DP Norman Warwick; editor John Trumper; special effects director Pat Moore; the assistant director of the Italian crew, Mauro Sacripanti; production designer Disley Jones and cinematographer Douglas Slocombe. But the most memorable contributions were made by the city of Turin, the Fiart organization and the stunt driving team, L’Equipe Remy Julienne.
By gambling with less money up front, actually investing his own, star Michael Caine stands to make more than he has in a long string of films in which his was the only profit.
Caine plays a rather inept petty thief, released from prison and handed the plans for a daring robbery of Chinese bullion during a British-Italian football rally in Turin. To secure the men necessary for this ambitious heist, Caine secures the backing of Noel Coward, who directs the British underworld from his posh prison cell. Caine’s crew is equally inept, including a roly-poly computer expert with a passion for fat ladies’ buttocks.
Raf Vallone and his Mafia band oppose the robbery out of national and professional pride. It becomes a matter of British pride that the Caine-Coward team bring it off. The plan is to replace a computer tape in Turin’s traffic control center, create a massive post-game traffic jam, hijack the bullion truck and get away in mini-cars over sidewalks and through the sewers. So far, on a par with The Biggest Bundle of Them All and not quite up to Grand Slam. Collinson has a tendency to lose a sense of time and place and he frequently bears down on a gag with such heavy-handed fury that only a grease spot remains where a laugh might have been.
Then comes the final half-hour, with the citizens of Turin jamming the streets for chaotic panoramas and fist-shaking action scenes, the mini-car team let loose for a breathtaking series of stair descents, building leaps, banking maneuvers and corkscrew flights through the sewers. New Fiats fall and crash from piggyback auto carriers recruited as battering rams and the mini-cars dive into a speeding charabanc. Numerous expensive sports cars are plunged flaming over steep cliffs. Intercut with this mayhem is Coward’s rousing victory reception by prison cellmates and warders alike, while an oompah band and chorus chants “This is the self-preservation society,” the meaning of which is fortunately overpowered by its effect.
Caine is in top form, though the script keeps him in short supply of rewarding material. There is a bit of mickey mouse involving a dumb blonde bird, played by Maggie Blye, and excessive allotment of time to the nitwit crew, none of whom has the presence or material to make his eccentricities brighter. Coward operates somewhat apart and above the material, is the first and almost the last to let us know that comedy is the intention of the film. Vallone never seems sure, nor does Tony Beckley, who has never fully recovered from The Penthouse. Louis Mansi has some good broad moments of mugging as the traffic control room official whose television monitors short out, plunging him into darkness and apoplectic hysteria.
Douglas Slocombe’s photography captures the chills-thrills-spills on land, in the air and beneath the ground in sharp Panavision and Eastmancolor by Humphries Labs of London. Quincy Jones’ score, featuring songs with lyrics by Don Black, is erratic, very good when it is good and just as noisy when it isn’t. — John Mahoney, originally published on Aug. 18, 1969