Thursday, May 20, 2010


The Director: Mario Monicelli

What Is It: The tender branch between the end of the true crime caper and the beginning of the New Wave.  It's a classic caper flick with crooks and plot twists a plenty but these crooks, they ain't got no skill.  Thus, hilarity.

A Lil' Bit Of History: All my bitching and moaning about franchises, sequels and remakes, and this, a wonderful little bit of comedic fluff spawned, ahem, two sequels and two, count 'em two, American remakes of the film.  

A Lil' Bit More History: The film was a knock-off/satire of my most favorite of Criterion films, so far, Rififi (115).  A film that this film, no matter how much I enjoyed it, holds nary a candle too.

The Expectation: The Italian tradition of comedia all'Italiana has soured me in the past, but I've been so enamored with film in general lately, I was ready to try anything that didn't feature Jennifer Lopez or that hadn't derived from a SNL skit.  Thus, expectations were high.

The Experience: Life has, as it always does, reared its shaggy mane yet again and it took me nearly a month to slough through this one.  Which is strange as the film is one peppy burst of enjoyment after another.  I felt at times like I had swallowed a time-release pain-killer, and that every few days another lump of relief soaked in to my body.


1.  Marcello Mastroianni

If you love film, especially Italian film, you're a fan, or in-the-know about Marcello Mastroianni.  A staple of Fellini's films, Mastroianni was quite possibly the inventor of cool in the late 50s and 1960s.  He raged across film, embodying all the stereotypes of hip we now take for granted.  Which is why it is so strange in Big Deal On Madonna Street (113) (the film that would push him over the cliff of success) that he's a sort of complaining photographer-turned-thief with a crying baby on one arm and stern-browed wife on the other.  He's nothing like the sunglasses-wearing, lady seducing character we all know him as now.  He's a blunderer and terrible crook, and though he plays second man to Peppe (Vittorio Gassman), he's still, quite possibly the least "cool" character in the film.  This would be the type of stunt casting an actor might take on late in his career, when they'd already adopted a screen presence, and antithetical pairing like this would play off that presence.  But here it's as if Mastroianni's bumbling Tiberio, is a hint of things to come.  A shadow of the character he had hidden with him that somehow Mario Monicelli pulled to the surface.  

2.  Chuckles.

I'll be honest, old films don't make me laugh as much as new films.  Don't start throwing rocks, the humor, the language, hell, the entire culture these films derived from is different and thus the possibility of me giggling my way through one is, well, a wee bit smaller.  Oh, I appreciate that a good old comedic film has the potential to bust a gut, it's just most likely not mine.  Big Deal On Madonna Street (113) had me laughing though.  The story of a cobbled together caper gang and their attempt to rob a pawn shop isn't a riot, I wasn't rolling on the floor, but there were scenes and moments that had me barking in laughter.  The gang, in a dingy basement full of broken bikes and bottles, trying to hide from an attractive young lady - classic.  Peppe beating the hell out of a room full of drunken suitors - amazing.  I can't say why, but the collusion of actors in this film had me twisted up in chuckles, an absolute surprise and delight.

3.  A gang of side-liners.

Is it strange that in the middle of this Italian comedy about thieves in Rome, that I found myself thinking about underdog sports films?  Sure, this isn't exactly that.  There's no big beefy rival teams or inspiring moments or any of the sort, but there's something about this likable lump of losers that had me thinking about Bad News Bears and the sort.  Though each and every one of these characters is sort of a putz, I found myself rooting for their caper to succeed, their romances to be fruitful, their lives not to be so down right depressing.  I rooted from the sidelines for a bunch of knuckleheads to strut on to the field an win the big game.

4.  Losers once and for all.

And what's great about the film is, and not to ruin anything, but no one's a winner in this pick.  No one's a loser either, but if you're judging the success of the film through the success of a crime, this one's a big failure.  But that's the great thing about the film - the caper is the ruse.  The ploy to draw you in and make you comfortable, excited about action and adventure, while they're unraveling the sad little lives of these hilarious characters.  All of these louts are losers in their own right, but this little gig somehow gives them, and us, meaning.  If they can pull this off (for a never revealed sum of money) they'll have lives to live, not poverty to exist amongst.  And the film hardly focuses on the crime at hand, it focuses on these characters as fully-rounded bits of screenwriting who collide with each other for a brief moment before spinning off on to their own.  The final scene in the movie, as the characters, beaten, battered and burned are slowly peeling off in to their own respective lives (together for such a short time) drives it on home - who cares about the caper, what are these characters going to do next?


criterion counsel: alright, alright, getting started again.  might be another month or so before anything like this pops up though.

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