Blame the Great Train Robbers. On August 8, 1963,15 armed men led by Bruce Reynolds held up the Glasgow-London postal train to the tune of £2,600,000. The job was breathtakingly audacious, making use of detailed technical knowledge and the skills of an unknown insider. The only downside was that the train's engineer was left severely injured. And the fact that the robbers so bungled the aftermath of the job that 12 of them were behind bars within weeks. Even so, the Train Robbers won a good deal of public sympathy, and it's this romanticised image of the dashing crook which underpins Michael Caine's portrayal of Charlie Croker in The Italian Job.
Apart from Caine's wonderfully breezy central character — blond, quite beautiful, flitting from high society to low villainy — The Italian Job is certainly the high watermark of British camp, with Troy Kennedy Martin's script composed of equal parts innuendo and waspish one-liners. One of the dandy highwaymen is even named Camp Freddie (a suitably elegant Tony Beckley, who also appears in Get Carter), whose asides include, "Now, Butch Harry, tell us about Fulham." For the role of crime boss Bridger, who controls his miniature British Empire from a prison cell, director Peter Collinson called upon his former patron, venerable theatrical queen Noel Coward. Despite his failing health, Coward is a triumph as the royalty-obsessed kingpin, delivering lines like, "Camp Freddie, everybody in the world is bent!" with undisguised glee.
The other big name in the cast is Benny Hill, playing computer boffin and fancier of "big women" Professor Peach with the mastery of seaside postcard smut that was to make him the world's favourite TV comic.
When Croker assembles the 16-man (and one woman) team for the titular job (knocking off a load of gold bullion in Turin), it becomes clear that this is a cross-section of British society finding themselves obliged to work together for the first time since the war. From the cockney spivs to the "chinless wonder" drivers, everyone in New Britain is on the make. And, as dark references to the nation's balance of payments suggest, they'd better get their skates on, because the good times aren't going to last forever.
The team's preparations are meticulous but typically ham-fisted. "You're only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!" yells Charlie when a hapless stooge employs a Krakatoa-like amount of dynamite. "Apart from knocking over a few old dears with their carrycots," Camp Freddie reports to Bridger, "I think we can manage it."
But the Mafia are on to them, confronting the Brits near the Italian border with a menacing show of strength. Croker responds with one of the most chilling speeches in the history of British cinema: "There are a quarter of a million Italians in Britain, and they'll be made to suffer. Every restaurant, cafe, ice cream parlour, gambling den and night-club in London, Liverpool and Glasgow will be smashed. Mr. Bridger will drive them into the sea." But in spite of the glancing similarity to the right-wing rhetoric of Enoch Powell's late-60s "Rivers Of Blood" rant, Charlie Croker is no racist, as the presence of black team member Big William attests. This is strictly business.
The Turin traffic jam, robbery and ensuing getaway are what people remember most warmly about The Italian Job. Such was the film crew's level of co-operation from the Turin police — having been given carte blanche by Fiat boss and "King of Turin" Giovanni Agnelli — that they actually caused a real traffic jam. "We simply went out with 50 cars and blocked up the streets," recalls Second Unit Director Philip Wrestler. "If they'd seen the camera we'd have been lynched."
With the robbery itself, things momentarily turn serious. As the Brits give the guards a brutal beating and blow up a water cannon-equipped armoured car ,there is an explosion of violence — succinct, controlled and nasty. But the escape of the bullion-loaded red, white and blue minis is pure fun. Master stunt driver Remy Julienne and cohorts turned the chase through Turin's subways, rooftops and sewers (the latter actually filmed near Coventry) into a lesson in getting unglamorous cars to do the impossible. Today, after Mad Max 2 (1981) and the like, it all seems politely within the speed limit. In fact, as a 1999 Channel 4 programme showed, the cars were going much faster and performing stunts far more dangerous than is apparent on screen.
As the chase reaches its climax, the film rises to a series of crescendos. Bridger takes his bow while the massed prison ranks chant "Eng-land!", Quincy Jones' theme music goes completely bonkers, and a cockney choir bellows Don Black's frankly insane, "This is the self-preservation society" lyric as the minis board the speeding coach at 70 miles per hour.
Typically, the Brits make the mistake of celebrating too soon, ignoring Croker's orders to, "leave the beer". A dangerously ebullient Big William takes a bend too fast, and we're left with the famous cliff-hanging ending. Literally. As the wayward bullion slides towards the end of the see-sawing coach with Croker crawling after it, the tension is incredible — all the more so for being totally unexpected. "Hang on a minute, lads," he murmurs. "I've got a great idea. Er. Er..." As a metaphor for England at the dawn of the 70s, The Italian Job is a hard one to top.