"This ain't Hollywood, you know!"
We have all seen variations on the great caper movie, where a group of intrepid, highly skilled professional thieves are drawn together for the one big score that will make their careers. We admire their skills, their stealth, their cunning, and the way they band together, their mutual respect outweighing their mutual mistrust.
This is not that movie.
Facts of the Case
Cosimo (Memmo Carotenuto) is a thief. The problem is, he's not a very good one, and finds himself in the clink after a botched attempt to steal a car. His list of priors is long, and his lawyer informs him that this time he will wind up doing hard time. Cosimo is distressed by this news, not so much because he minds prison life (it actually seems fairly pleasant) but because he has a sure-fire plan for the score of a lifetime. He sends his girlfriend Norma (Rossana Rory) to find someone willing to confess to the crime and serve Cosimo's sentence in exchange for 50,000 lira. Norma passes the word to Cosimo's hapless accomplice Capannelle (Carlo Pisacane), who sets out to find a fall guy. It seems that everyone he knows leads a life of crime after one fashion or another. Mario (Renato Salvatori) is a thief who is too busy taking care of his mother (even though he's an orphan) to go to jail. Ferribotte (Tiberio Murgia) is a hot-tempered Sicilian who is preoccupied with protecting the virtue of his sister Carmela (Claudia Cardinale), whom he keeps under lock and key. Tiberio (Marcello Mastroianni) is a photographer who is so down on his luck that he has had to hock his camera; he might be willing to serve Cosimo's time, but he has a baby to care for by himself since his wife is already in jail for smuggling cigarettes. Finally the job falls to Peppe (Vittorio Gassman), a boxer with a glass jaw, who needs to find a way to make some cash outside of his unsuccessful career in the ring.
Got all that? You almost need a scorecard to keep track of all the players, and that's just the setup for what happens next.
Peppe goes to the authorities to take the rap for Cosimo's botched car theft, but he doesn't fool anyone. Soon, they are both in jail. Peppe, playing on Cosimo's (limited) sympathy, soon finds out what the "big score" was to be. It seems that Cosimo knows of an unoccupied apartment right next to a pawn shop on Madonna Street; breaking into the apartment and breaking through a cheaply-constructed wall will give him direct access to the safe. It is a foolproof plan to make the haul of a lifetime. Peppe is released on probation, and immediately sets about planning to take advantage of Cosimo's plan. The rest of Cosimo's pals are on his tail, however, and he is soon forced to include them in the plan, telling them that this is what Cosimo intended all along.
This haphazard gang of amateurs consults with ace safecracker Dante Cruciani (Tot&242;) for some expert advice in planning and executing their caper. Cruciani also rents them the eclectic tools they will need to do the job, at a hefty fee, of course. Soon, they are prepared to tackle the Big Deal on Madonna Street.
Big Deal on Madonna Street (in Italian, I Soliti Ignoti) is a hilarious, fast-paced parody of the caper film genre. It draws its influences from such films as Dassin's Rififi and Huston's The Asphalt Jungle, but turns the conventions of these earlier films on their heads. Our would-be crooks are likeable and good-natured, and are not at all good at what they are trying to do.
Writer/director Mario Monicelli creates a film with funny, interesting characters, a wacky but engrossing story, and sharp, rapid-fire dialogue. Monicelli has a great eye for the witty and the absurd. He also allows himself endearing touches, like interstitial title cards reminiscent of silent films to keep the audience up to speed in this wild story. The entire film has an affectionate, whimsical feel that makes it quite enjoyable.
The acting performances are delightful as well. There are really too many to name them all, but Italian comic Tot&242; is especially endearing in his role as Dante Cruiciani, a legendary safecracker brought in to give the gang some much-needed pointers. Marcello Mastroianni is also one of my favorites as Tiberio, the cameraless photographer. He is the perfect picture of the harried, stay-at-home dad, and the little details of his domestic life intrude on the gang's plans in humorous ways.
Big Deal on Madonna Street comes to us from Criterion in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1. The video presentation is outstanding, with sharp, solid blacks and excellent contrast. There are some minor occasional nicks, scratches, and other assorted blips but they are hardly noticeable. There were a few incidents where edge enhancement seemed apparent, and a few places that showed some evidence of moiré patterns or shimmer, but these were infrequent and hardly noticeable. The cinematography is high-contrast black and white, and shot for the most part in deep focus, in a style that would be reminiscent of Carol Reed's The Third Man if it were not for the zany subject matter. It looks great, and Criterion has provided us another first-rate transfer.
The audio, in keeping with its origins, is Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono. It is good for the most part, although the sound does tend to blare and distort in places, especially when the energetic, jazzy score is at its loudest. Dialogue scenes are pleasant enough to listen to, although perhaps just a bit muffled.
There is only one additional feature on this disc, the theatrical trailer for the film's US release. It runs for about two and a half minutes, and is in passable condition. It is always interesting to see one of these older trailers just because of the difference in style, but other than that it really doesn't add very much to the DVD overall.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If there is one fault with this film, it is probably the size of the ensemble cast. There is an unusually large number of characters in the film, and it can get a bit confusing, at least in the beginning. As noted above, it is tough to keep track of all the players without a scorecard. Thankfully, some of them basically drift away by the end of the film so that we are left with a core group of determined thieves who embark on the caper at the film's climax.
I did notice some strange glitches in the English subtitles on this disc. At times they were awkwardly, strangely written and seemed like they could have done with a bit of translation themselves. Also, I noticed at least one occasion where some more careful proofreading would have been welcome.
One other complaint: I thought this was a Criterion Collection disc. Perhaps someone can explain for me the complete lack of any supplemental material of any value. We have all come to expect a lot from Criterion; they are like the Smithsonian Institution of film. It is not like them to put out a bare-bones disc like this one, and they had better not make a habit of it.
Big Deal on Madonna Street is a very enjoyable, very funny film. Monicelli gives us interesting, if hapless, characters and shows a real affection for them. The film is fast-paced, clever, and a lot of fun. I recommend it highly.
The film is acquitted on all counts. Criterion gets off with a warning for no extra content; their prior record is so good that we will overlook it—this time.
We stand adjourned.
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• Theatrical Trailer
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