‘The Italian Job’ or — A Despicable Male Fantasy?

I always enjoyed ‘The Italian Job’ (1969) when I was a kid. It was fun, silly and had little cars driving about. But then something happened: Tony Blair came to power and turned New Labour into a continuation of Thatcherism whilst resurrecting the Sixties illusion that England was the greatest nation on the Earth. It was called ‘Cool Britannia’ and it consisted of Oasis hanging out at Downing Street, TFI Friday, Brit Pop, football and the rotting corpse of ’66, lad’s mags, Union Jacks, anti-German rhetoric, ironically listening to easy listening music, Austin Powers, faux-Carnaby Street fashion, soft jingoism, over priced art and the attempt to convince the world that London was still swinging… and ‘The Italian Job’ was very much used as part of all this. It was a false, and insecure, sense of British confidence and arrogance that seemed benign at first but it was this empty arrogance that, only a few years, later would lead Blair into invading Afghanistan and Iraq, a series of horrific war crimes and the deaths of thousands of innocent people.

Now I’m not saying ‘The Italian Job’ is directly responsible for any of this (it would be fucking bizarre if it was!) but watching the movie now, especially after Brexit and a period of rabid English exceptionalism, it certainly FEELS like it contributed to murderous foreign and domestic policies… and that can be a problem when you’re trying to enjoy a movie about Cockneys stealing gold.

I’m sure, at the time, all these excessively patriotic elements were played as a sort of satire of English cockiness, at least I hope so because the alternative view is a tad revolting. Take Michael Caine for example. He comes out of prison and immediately starts bullying gay people, fucks a string of women all of whom have been provided for him by his GIRLFRIEND; threatens the physical extermination of every single Italian living in the UK, engages in physical violence for his own financial gain; is racist, sexist, fattist; is condescending, arrogant and infantile. In short, he’s typically British. But he’s also the bloody hero!

This means ‘The Italian Job’ is a very odd film to watch now as you can easily flip it in your mind from annoyingly jingoism to camp fun and back again. The problem is it very rarely settles at being both so the film is constantly jarring to watch.

But is it any fun? Yeah, kinda. It’s got some funny moments even if the jokes are so broad you could stretch them across the English Channel and back. It’s all very cartoonish with the characters being so shallow they aren’t even two dimensional; this is because they only exist in a sort of infantile dream-space so don’t even have the substance of a geometrical point.

There are also no consequences at all in this movie because this would destroy the film’s finely crafted tone of infantile exceptionalism. This is why they are left hanging over a cliff at the end because, despite the fact that they all deserve to be smashed to bloody pieces on the rocks below, this is not allowed to happen because it would ruin the up-beat ending where only the British could view defeat as victory.

The two strongest elements of ‘The Italian Job’ are the directing and cinematography, both of which turn the movie into a rather ravishing visual experience and Douglas Slocombe beautifully captures the Italian light. There are also a few rather humourous scenes, my favourite being when the Mafia destroys the gang’s cars, mainly because I can imagine how much it would pain an Italian to destroy such beautiful machines. Quincy Jones also provides a nice, if highly fucking annoying, score.

Oddly enough the final heist itself is rather anti-climatic. They just sort of… do it… and that’s it. Then continuity goes flying out the window somewhat with the Mini Coopers materialising all over Turin. No wonder they could escape if these cars aren’t subjected to the laws of physical reality!

‘The Italian Job’ isn’t bad, in fact it is quite a fun film, but it does have a number of issues. I’m tempted to say these are because it hasn’t dated well but I suspect a most of its problems were baked in from day one. It is too swaggering, too arrogant for me but that’s because its arrogance is driven by the same force that drives Imperial war crimes — insecurity. Taken like that then this film is as British as can be.

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Colin Edwards

Colin Edwards

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Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.