In the 60s Michael Caine was just beginning his career as a leading man. His break out role in Zulu landed him bigger scripts and, in 1965, Alfie won him an Oscar nomination. However, he was still a high risk leading man without true star attraction and no studio would bank on him yet. The turning point was 1969, when Caine was cast as Charlie Croker in The Italian Job.
The plot is simple and revolves around the introduction of a computer program that controls road junctions in the busy city of Turin, Italy. This program is the Achilles heel of a secured gold convoy on its weekly trips to a bank vault. To steal the gold Charlie must create a traffic jam, lose the police and worst of all face the Mafia. It is brains against brawn in this classic British comedy.
The film is a caper comedy, a sub-genre of crime fiction. Often the audience is privy to the heist and the police are portrayed as idiotic nincompoops of no real threat. Instead the police are comic foils to intelligent, good-looking criminals. The glamorisation of criminals and our ability to root for the underdog has ensured the success of subsequent films and TV shows. The audacity of such a heist and the twists and turns were a fantastic opportunity for the young Michael Caine.
Caine was not the only one willing to prove himself. Director Peter Collinson had only worked for the studio once before and had secured his position at the helm by attaching his godfather Noel Coward to the project. Coward had the track record and the star power that the failing studio system recognised. These were the end days, when a “name” could still ensure ticket sales regardless of plot, design or artistic merit. In all likelihood Collinson knew this, Coward knew it too and, in a selfless act of affection, agreed to star in what would be his final film.
Coward plays Mr Bridger, the ‘don’ of British crime. Incarcerated but still running crime from behind the scenes, he becomes the silent party to Charlie’s plan. Mr Bridger has the guards and warden at his disposal and in many scenes appears to ‘hold court’ with the entire inmate population. The prison scenes were filmed in Ireland’s Kilmainham Jail and, instead of hiring extras to play inmates, Collinson used the actual inmate population. In 1969 the explosive start to the Troubles saw Irish prison populations rise dramatically. Kilmainham housed the Irish independence rioters and, to his credit, Collinson somehow talked them round to putting on English accents and chanting ‘England’ during a scene with Coward. It is fantastic when you put the scene in it is historical context!
The cameo of comic legend Benny Hill as Professor Peach was a brilliant casting decision. The Benny Hill Show, at this point, had been running for eight years with a loyal following. The informality and politically incorrect humour of a professor with a passion for larger ladies completely undermines the establishment. Hill provides lightness to the building tension just before the heist is to be held. The opportunity for Caine to quip on screen with Hill would cement his reputation and save him from being type cast as a brooding hunk.
The initial reception was not as warm as you might expect. A bad marketing campaign on the international market and Cockney slang confused audiences. The characters’ development could have been longer before marching into the meat of the story and the script could be more polished but is still entertaining. Its popularity grew with each year and today The Italian Job is considered one of the finest British films produced. The power of cult status has earned a Hollywood and a Bollywood remake but what did this film do for its lead?
Caine went on to lead in Get Carter and Sleuth; the power of his performances in both earned him a loyal fan base and his pick of scripts. Charlie Croker had given the studios all the confidence they needed to cast him as a leading man in his own right who would work hard and perform well. The Italian Job remains one of my favourite Caine films for its audacity and comedy.