The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Big Deal on Madonna Street

From director Jules Dassin, 1955's Rififi is maybe the perfect heist movie. It succeeds on countless levels, one better than the other, and maybe most importantly/impressively, it has impacted just about every heist flick made in the 50-plus years since it's release in one way or another. The biggest compliment a movie can make is to imitate a predecessor, and 1958's Big Deal on Madonna Street takes the basic premise of Rififi and turns it into....a spoof? Color me surprised, but it works in a big way.

A small-time crook, Cosimo (Memmo Carotenuto) is arrested while trying to steal a car, found guilty and sentenced to jail. His timing is lousy though because he quickly hears about a foolproof plan, an intricate heist that will net quite a payday. What to do though? He needs a fall guy to take the blame for his actual crime, but his partner, Capannelle (Carlo Pisacane), can't find anyone. Instead, all his candidates team to find someone else, settling on struggling boxer Peppe (Vittorio Gassman), but even that plan doesn't go according to plan, Peppe ending up in jail with Cosimo. The boxer pulls a double cross though and finds out Cossimo's plan, and now with his motley team of amateur and small-time crooks, he intends to do the job himself.

It isn't quite fair to say that this Italian film from director Mario Monicelli is a straight remake of Dassin's 1955 film, but it does bear some striking resemblances. The most obvious connection is the actual heist scene, but even that is tweaked enough to set it apart. I loved this one. It is a spoof, but not in the modern sense of a spoof like the bizarrely stupid Scary Movie series. It's a smart humor mixed in with some rather dry laughs, proving spoof doesn't equal stupid.

Maybe it's the Italian charm, but 'Madonna' has style to burn that mixes the natural drama of an involved, complicated heist with that light sense of humor. For one, I love the look of the film, shot on location in and around Rome. No matter the era, Rome has a historic, beautiful look that translates ridiculously well to film. No sets here, just real-life Rome. Composer Piero Umiliani's score is perfect, a mix of fast-moving, light-hearted jazz and quieter moments as the heist comes together. Listen to a sample HERE.And then there's the style of the story. Title cards reminiscent of a 1920s silent movie keep the story moving along, filling in holes with the story so the 106-minute run-time is never lagging. They're genuinely funny messages on the title cards, but I also like the fact that it's subtle humor. Monicelli didn't feel the need to spell out everything little thing for us. Because of the title cards, the story does take some jumps and transitions but never in a bad way. It works, trusting the audience to figure things out to a point.

The biggest spoof aspect comes from the crew of amateur crooks and low-level thieves who team up to pull off a heist. Gassman is a strong lead, the tough boxer who ends up leading his motley crew through one ridiculous trial after another. His team includes Mario (Renato Salvatori), a thief who will buy and sell anything, Norma (Rossana Rory), Cossimo's former girlfriend, Capannelle (Pisacane), the aging, bumbling thief, Ferribotte (Tiberio Murgia), the gentlemanly thief trying to protect his single sister, Carmelita (Claudia Cardinale), Tiberio (Marcello Mastroianni), a down on his luck thief caring for his son since his wife was sent to jail, and Dante (Toto), the expert and veteran safecracker. Of the group, Gassman, Salvatori, Pisacane, Murgia and Mastroianni become the stars, the little group coming together nicely as the heist comes together. Great casting, good variety, and a perfect chemistry.

While the main focus is on the heist, there are certain departures that are handled really well. They're the type of departures that normally would drive me up a wall, but for whatever reason, they work here. Most come as off-shoots of the heist, like Gassman's Peppe trying to woo Nicoletta (Carla Gravina), a maid in an apartment the crew will have to use to get at a safe. The young maid doesn't go willingly, messing with Peppe as much as he does with her. The same goes for Mario and Carmelita. Ferribotte hides his beautiful sister away so only her fiance will ever see her, but Mario falls for her at first sight. It all works together nicely, the different storylines blending well.

In the end though, this is a heist movie, spoof/comedy or not. It has influenced plenty of other films itself and has been remade twice, 1984's Crackers and 2002's Welcome to Collinwood. Up until this point, the amateur masterminds have managed to overcome any number of shortcomings, but when the actual heist comes along, one thing leads to another. Moral of the story? Nothing -- nothing at all -- goes smoothly. One issue snowballs into another. One sight gag especially stood out, catching me by surprise in the movie's biggest laugh. The whole movie is funny, but the best and biggest laughs are saved for the heist. A nearly perfect movie. I loved it. Can't recommend it enough.

Big Deal on Madonna Street (1958): *** 1/2 /****      

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