Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The R.I.P. Train (#3) Mario Monicelli's BIG DEAL ON MADONNA ST

(I should note up front I've never seen a film by Monicelli before, but to be fair among Italian director's in the country's 'new-wave' at the time in the 40's and 50's, his name and works were dwarfed by the likes of De Sica and Felini.  This, thankfully, is his best known work so a good place to start)

There's been several critics on the Mario Monicelli film Big Deal on Madonna Street that the film is a satiric riff on the movie Rififi.  I could only really see the comparison in that a group of guys, some of whom are kinda low-lives, get together to pull off a heist.  But Monicelli and his writers have a lot of different influences with their story; I wouldn't be surprised if their own recent history of 'neo-realism' had an influence (people gotta eat after all), and just their general attitude of Italian comedy came into play.  Certainly the lead up to nor the actual execution of the heists are at all alike- Dassin's film has cold professionals, preceding Melville, who don't utter a word during the proceedings of the heist, while Monicelli's average knuckleheads can't quite keep their traps shut.  One can guess the outcome here, maybe, just maybe, on their aptitude at this sort of thing, which isn't much.

The group here includes Peppe, a once proud boxer who got knocked the fuck out; Tiberio, a photographer and now a full-time stay-at-home dad of a non-stop crying baby; Mario, what IMDb calls a 'receiver', and a woman, Michele, who is the coolest of the group and probably most professional.  There is one ex-criminal, Dante, who may or may not be apart of the heist given whether he's around or has his head on straight about his own criminal aptitude, Cappanelle, an ex-jockey and seemingly one with his head on straight as well, and one other, a good safe-cracker who tries to give the group some 101-class techniques on cracking safes.  They make up a group that could make it alright, if they were running a deli, collectively, with Michele up front.  But they don't all have their heads on straight about their target: a safe that has the standard blocks, except for one thing, a razor-thin wall separating it from a next-door apartment, mostly empty.  One just has to move the furniture...

Monicelli's skill with the film, what makes it so entertaining, is that all of these guys are totally likable, and they're only halfway good at what they intend to do.  And there are various mishaps and upsets as the date comes to pull off the job.  Tiberio has the crying kid at home, for one thing, and then breaks his arm by big accident right before the heist is about to take off (having a wife in prison as well doesn't help).  And then the one guy, the good looking one, who falls hard for a local maid girl (much to the dismay of the rest of the crew).  There's an upset as well with one of the girls (Claudia Cardinale) being pursued, much to the dismay of her brother, who is also on the crew.  Did I mention how good I am at the names of this whole crew?  I know one of them, Toto, as Dante, is a shifty little character who is a lot of fun to watch, just to see how he'll go from WAY over the top to subtle in one scene.  And then the other one (Carotenuto) that almost steals the show as the oldest of the lot, and hilariously, unabashedly quirky in his Italian way (he's the guy eating a sandwich at the start of the safecracking lecture).

It's not a super-incredible feat of heist-comedy filmmaking, but it does have its place rightfully as the inspiration for many heist-comedies to follow (most specifically Woody Allen's Small Time Crooks especially takes this plot for its whole first half of the movie), and the personalities are what make it count.  Mastroianni is good, of course, and is charming in a comedic performance that will throw off some too used to him in serious roles in Fellini works and La Notte.  And Gassman as the ex-boxer has his moments in the limelight as well.  But it's the little moments that make this movie count.  At one crucial point a set of keys could come into play with getting into the pad.  But on a bus ride the keys change hands, and then have to change again when a piece of information from the poor young woman comes out.  It's a sneaky little scene that is loaded with behavioral comedy that is just pitch perfect: the timing, the one face completely oblivious and the other determined to get the object in possession, and the chance it could totally fall apart.  That's what this movie's about, the awkwardness of doing wrong.

Some of the comedy, admittedly, is broad as an Italian comedy of the 1950's; it's the kind of comedy that will rely on slapstick if it must, and its those moments I was really laughing out loud (the ol' LOL), such as the big details during the heist, or just those shots of people in prison shuffling their feet to the same beats.  Or that baby.  Or the relationship comedy with Cardinale's saintly figure as an object not to be taken by any man (the brother's reaction is really great).  Comedy seems to sneak up from around the corner in a scene, such as when one character goes to a pawnbroker to stick em up, only for the pawnbroker taking the gun away to make it's value(!)  And emphasizing the fun nature of this whole silly safe-robbery is a jazz score Piero Umilani.  It's a swift, kicking score that puts one in there into the film-noir aesthetic, but then there, too, he has his fun with it.  There is suspense that's amped up by Umilani as the thieves go up to the building across the roof-top, but a sense of play is there, too.

This isn't any deep pulp art, but a crowd-pleaser.  You laugh at these guys but never wish them ill will.  They could be the guy right down the street or the one working at the deli.  And what they'll do with that money.  Oh, what would they do!

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