The Italian Job

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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

21 January

Benny Hill born, 1924

On this day in 1924, Alfred Hawthorn Hill was born in Southampton, UK. One of those children who “always wanted to be in showbusiness”, Alfred had managed to become an assistant stage manager in a touring company before joining up to serve in the Second World War, aged 18. He changed his first name to Benny as a tribute to his hero, Jack Benny, though in fact it was the British music hall that really provided the inspiration for Benny Hill’s act. Earlier to understand that music hall’s days were numbered than many of his slightly older board-treading fellows, Hill was quick into radio, even quicker onto TV and also managed to turn up in nine different films. But it was his TV work that made him famous, in particular the long-running Benny Hill Show, which aired first in 1955 and ran, in various incarnations, until 1989. The show’s trademark ending, featuring Hill being chased by scantily clad women in the style of an old Keystone Cops movie to the sound of the Yakety Sax theme, became Hill’s trademark. His show was cancelled in 1989 by Thames TV’s head of light entertainment, John Howard Davies (who had played Oliver in David Lean’s 1948 Oliver Twist) and Hill immediately went into a decline. A solitary man who shunned the high life, carried his scripts around in a plastic bag, he died alone in his third floor apartment of a heart attack while watching TV.

The Italian Job (1969, dir: Peter Collinson)

The story of an audacious gold bullion robbery carried out in broad daylight by robbers in a fleet of Mini Coopers, masterminded by a criminal from his own prison cell, The Italian Job doesn’t just contain one of the most famous car chases in history – and the sort of product placement it’s impossible to buy (Fiat had offered their cars but the director refused) – but it has one of the best caper-movie casts. Noel Coward as the gang boss, Michael Caine as Charlie Croker, his man on the ground, fresh out of prison himself. Benny Hill plays Croker’s boffin, the eccentric Professor Simon Peach – the man who is going to “fix” the traffic in Milan – who can be led to almost anything by the sight of an attractive woman, the bigger the better (“Are they big? I like ’em big!”). The screenplay is by Troy Kennedy-Martin best known for his witty, gritty TV work (The Sweeney, Edge of Darkness) and is full of similarly pithy lines, such as the now iconic, “You’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off” delivered with the panache that made Caine famous. This is not one of Caine’s defining movies – those were Alfie and The Ipcress File – but it is a perfect vehicle for the already existing persona of the cheeky, affable Cockney geezer, snappy dresser, ladies man, man about town etc etc. Looked at coolly, The Italian Job isn’t actually a great film, but it is stuffed with great things – its stars, its script, those cars, the general breezy air of Swinging London-ness, the Quincy Jones score. And compared to the 2003 Donald Sutherland/Mark Wahlberg remake it’s a masterpiece. As for the on-screen meeting between two of Britain’s comic geniuses of the 20th century, droll Coward and bawdy Hill, it never happened.

Why Watch?

  • One of the most iconic car chases in movie history
  • Michael Caine at full operating temperature
  • Noel Coward’s last film appearance
  • Look out for legends Irene Handl and John Le Mesurier

The Italian Job – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2014

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