Big Deal on Madonna Street

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Working a gag a thousand times and in a thousand different ways, Big Deal on Madonna Street, aka Persons Unknown (a translation of its Italian title, I Soliti Ignoti) pours good-natured scorn all over the heist movie.

The heist movie traditionally goes like this – a target is identified, a team is assembled and a plot is meticulously masterminded, there’s a dry run and then, finally, in the film’s big centrepiece, the heist itself, which goes like clockwork, apart from one tiny moment, when something freakish happens – a screwdriver slips, a guard varies his routine – and the entire operation is suddenly hanging by a thread.

Writers Agenore Incrocci and Furio Scarpelli (known as Age and Scarpelli) inject human frailty into the mix, pointing out that masterplans are theoretical constructs and that in reality a thousand and one things can go wrong… and in Big Deal on Madonna Street they do.

And it’s all going wrong from the very first shot. Cosimo Proietti (Memmo Carotenuto), a hopeless professional thief, is arrested in the film’s opening moments for a hopelessly bungled attempt to steal a car, throwing his plan to heist a pawn shop into disarray.

He tries to get someone else to take the rap for his crime, along the way introducing the audience to Peppe (Vittorio Gassman), a handsome boxer with a glass jaw, the libidinous Mario (Renato Salvatori), toothless Capannelle (Carlo Pisacane), the insanely proprietorial Ferribotte (Tiberio Murgia), who has his sister, Carmelina (Claudia Cardinale) locked up at home, lest any rogue male ruin her marriage prospects. The final member of the group is Tiberio (Marcello Mastroianni), another useless smalltime crook with a new baby and a wife locked up in jail.

Mario and Carmelina
Mario tries to get friendly with Carmelina

It’s this quintet of men who will take over Proietti’s plan and will try and pull off the heist – using guile, the darkness of night, special tech and their own underwhelming skillset as aids – and will fail at every single turn.

Here we are, eight years after The Asphalt Jungle, daddy of the heist movie, three years after Rififi – the one all heist movies want to beat – and it’s obvious what Age and Scarpelli are tilting at. The film’s working title was Rifufu, should anyone doubt it.

Director Mario Monicelli keeps the pace up and the performances light, while his DP, the great Gianni De Venanzo (much admired by Fellini) shoots everything high in contrast and beautifully sharp.

The post-dubbing of the dialogue – normal practice in Italy in the 1950s – is a real mark against it, taking what should be light, fast repartee and slowing it down with some leaden delivery and acoustics that never ring true. Piero Umiliani’s score goes some way towards compensating. It’s one of those cocktail-jazzy rinky-dink affairs, of a sort that would come to characterise films like this. The Pink Panther score in utero.

The big joke is that we know what they don’t know and cannot comprehend – their essential unsuitedness to this line of work (Mastroianni’s Tiberio goes into the heist sequence with his arm cantilevered out in a comedy plaster cast) – and it’s no surprise that Hitchcock was keen to work with Age and Scarpelli. It never happened.

So good they remade it twice, first in 1984 as Crackers and then again in 2002 as Welcome to Collinwood, there is an “accept no substitute” aspect to Big Deal on Madonna Street. It’s not only the original but it’s made with real skill, with a great cast – there’s an extended cameo by Italian comedian Totò, and this is the film that made Cardinale a big name at home (it’s not hard to see why – she looks like something sculpted by the gods). All little extras in a film that really doesn’t need them, the basic idea is so strong.

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© Steve Morrissey 2022

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