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The heist movie is making a bit of a comeback these days. With The Score and Sexy Beast now playing in theaters and David Mamet’s Heist set to open in the fall, this familiar and always reliable genre is asserting itself as an alternative to big-budgeted CGI pyrotechnics and predictable romantic comedy. Its premise is as simple as it is timeless: a group of petty crooks band together for what they swear will be their last and ultimate job. Together they research the locales, devise a plan, and rehearse it to perfection. But something goes wrong. It always does because the heist movie is not about the success of the perfect plan, but its inevitable unraveling. Cynical about love and friendship, the heist movie is a close cousin of film noir. Fate closes in on the characters who, despite their ingenuity, seem destined for darker days.

Claudia Cardinale in Big Deal on Madonna Street.
Odd, then, that one of the most respected, praised, and copied of all heist-thrillers is a comedy, or more accurately, a parody. Big Deal on Madonna Street was released in 1958, in a period when the heist/caper movie was at the peak of its popularity. The Asphalt Jungle (1950) and Rififi (1954) had elevated the genre from B-movie pulp to something artistically respectable. In the minds of audiences, the heist movie became inextricably associated with images of weathered, beaten men in trench coats huddled over a safe in the dead of night. An air of heavy solemnity hung over the proceedings, like we were watching them dig their own graves. What Big Deal on Madonna Street did was to take the same characters, scenarios, and images and to somehow make it all funny. Here again were the seasoned veteran crook, the young upstart, the avuncular safe expert. But this time instead of mourning their no-win situation, we can laugh at it. Big Deal on Madonna Street goes beyond mere satire towards a kind of irreverent homage. It pays tribute to its serious-minded antecedents while forging an entirely new direction for the genre.

The Criterion Collection has recently released Big Deal on Madonna Street on DVD, with entirely new English subtitles. The digital transfer is new and was conducted with the help of Cincecitta Studios in Italy, where the movie was filmed. The lack of extras (there is only the original theatrical trailer) reinforces Big Deal’s status as a minor classic. This is a bit of an injustice given the movie’s enormous popularity at the time of its release. On the surface it may seem like a frivolous movie, but like Bringing Up Baby and Some Like It Hot, Big Deal on Madonna Street takes comedy seriously.

Your enjoyment of Big Deal on Madonna Street will depend on how familiar you are with The Asphalt Jungle and Rififi. Thankfully, however, Big Deal does not rely exclusively on its source material. In fact it stands quite nicely on its own, managing to juggle low-level farce with refined human comedy as well as all levels of comedy in between. One of the most memorable comic scenarios involves the young rookie thief Mario (Renato Salvatori). Mario is always worrying about his mother; he complains that if he gets thrown in jail, his poor mother will have no money. In one scene, he buys three identical Donald Duck aprons – claiming that all three are for her. Later in the movie, Mario breaks into an orphanage. We think he’s going to steal something, but when the overseer greets him warmly, we realize that Mario was himself an orphan and that he has no mother. We even see the three cleaning ladies – each wearing a Donald Duck apron – embrace Mario like he was their own son.

Renato Salvatori and Marcello Mastroianni in Big Deal on Madonna Street.
Most of Big Deal on Madonna Street is farcical and is pulled off with great comic precision by the entire cast, which reads like a Who’s Who of Italian cinema. Vittorio Gassman plays Peppe, a boxer who agrees to take the fall for another crook in exchange for money. While in prison, he learns of a treasure hidden in a baby’s crib; to get to the crib, one has only to enter through the adjacent apartment, which is vacant. Peppe arranges his own early parole, and once out of jail, he recruits his friends for the heist. Marcello Mastroianni plays his friend Tiberio, a family man whose wife is doing time for smuggling cigarettes. Tiberio must care for his infant son who’s always crying; he’s also holding down a job as a photographer, even though he can’t afford a camera. Peppe also hires a veteran safe cracker named Dante (Italian stage star Toto) whose rooftop lesson on how to break a safe is constantly interrupted by jeering children and visits from the police. Mario, when he’s not worrying about his "mother" is pursuing the beautiful Carmela who happens to be the fiancee of one of the other crooks. Carmela is played by Claudia Cardinale; her beau keeps her locked up but she proves herself to be cleverer than he by finding ways to keep Mario’s many visits a secret.

Renato Salvatori and Toto in Big Deal on Madonna Street.
What makes this ragtag group so likeable is, ironically, their fundamental incompetence. Peppe can barely manage to steal the key to the vacant apartment from the girl he likes. Their scene together on a bus is endearing and funny: Peppe tries several times to distract her with kisses while his hand digs deeper into her purse. We know that Peppe really likes her, but he also wants the key, and that he can’t make up his mind what he wants more, the key and hence the money, or just the girl. His bumblings are sweet-natured, like those of an adolescent boy trying to act grown-up. There’s no malice involved, even if what he’s doing is criminal. We get the sense that Peppe and his friends, if given a choice, would rather chase girls all day than deal with anymore of this heist nonsense.

Big Deal on Madonna Street was directed and co-written by Mario Monicelli. He keeps the one-liners coming so fast that the subtitles barely have enough time to keep up. The climactic break-in is a great piece of sustained comedy. Their first attempt to drill through a wall fails when they hit a water pipe and almost flood the apartment (this scene was copied recently by Woody Allen in Small Time Crooks). Later, when they’ve realized that they’ve been drilling in the wrong direction, they give up entirely and raid the refrigerator for a midnight meal of pasta e fagioli. The movie ends with a pitch-perfect "Oh well" as our crooks, tired and full, wander lazily into the morning air, unfazed by their complete failure to find the treasure. And we can’t help but grin a little as they fatalistically resign themselves to their roles as immensely lovable losers.


Big Deal on Madonna Street is now available on DVD from the Criterion Collection in a new digital transfer. The disc includes an original theatrical trailer. Suggested retail price: $29.95. For more information, check out the Criterion Collection Web site.