BIG DEAL ON MADONNA STREET, directed by Mario Monicelli
Cast: Vittorio Gassman (Peppe), Marcello Mastroianni (Tiberio), Toto (Dante), Claudia Cardinale (Carmelina), Carlo Pisacane (Capanelle), Tiberio Murgia (Ferribotte), Carla Gravina (Nicoletta), Memmo Carotenuto (Cosimo)
This 1958 film set in post-war Rome is often referred to as a parody of Rififi. It’s one of those movies I can watch again and again for the pleasure of hanging out in that world with those characters.
Monicelli establishes the film’s noir/comic interplay in the opening sequence: Night time, a deserted city street; two men appear. The lookout goes to the end of the street while his accomplice smashes a car window with a rock. Once in the car, the thief pulls out a set of keys (which he didn’t bother using to gain entry), tries the ignition and sets off the car alarm. When the lookout warns him the police are coming, the thief tries to escape but slams the car door on his coat. Amazingly, the police don’t buy his protest that he’s an honest man.
While in prison, the thief, Cosimo, gets wind of a big score, a safe in a pawnshop next to a supposedly deserted apartment with thin walls. Perfect. He confirms our opinion that he’s not too bright when he unwisely reveals the details of the job to Peppe, a failed boxer with larceny on his mind, thus setting the plot in motion.
Peppe assembles a ragtag group of petty thieves to carry out the heist that will put them all on easy street. Despite tutorials by the expert safecracker Dante, (his rooftop lecture delivered in bathrobe and fedora is worth the price of admission) it becomes clear that for this group of bunglers success is a long shot.
Monicelli’s genius lies in the balance he achieves between comedy and something close to pathos. Yes, the crew’s incompetence is consistently funny, and the break-in sequence a brilliant piece of extended slapstick. Yet we root for these men as if they were on a heroic mission. In part this may be because we’ve glimpsed the grim economic reality of post-war Rome, but it’s also because we see the thieves as Monicelli undoubtedly intended: vulnerable, human, and capable of love.
Mario Monicelli (1915-2010) committed suicide in 2010 by leaping from a hospital window. This interview with him ran in Off Screen in 1999. http://offscreen.com/view/mario_monicelli
Anita Page is the editor of Family Matters: Murder New York Style, an anthology of twenty crime short stories by members of the New York/Tri-State chapter of Sisters in Crime. She’s the author of Damned If You Don’t, a Catskill Mountain mystery available from Glenmere Press. Her short stories have appeared in webzines and anthologies including Mysterical-e, Beat to a Pulp, The Back Alley, Kings River Life, Word Riot, Mouth Full of Bullets, Family Matters, Fresh Slices, Deadly Debut, and The Prosecution Rests. Her story “‘Twas the Night” (The Gift of Murder, Wolfmont Press) won a Derringer Award in 2010.