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Big Deal on Madonna Street (I Soliti ignoti)
Director: Mario Monicelli
Screenplay: Age-Scarpelli, Suso Cecchi D'Amico, & Mario Monicelli
Stars: Vittorio Gassman (Peppe), Renato Salvatori (Mario), Rossana Rory (Norma), Carla Gravina (Nicoletta), Claudia Cardinale (Carmelina), Carlo Pisacane (Capannelle), Tiberio Murgia (Ferribotte), Memmo Carotenuto (Cosimo), Marcello Mastroianni (Tiberio), Totò (Dante)
MPAA Rating:NR
Year of Release: 1958
Country: Italy
Big Deal on Madonna Street Poster

Mario Monicelli's Big Deal on Madonna Street (I Soliti ignoti) features a group of good-natured, but utterly incompetent criminals who try to rise above their station in life by pulling off one big heist, the one that will set them up for life. The entire film is a non-too-subtle satire on both the crime genre, with especially good pokes at Jules Dassin's heist masterpiece Rififi (1955), which seems to have served as its model, and the spate of Italian neorealist films like The Bicycle Thief that revolutionized international cinema in the postwar years.

Monicelli, a former film critic, has a good feel for both the crime genre and neorealism, which enabled him to make a comedy that plays by the rules of both while simultaneously satirizing them. The film's style combines neorealism and film noir (the cinematography is by Gianni de Venanzo, who would go on to shoot Fellini's 8 1/2 and Antonioni's La Notte), which immediately establishes a humorously subversive tone. Monicelli sets himself a tricky balancing act--he undermines expectations in the crime genre for laughs while using the neorealist aesthetic and emphasis on humanity to both underscore that subversion and to give his film a genuine human face--and he pulls it off wonderfully.

Of course, Monicelli is aided greatly by an incredible cast that brings the story to life. The film's Italian title is I Soliti ignoti, which is a police term that roughly translates to something like "the usual suspects." What makes the title ironic and Big Deal on Madonna Street so funny is that the criminals in the movie are hardly "the usual suspects," except for the fact that they're always being arrested because they're so inept as criminals and con men.

As with all heist movies, the core of Big Deal on Madonna Street is a big score that has to be pulled off with meticulous, intricate planning and preparation. The score here is a pawn shop on Madonna Street, which is next door to an empty apartment that has a thin dividing wall. The first person to find out about it is Cosimo (Memmo Carotenuto), who hears about it in prison after being arrested for trying to steal a car in the opening scene.

Cosimo asks his partner, Capannelle (Carlo Pisacane), to find a scapegoat to do time in prison for him so can get out to pull off the heist. It turns out that finding a scapegoat is harder than Cosimo anticipated, and instead, a gang of would-be and has-been criminals is formed, all of whom don't trust each other, but still want a piece of the pie. These include Peppe (Vittorio Gassman), an inept boxer, Mario (Renato Salvatori), a suave ladies' man, Dante (Totò), a near-senile safecracker, and Tiberio (Marcello Mastroianni), a cameraless photographer who is stuck taking care of his sleepless one-year-old son because his wife is serving time for smuggling cigarettes.

The running joke through Big Deal on Madonna Street is that these well-meaning crooks can never get it together enough to pull off the heist--life keeps getting in the way. They keep talking about the need to be "scientific" in their planning, and they go through the motions of designing the heist. Yet, at every turn, something happens to foil their plans, or they get so sidetracked by something else that they loose focus.

For instance, a major component of the plan is the fact that the apartment they intend to go in through is unoccupied. Well, they take so long planning that people eventually move into the apartment. So, they create a backup plan that involves Peppe romancing a young woman (Carla Gravina) who lives there in order to get invited into the apartment at night. This necessarily takes time, and Peppe ends up falling in love with her, which undermines his ability to use her for criminal purposes. Meanwhile, Mario is getting sidetracked with his own romantic entanglements that involve Carmelina (Claudia Cardinale), the sister of Ferribotte (Tiberio Murgia), one of the gang members who keeps her, quite literally, under lock and key.

The big pay-off, though, is the heist scene itself, which is a comedic gem of mishaps, slapstick bungling, and split-second timing. Monicelli pulls off this sequence brilliantly, allowing it to play out slowly as if it were a serious piece of work, only to throw in one disaster after another (drilling into a water pipe in the wall is one of the funniest moments, and Woody Allen lifted the gag directly for Small Time Crooks).

The end of Big Deal on Madonna Street is a gentle, sweet reminder that, although inept, the characters in the movie are decent human beings who probably deserve better than they get. The movie as a whole could have been mean-spirited in its comedy (farces often are), but Monicelli instead goes for the same kind of bittersweet human element that made Rififi so good. The two movies could not be more widely different in tone, but in the end they are both about recognizable human characters who simply get in over their heads. And, while Rififi features a tragic ending, Big Deal on Madonna Street miraculously takes a disaster of a crime and turns it into an opportunity for redemption.

Big Deal on Madonna Street: Criterion Collection DVD

Aspect Ratio1.33:1
Audio Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
Supplements Original U.S.-release theatrical trailer
DistributorThe Criterion Collection / Home Vision

Big Deal on Madonna Street is presented in a very nice high-definition transfer in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio from a 35mm composite fine-grain master. The source material appears to have been in generally excellent condition, as there are only minimal instances of speckling and scratches, and just a few frames with any significant damage. The image is clear and sharp, with great contrast and solid black levels. Grain is apparent from time to time, but it adds to the neorealist aesthetic and gives the picture a more film-like appearance.

The Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural soundtrack is excellent for its age. There is almost no hiss at all, even during the quietest portions of the film, and Piero Umiliani's memorably jazzy score comes across with depth and richness, with only the slightest hints of tinniness at the highest ranges.

The only included supplement is an original theatrical trailer for the film's American release, presented in full-frame.

Overall Rating: (3.5)

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