Director: Mario Monicelli
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
|Year of Release: 1958
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
|Big Deal on
Madonna Street: Criterion Collection DVD|
Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural|
Original U.S.-release theatrical trailer
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)