Most of today’s comedies lack style, and instead substitute clever dialogue, and a joke set up with a punchline with idiotic base situations done by actors who have no clue of timing or delivery. Style and ideas came from Europe and that remains true to a point. The world was different in 1958 and so was the film making process. Comedy flourished with style and grace in Italy with its theatrical tradition and particularly in film. As evidence of this, we present Mario Monicelli’s BIG DEAL ON MADONNA STREET, a.k.a (Italian: I soliti ignoti, also released as Persons Unknown in the UK).
The film was a satire on heist films poking fun at crime classics, such as Jules Dassin’s Rififi (1954) and John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950). The picture is influenced, and makes fun of, the film movements of Italian Neo Realism and Film Noir: all within ninety minutes. Italian NeoRealism is characterized by stories set amongst the poor and the working class, filmed on location, frequently using non-professional actors, much like the sixties French New Wave. They were stories of the difficult economic and moral conditions of post-World War II Italian everyday life. Themes of the poor and downtrodden making comedy have been in cinema since the days of Charlie Chaplin, who was born in the U.K.
BIG DEAL ON MADONNA STREET (1958) is a simple, fast paced film. The gang pulling the job in Big Deal aren’t even a gang. Audiences connect with these lovable losers.
The picture also connects with the audience through common problems of poverty and frustration. Tiberio the cameraless photographer (Early Marcello Mastroianni), tries to steal a car to support his family. Tiberio is left to care for his child that perpetually cries while his wife serves a term for selling smuggled cigarettes. Peppe (Vittorio Gassman), the ladies man, glass-jawed boxer, who is looking for the big payoff in the ring, is knocked out by one of his women at a local dance. Add to this the famed Italian comedian Totò, as Dante, the safecracker, who is a movie critic.
The film opens with Cosimo (Memmo Carotenuto) being arrested for a bungled car theft and sentenced to a few months in prison. He is desperate to be released so his gang may carry out a heist idea stolen from another inmate, a dishonest bricklayer who purposely constructed a flimsy wall between the dining room of a vacant apartment and a pawn shop safe. Cosimo’s gang bribes boxer Peppe (Vittorio Gassman) with no criminal record, to confess to his crime. Cosimo tells Peppe of the caper with the soft wall and the safe. Peppe has his info. Then he reveals that he has been given a year’s probation and walks out of the prison gate.
Peppe takes up the plan with Cosimo’s gang: Mario (Renato Salvatori), a petty thief and the youngest member of the group; Michele (Tiberio Murgia), a posturing Sicilian crook who needs money for the dowry of his sister he keeps away from all men so she can be “pure,” plus Tiberio (Marcello Mastroianni), and Capannelle (Carlo Pisacane), an elderly pickpocket who loves to eat everything including the Tiberios’s baby’s food for which he is repeatedly scolded and hand slapped.
The group checks the pawn shop, to get into the apartment they must cut a lock on a coal chute, then into the basement, into a small courtyard, climb onto the roof of a first floor apartment, break into the vacant apartment through a window, then punch through the then wall between it and the pawn shop. The problem is none of them know how to open a safe. Enter the local safecracker Dante (Totò), who supplies tools and gives them a brief primer.
One sequence comes to mind as the gang assemble on the roof, getting a lesson in opening a safe from Dante, when the police suddenly appear to check on them. They barely hide their intentions by faking they are hanging laundry on the roof, hiding their equipment behind large sheets blowing in the wind.
BIG DEAL ON MADONNA STREET (1958) has startling images and frame compositions. The night scene of a carjacking is shot with quick cuts and close-ups with snappy dialogue. The gang going up on the huge glass roof, peering down at the inhabitants of the apartment they have to break into, brightly lit with figures like insects. The hallways and the rooms are small and steeped with shadows and layered background.
Cinematographer Gianni Di Venanzo says the tone was not comedic or brightly lit, but “harsh and dramatic, because the film has a dramatic side in that it is about poor people with a comic eye.” The film also features contrasting dramatic moments, such as Cosimo who had the idea of the heist stolen from him in prison, violently confronting Peppe with terrible results. The funeral moment in a comedy film can be difficult to play but BIG DEAL ON MADONNA STREET (1958) does it well because comedy is so close to tragedy.
The film was shot in ten weeks using nonprofessional actors whose voices had to be dubbed by professionals or someone with a clearer delivery. The backgrounds were of Rome at that time, and included some of ruins of the Second World War. Marcello Mastroianni and Claudia Cardinale, who plays a small role of the captive girl hidden to remain “pure,” went on to achieve international fame and have long careers.
BIG DEAL ON MADONNA STREET (1958) is a funny, sad, fast paced masterpiece with natural performances from the entire cast. The criminals need money to live, not in luxury, but an ordinary life. The ending is not the vengeful bleakness of film noir, but a cheerful, whimsical God loves a good joke. This film is a true gem of style and content.