The Self-Preservation Society: The Making Of The Italian Job - Sabotage Times

The Self-Preservation Society: The Making Of The Italian Job

Michael Caine, Benny Hill and stuntman Remy Julienne reveal the untold story behind a film that's as British as sipping tea while listening to The Kinks.
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1969: Neil Armstrong walks on the moon, America bombs Vietnam back to the Stone Age and dozens of Minis bring Turin to a standstill. The Italian Job is the greatest caper movie of all time. And to think, they were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off...

MICHAEL CAINE AS CHARLIE CROKER

It's hard to think of another actor who could have played stylish, self-assured ex-con Charlie Croker with the same charisma and panache as the man formerly known as Maurice Micklewhite. In fact, it's pretty difficult to see how The Italian Job would have got made without Caine's involvement. Although he wasn't credited as a producer, it was Caine who first put the movie to Paramount. "Alfie [you've heard of it] was a Paramount picture, and at Cannes the company gave a big lunch at the Carlton Hotel. Sitting next to me was a man I’d never met before and we started talking. "What do you do?" I asked him. "I won't tell you what I do," he said. "But I'll tell you what I did - yesterday. Yesterday," he pronounced in a loud voice, "I bought Paramount Studios for $152m!" A lot of people at the table, of course, already knew this, but those of us who didn't abruptly stopped talking. When we resumed, it was with a new topic and a new attitude to this foreign little man. His name was Charlie Bludhorn. "Do you have any scripts you want to make?" he asked. I did - and I told him so - and that's how I made The Italian Job.”

Caine's only regret about the picture is that it did very poor box office in the US. But the thing is, Americans weren't meant to get The Italian Job, a film that's as British as sipping tea while listening to The Kinks. And just as it's one of the films that established Caine as a true international talent, it was also instrumental in his becoming recognised as the UK's number one ambassador of cool.

NOEL COWARD AS MR BRIDGER

While millions around the world are familiar with Coward's prestigious theatrical output, it's fair to say that there are probably just as many who only known him for his work on The Italian Job. "Noel was gregarious and gay - in every sense of the word," recalls Michael Caine in his first volume of memoirs What's It All About? "Each Wednesday evening when we were shooting, I used to have dinner with him at The Savoy. I always think of those occasions as one of the most quintessentially English things I have ever done. Noel had a free room for life at The Savoy, he told me, because during the war he had been playing cabaret there and had sung on through a night of terrible bombing. 'I wasn't really being brave,' he told me. 'Once the air raid had started, people were not allowed to leave and so I had a captive audience for the first and only time in my life. Not only did I get the satisfaction of that but I was given a free room for life. Not a bad evening's work.'"

Although it's fair to assume he thought The Italian Job a tad beneath him, Coward had the good grace to deliver a great performance. And since it was his final turn in front of a movie camera, it's appropriate that in a film associated with Michael Caine and Minis, the best moment belongs to Coward: Bridger receiving his fellow inmates' acclaim, which doubles as a glorious send-off to this truly great Briton.

BENNY HILL AS PROFESSOR SIMON PEACH


If you weren't sure whether The Italian Job was a British film, the presence of comedy king

Benny Hill

ought to remove any doubt. While he ruled ITV for the best part of 30 years, Hill's contribution to cinema could politely be described as pygmic. Besides the toy maker in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, his only other role of consequence was the fat lady fetishist-cum-computer expert Professor Simon Peach in The Italian Job. According to producer Michael Deeley, Benny had more to offer cinema than a couple of cameos. "He was a brilliant comic. A real one-off. If any other country had produced a comedian like him, they'd have press-ganged him into every film possible. But Benny did what he liked to do and you have to admire him for that.”

Doing what he liked included seldom fraternising with his co-stars. As Michael Caine recalls, "I was looking forward to working with Benny and getting to know him. The first part was a pleasure but the second part was impossible. Benny was very pleasant to all of us - unfailingly courteous, kind and professional, but it was not possible to make any real contact with him. He was a truly solitary soul and never mixed with the cast socially. Like a lot of comedians I've known, Benny seemed a sad person." One can only hope that Benny the loner derived some pleasure from the fact that, in his final days, Charlie Chaplin did nothing but watch Benny Hill videos.

Hill contributed greatly to the evolution of Professor Simon Peach. "Initially Peach's payment was to be a massive train set but I couldn't understand why anyone would risk so much for so little so I had them rewrite the part. Consequently, Peach became an extension of Hill's women-obsessed TV persona. While he was pleased with the rewrites, Hill was far from happy when he discovered that Peach, who he'd played as a deaf Yorkshireman, was to be redubbed for American audiences. "That was the most important lesson I learnt from The Italian Job," Hill would later write. "It was a fun experience but I knew that if I am to do my best work, I have to have complete control of the material." Unsurprisingly, Benny Hill never worked in movies again.

PETER COLLINSON AS THE DIRECTOR

One question that's always asked about The Italian Job is whatever happened to director Peter Collinson? Although he would relocate to LA, Collinson's further cinematic contributions would consist of such Troy McClure-calibre works as The Man Called Noon and Tigers Don't Cry. His failure to make it in Hollywood is all the sadder for the fact that The Italian Job is such a well directed film. In the past, critics have been side-tracked by the sharp clothes, witty banter and Quincy Jones score but it's Collinson who ultimately makes the film work. While he might not have dreamed up the escape through the streets, rooftops and sewers of Turin, it was Collinson who was responsible for capturing stunt driver Remy Julienne's fantasy on camera. He also choreographed a delightful ballet between the Minis and the pursuing Fiats that would have provided one of the film's highlights had screenwriter Troy Kennedy Martin not complained that it undercut the urgency of the escape.

Collinson's career collapse is in direct contrast to The Italian Job's spirit of fun and frivolity. Besides a starry version of And Then There Were None, there was nothing in hid LA CV to match his 1967 adaptation of Nell Dunn's Up The Junction, let alone The Italian Job. There's no way of knowing exactly why his career took such a dramatic downturn for, on December 16 1980, Peter Collinson died of cancer. He was just 42 years old.

Minis were classless, very fast and sort of cheeky. They represented the new Britain

MICHAEL DEELEY AS THE PRODUCER

Michael Deeley's career is the exact opposite of Peter Collinson's in as much as it really only took off after The Italian Job. With his previous credits including such forgettable fare as At The Stroke Of Nine, Sandy and nudist camp expose The Reluctant Nature Girl, it was the success with which Deeley nurtured his ace caper movie that paved the way for him to bankroll such classics as The Man Who Fell To Earth, The Deer Hunter and Blade Runner.

It's not surprising that Deeley remembers The Italian Job with great fondness. "The film came about because Paramount had hit upon the idea that if you made a lot of films in Britain, you only needed a few of them to be successful to make a lot of money. So I was given $3m and told to go and shoot my movie. I think we went about $200,000 over budget but that didn't really matter because the film was a hit.

Indeed, the only regrets Deeley has are with regard to his dealings with Mini manufacturers BMC. "We presumed they'd be delighted that there was going to be this film that would make heroes of these Minis. You couldn't buy advertising like that. So I said, 'Here's your chance. We need some help from you.'" Instead of a limitless supply of cars, Deeley got the cold shoulder. "They were completely disinterested. I think they finally sold us six Minis at trade price and the other 30 we had to purchase retail. I think the continued existence of Fiat and the demise of BMC tells its own story about their behaviour."

TROY KENNEDY MARTIN AS THE SCREENWRITER

It says a lot for Troy Kennedy Martin that you'd still probably know who he was even if he hadn't written The Italian Job. The author of Clint Eastwood caper movie Kelly's Heroes and the very excellent Sweeney 2, Kennedy Martin penned episodes of Colditz and dreamt up the only truly indispensible piece of '80s TV drama Edge Of Darkness. Oh yes, and he also single-handedly created Z Cars.

Despite his fine ear for dialogue and keen understanding of plot mechanics, Kennedy Martin's masterstroke with The Italian Job was his insistence on using a certain type of escape car. "I immediately thought that the cars used should be Minis. Minis were classless, very fast and sort of cheeky. They represented the new Britain which was kind of laddish, cheerful, self-confident and didn't take itself too seriously."

As excellent as his screenplay is, Troy Kennedy Martin cannot take credit for the terrific, genuinely cliff-hanging climax. Paramount Studios came up with the idea with a view to possibly making a sequel. If Troy had had his way, Croker and his cronies would have simply ridden off into the sunset. "I thought it was a superb ending, the cliff-hanger, but if a writer had come up with an idea like that, they'd have laughed at it, torn it up and thrown it in the bin!"

600 Fiat workers came to say goodbye to us. They all touched their Virgin Mary medallions and made the sign of the cross.

REMY JULIENNE AS THE STUNTMAN

With the new Europe now upon us, it's perhaps appropriate that there should be a Frenchman at the heart of the very English Italian Job. Rally champion Remy Julienne wasn’t your average Gaul, however. As Michael Deeley puts it, "Julienne was simply the best. His stunt team was like no other in the business. They were truly fearless."

Julienne's enthusiasm for the film was boundless. "It was a dream opportunity to be able to express all my fantasies and dreams and ideas." As a consequence, for the first time ever on the big screen and an entire decade before the carmaggedon of The Blues Brothers, we witness a car chase that takes place in a shopping arcade, across a weir and through a sewer. Remy attributes such inventiveness to the enthusiasm of the studio. "The production never stopped us. They only ever encouraged us."

Encouraged them, that is, to undertake a 60ft jump across the rooftops of Turin. Shot within Turin’s Fiat factory, it was, Julienne recalls, a truly nerve-wracking feat. "It was a Saturday and since they had the day off, 600 Fiat workers came to say goodbye to us. They all touched their Virgin Mary medallions and made the sign of the cross. It was a time of very intense emotion. Peter Collinson tried to calm us down by saying that it we made the jump he'd buy us all bottles of Scotch. I said that I'd prefer champagne. We eventually took the jump at 110kph. One car broke its suspension, another broke its engine. Nobody died. And no sooner were we done than I saw Peter Collinson running over to me in a coat that was bulging full of bottles of champagne!"

TURIN AS THE HOST CITY

With a script that called for elaborate chase sequences, traffic jams and general chaos, producer Michael Deeley originally assumed that he would have to shoot The Italian Job using back projection and sound stages. "But then a very dear fried of mine put a call through to Gianni Agnelli who was the head of Fiat at the time. And since the business of Fiat is the business of Turin, and since the police respected Mr Agnelli, we were allowed to do whatever we wanted!"

The assistance of the police force was particularly important when it came to bringing the city to a standstill. As second unit director Philip Wrestler remembers: "We were allowed to park cars at crossing points and they were sufficient to stop the traffic and bring the Italians to boiling point. You could hear the horns honking miles away. It was a good thing that we had the police on our side or I think they might have lynched us."

Agnelli's generosity was warmly appreciated by Caine, too. "Despite the fact that our Minis were in direct competition with his Fiats, he let us film a chase on the test track on top of his factory in Turin." In return for his kindness, the production discussed replacing the Minis with Fiats. But despite BMC's indifference, The Italian Job simply wouldn't have worked with any other kind of vehicle, just as Steve McQueen''s stunt in The Great Escape would have seemed less impressive had he performed it on a moped.

Happy to let the production race their cars through piazzas and plazas, the only thing Agnelli couldn't provide was a sewer. And so, for that sequence alone, the entire production had to relocate... to sunny Coventry!