A man (Rossano Brazzi) drives his sports car around the Alpine countryside until he is abruptly halted going through a tunnel and right into an deliberate obstacle. Meanwhile, in Britain, Charlie Croker (Michael Caine) is being released from prison, and is picked up outside the gates by his American girlfriend Lorna (Margaret Blye). He heads for his tailor to buy some up to date suits, gets his old car from the garage along with the money that had been hidden with the engine, and enjoys the company of a bevy of young ladies provided by Lorna. But he knows the identity of the man killed in the Alps, and they had planned a daring robbery in Italy - will Charlie be able to persuade crime boss Mr Bridger (Noel Coward) to go along with it?
Written by Troy Kennedy Martin, The Italian Job became a cult classic in the United Kingdom, due to its cheeky humour and surface patriotism. Unfortunately, it also grew synonymous with something closer to English jingoism rather than national pride during the nineties, which is unfair as its tone is actually fairly subversive, and not the wholehearted endorsement of blinkered British attitudes to its European neighbours that it first appears to be. The characters who love their country the most, and believe they are acting in its best interests, are all career criminals, whether they are from Britain or Italy - when Charlie is released, following the straight and narrow doesn't enter his head for a moment.
At first, Mr Bridger sees Charlie as a young upstart, and when he is greeted in his toilet by the sight of the fellow, he is not interested in hearing about the grand plan, and even sends Camp Freddie (Tony Beckley) and his thugs round to beat Charlie up. Coward is perfectly cast as the urbane but testy boss with a love of the Queen (her pictures adorn his cell) and the attitude that he's doing the very best for his countrymen. Every actor, right down to the bit parts, is ideally cast, whether it's John Le Mesurier as the baffled prison warden or Irene Handl as the sister of Professor Peach (Benny Hill - of course), the dirty old man and computer expert who is essential in the crime's execution.
When Mr Bridger sees the Italian robbery as a good thing for Britain, he gives it the go ahead, and as in all the best heist movies, seeing the set up is just as involving as seeing the plans brought to fruition. The whole thing runs like clockwork, with the odd hitch ("You're only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!") easily ironed out. But the Mafia are not happy with this invasion, timed to coincide with a England vs Italy football match, and stop the band of crooks in their tracks as they drive through the Alps. This gives a much needed sense of danger to the action, as it wouldn't do to have the Brits get away with the theft too easily, and indeed they don't.
What everyone remembers about The Italian Job is the car chase, and it's perfectly realised. After causing a traffic jam in Turin, the crooks ambush the van containing the bullion, and cram it in the back of three red, white and blue Mini Coopers, which take off around the back streets, steps and rooftops of the city, pursued by the police. You may have found the build-up to this has dragged, but the setpiece makes the wait all worthwhile as the cars run rings round the cops, up on a huge sloping rooftop for the hell of it, or through the drainage system. It's a great sequence, evoking Caine's iconic Cool Britannia, swinging sixties persona in its confidence and impertinence. But there's a sting in the tail, the classic ending which gives the criminals their comeuppance and bravely makes you realise their smug self-preservation society wasn't so clever after all. Unless Charlie really does have "a great idea"? Music by Quincy Jones.