Mario Monicelli’s Big Deal on Madonna Street is that genuine rarity in popular culture: a satire that not only helped kill off one movie genre, but started a whole new subgenre in the process. The film, released in Italy in 1958 as I Soliti ignoti, was a veritable treasure trove of cinematic influences, from Italian neorealism to Hollywood postwar film noir and its 1950s French cousin, all tied together in one neat 90-minute package.
The seeming simplicity of Big Deal on Madonna Street was central to its popularity. On one level, the movie is a breezy, lunatic-paced crime caper, a piece of Italian comedy, mocking such hard-boiled crime classics as Jules Dassin’s Rififi (1954) and its antecedents, most notably John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950). In contrast to the usual set-up in such genre films, the gang pulling the job in Big Deal isn’t remotely good at what they do. They aren’t even a gang, really, just five people drawn together to find a fall guy for their would-be ringleader, and he’s a failed car thief. They muddle on with their plans, and, with a little luck, the elements for a successful heist end up in place.
The movie’s heart is in the poverty and frustration that surround its characters. One can find echoes of The Bicycle Thief in the plight of Tiberio the cameraless photographer (Marcello Mastroianni), who tries to steal a car to support his family. But in fine comic turn, everything is turned on its head. Tiberio is left to care for his child while his wife serves a term for selling smuggled cigarettes; Peppe (Vittorio Gassman), the glass-jawed boxer, is served his coup de grace by one of the women he calls—with satirically outrageous machismo—his “conquests.” Topping off the cast is the famed comedian Totò, a renowned figure on the Italian stage from the ’20s and in movies from the ’30s on, as Dante, the avuncular safecracker who can’t resist being a movie critic.
Big Deal on Madonna Street put director/co-author Monicelli (who had begun his own professional life as a film critic before turning to filmmaking) on the map as a major director. In America, the film quickly moved beyond the confines of the art houses and became a popular and critical favorite. Remake proposals bounced around throughout the 1960s, before Louis Malle shot the American version, Crackers, in 1984. Long before that, however, other American movies, including The Hot Rock and The Brink’s Job, borrowed from the mood and attitude of Monicelli’s movie, which had so lovingly quoted Huston and Dassin. In contrast to their movies, in which blind luck brings about the demise of the plan and the gang members, the luck found on Madonna Street puts the gang on the path to an honest life. If the action in Monicelli’s film is governed by a personified deity, it’s not the vengeful, dark God of American film noir, but a cheerful, whimsical God who smiles and appreciates a good practical joke.
Bruce Eder is a film historian and a frequent contributor to audio commentary tracks for the Criterion Collection.