When a film introduces a heist, it's almost always a cue to wait for something to go wrong. From John Huston's The Asphalt Jungle, the godfather of heist films, to Goodfellas, heists almost invariably signal oncoming disasters, whether before, during, or after the actual event. In the superb 1958 heist comedy Big Deal On Madonna Street, the Asphalt Jungle of its own subgenre, director Mario Monicelli takes this theme to its comic extreme, presenting a group of would-be thieves whose endeavors seem doomed before they even step out of bed. Closely following their precursors in Jules Dassin's recently restored classic Rififi, the film's low-level criminals catch wind of a can't-miss score: a barely protected safe kept one door over from a (reportedly) vacant apartment. The lack of criminal skills among the would-be thieves—who include a hapless, womanizing boxer (Vittorio Gassman) and a father (Marcello Mastroianni) left to care for his infant son while his wife serves time in jail—does little to deter their efforts. Nor does the appearance of one complication after another, as well as a retired safecracker turned consultant (played by veteran Italian comedian Totò) whose advice stops just short of warning them off the job. Big Deal's delay in getting around to the big score is among its best jokes; the characters are allowed to bounce against each other as their sure thing looks less sure and their criminal bravado fades to reveal the gentle souls beneath. But despite the rich comic characters, Monicelli's decision to shoot the film as a straightforward thriller, using grungy Roman locations and gracefully fluid camerawork, is what really puts it over. His confidence behind the camera provides sharp contrasts to the goings-on in front of it. Though remade in America as Crackers and borrowed from countless times (most recently in Woody Allen's Small Time Crooks), Monicelli's original take on men whose dreams dwarf their abilities, and whose kind hearts stand in the way of their criminal careers, couldn't look better.
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