Big Deal on Madonna Street is such a great, catchy, and memorable title that you would hate to lose it. It was the third (at least) tried out by the film’s English-language distributors after Persons Unknown and The Big Deal.1 The title sets up a number of expectations, not least the bathos in the phrase ‘big deal’, which is hardly the language used by existentialist hoodlums in the Hollywood and French crime dramas director Mario Monicelli seemed intent on skewering. ‘Big deal’ also implies an unimpressed shrug of the shoulders – ‘big deal’, so what? ‘Madonna Street’, by contrast, suggests some sort of spiritual narrative in a local context – it could be a contextual reference to the profound and presupposed place of religion in Italian life, but it also raises the possibility of redemption for this film’s losers.

Filmed on location in Rome’s outlying wastelands, abandoned Fascist building projects and the husks of modernist reconstruction, Big Deal shares its mise-en-scène with several neo-realist films by Vittorio de Sica and Roberto Rossellini, or the post-neo-realism of Federico Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria (Le notti di Cabiria), released the previous year. Monicelli guys the metaphysical pretensions of such directors, creating a determinedly human-scale purgatory or hell-on-earth; his protagonists may be ‘fallen’, but they are incorrigible and buoyant. Nevertheless, Monicelli enforces a strict morality. The one clear villain of the piece comes to a sticky end: Cosimo (Memmo Carotenuto), whose bungled car-jacking starts the film and whose planned heist forms its main content. Unlike his fellow petty criminals, Cosimo has little interest in family, friendship, loyalty, love, humour, or food – his self-serving entrepreneurship is revealed as anti-social and even inhuman. His fellow convict, the braggart Peppe (Vittorio Gassman), is punished to a lesser degree, by getting caught up in a work detail at the film’s close; this is a vision of hell for his aghast sidekick Capannelle (Carlo Pisacane), and certainly looks very like the prison Peppe was confined to earlier.

So – Big Deal on Madonna Street is a great title. But a problematic one; it has contributed to the film’s ongoing reputation as a genre spoof. Monicelli himself has expounded this view, describing Big Deal as a ‘caricature’ and ‘parody’ of Jules Dassin’s “dramatic” and “scientific” heist film Rififi (Du rififi chez les hommes, 1955).2 The opening credit sequence seems to confirm this – the night-time urban scene scored to urgent jazz rhythms is pure 1950s noir (already moving as a genre to self-referential bombast; think of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil that same year). This mood, however, is immediately undermined by the appearance of two old lags – one whose decrepit but ravenous toothlessness provides running gags throughout the film – and completely destroyed when the simple theft results in a blaring car alarm and the pathetic attempt of the codgers to outrun two policemen on bicycles. The film’s climax is as meticulously staged and almost as long as the legendary half-hour heist sequence in Rififi,3 but replaces the Frenchmen’s laconic professionalism with the Italians’ noisy ineptitude. The use of arch, silent movie-style intertitles to further the narrative adds to the apparent air of mockery.

The spoof as a genre has a parasitic relationship to the form or medium it parodies. It has no prior existence of its own and subsists in negative terms to its host. This is not a just description of the effects achieved by Big Deal, which are better served by the film’s original title I soliti ignoti, the euphemistic ‘persons unknown’. True, this title sets up the film’s final joke, a hilarious, baffled newspaper report of the robbery, where persons unknown broke into an apartment to eat leftover food. But it is the very anonymity, the marginality of Monicelli’s characters that gives the film its emotional charge, and makes them believable and engaging rather than gag-ciphers in the order of Frank Drebin or OSS 117. It is no accident that the thieves are trying to rob a pawn shop, the very emblem of their material deprivation. Gianni Di Venanzo’s photography of this world in loving deep space and with a careful regard for framing and viewpoint goes well beyond the needs of parody to create a sense of fully realised people living in a fully realised world. And it should also be noted that the anti-heroes of the ‘straight’ heist films are often just as desperate and marginal as Monicelli’s characters.

Monicelli served his apprenticeship writing for the likes of de Sica,4 Giuseppe de Santis and Pietro Germi – including several ‘serious’ (i.e. sociologically-minded) crime films, such as Germi’s mafia subject In the Name of the Law (In nome della legge, 1948). The world in Big Deal is an entire subculture based on a black-market economy, and shows a people systematically ignored, first by Fascism and now by the Italian economic miracle. They survive using the meagre resources at their disposal, whether these are material or imaginative. They form and reconstitute affective relationships as circumstances allow.

Not for the last time, Monicelli assembles an astonishing cast of then- and future legends. This is the film’s major structuring joke – even in 1958, Gassman, Renato Salvatori, Marcello Mastroianni and, especially, the bag-faced clown Totò, were hardly ‘persons unknown’. Mastroianni – fresh from Visconti’s very different vision of ‘low life’, the Dostoevsky adaptation White Nights5 – has rarely been funnier, even if his role as a terrible photographer/filmmaker allows Monicelli to seriously explore discrepancies between visual representation, spectatorship and ‘reality’. The two major modes of Mastroianni’s acting persona are to be found here. Most obvious is the dim, comic incompetence that is exaggerated in a film like Divorce Italian Style (Divorzia all’Italia, Germi, 1961). Tiberio – inappropriately named after the legendary Roman general and emperor – is the sort of man who fakes a broken arm to steal a camera needed to plan a heist and then actually breaks his arm on the day of that heist. The sub-plot of an unemployed waster whose wife is imprisoned for cigarette smuggling would be reworked in the first section of de Sica’s hugely-popular, Oscar-winning Yesterday, Today & Tomorrow (Ieri, oggi, domani, 1963), in which Mastroianni starred with Sophia Loren. But the distracted and unexpectedly cold air with which he abandons his comrades at the end of the film – especially after the warm, Ozu-like sequence when the crime fails and Tiberio’s disillusion is diverted by a shared, improvised meal – looks forward to the morally ambivalent characters he would soon play for Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni and Elio Petri. Mastroianni was an actor who could not be contained, even by a great film.

 

Big deal on Madonna Street (1958 Italy 111 min)

Prod: Franco Cristaldi Dir: Mario Monicelli Scr: Age & Scarpelli, Suso Cecchi d’Amico & Mario Monicelli Phot: Gianni Di Venanzo Ed: Adriana Novelli Mus: Piero Umiliani Art Dir: Piero Gherardi

Cast:    Vittorio Gassman, Renato Salvatori, Memmo Carotenuto, Claudia Cardinale, Tiberio Murgia, Marcello Mastroianni, and Totò.

 

Endnotes

  1. The film was first released in the UK as Persons unknown while its first American title was The big deal (1960). See: Henry Goodman, review of I soliti ignoti, Film Quarterly, 12.4 (Summer 1959), p. 49.
  2. Deborah Young, ‘Poverty, misery, war and other comic material: an interview with Mario Monicelli’, Cineaste, vol. 29 no. 4, Fall 2004, p. 36. In his contemporary review Henry Goodman goes further, and calls Big Deal a parody of neo-realism itself. See: Goodman, p. 49.
  3. Young, p. 36.
  4. Such as the major ur-neorealist text, The Children are Watching Us (I bambini ci guardemo, 1944).
  5. White Nights and Big Deal were both produced by Franco Cristaldi; one of Visconti’s unused sets was the starting point for Monicelli’s conception of Big Deal. See: Young, p. 36.