Big Deal on Madonna Street
Big Deal on Madonna Street (Italian: I soliti ignoti, also released as Persons Unknown in the UK) is a 1958 Italian comedy caper film directed by Mario Monicelli, and considered to be among the masterpieces of Italian cinema. Its original title translates as "the usual unknown persons", a journalistic and bureaucratic euphemism for "unidentified criminals". The film is a comedy about a group of small-time thieves and ne'er-do-wells who bungle an attempt to burgle a pawn shop in Rome.
|Big Deal on Madonna Street|
(I soliti ignoti)
Italian film poster
|Directed by||Mario Monicelli|
|Produced by||Franco Cristaldi|
|Written by||Age ~ Scarpelli|
Suso Cecchi d'Amico
|Music by||Piero Umiliani|
|Cinematography||Gianni di Venanzo a.i.c.|
|Edited by||Adriana Novelli|
|Distributed by||Lux Film|
The five hapless would-be burglars are played by Vittorio Gassman, Renato Salvatori, Carlo Pisacane, Tiberio Murgia and Marcello Mastroianni. The careers of both Gassman and Mastroianni were considerably helped by the success of the film, Gassman in particular, since before then he was not deemed suitable for comedic roles. Claudia Cardinale featured in a minor role (a chaste, black-clad Sicilian girl, almost held prisoner at home by her overbearing brother, played by Murgia); she would later rise to fame for other work. The film is also notable for its breezy jazz score by composer Piero Umiliani, who helped develop the style of the jazz soundtracks now considered characteristic of European films in the 1960s and 1970s.
The producers were initially skeptical about the film's success, and to boost audience interest highlighted the appearance of the famous comedian Totò in the original poster even though his character chooses to remain a consultant to the heist gang rather than joining it outright.
A hapless small-time Roman crook, Cosimo (Memmo Carotenuto), is arrested for a bungled car theft and sentenced to a few months in prison. He is desperate to be released so his gang may carry out a heist idea stolen from another inmate, a dishonest bricklayer who purposely constructed a flimsy wall between the dining room of a vacant apartment and a pawn shop safe. Ultimately, Cosimo's gang bribes a boxer named Peppe (Vittorio Gassman) with a clean criminal record to confess to his crime. The warden does not believe Peppe, however, and he ends up in jail alongside Cosimo. Peppe tells Cosimo that he has been sentenced to three long years for this minor offense and Cosimo, to justify his actions, explains the details of the pawn shop heist. Peppe then gleefully reveals that he has been given a year's probation and walks out the prison gate, infuriating Cosimo.
Peppe takes up the plan with Cosimo's gang: Mario (Renato Salvatori), a petty thief and the youngest member of the group; Michele (Tiberio Murgia), a posturing Sicilian crook who needs money for his sheltered sister's dowry; Tiberio (Marcello Mastroianni), a down and out photographer caring for his baby while his wife is in jail on a minor offense; and Capannelle (Carlo Pisacane), an elderly pickpocket. The group case the pawn shop: to get into the apartment they must cut a lock on a coal chute, slide into the basement, sneak into a small courtyard, climb onto the roof of a first floor apartment, break into the vacant apartment through a window, then punch through the wall between it and the pawn shop. Tiberio steals a movie camera with a telephoto lens from a flea market to film the safe's combination, but without success. Since none involved have the skill to crack the safe, they enlist the help of genteel local safecracker Dante (Totò), who is cautious not to violate his parole but supplies tools and gives them a brief primer.
The gang discover the vacant apartment is now occupied by two spinsters and their young, attractive maid Nicoletta (Carla Gravina). Ladies' man Peppe learns from Nicoletta that the two women leave the apartment once a week, from Thursday evening till Friday morning. Peppe earns the offer of a tryst with the maid the next time the ladies leave. The rest of the group pressures him to accept so they can stage the burglary, but she unexpectedly quits her job in a huff and does not know if the spinsters will make their next scheduled departure.
Meanwhile, Cosimo is released from prison. He had insisted on a substantial portion of the loot as the plan's mastermind but was rebuffed. Now, he vows vengeance on the group. He enters the pawn shop with a gun, which the blasé pawnbroker assumes he wants to hock. Deflated, Cosimo leaves, but during a botched purse snatching he is killed by a streetcar. Mario has fallen for Michele's sister, Carmelina (Claudia Cardinale), and quits the caper, vowing to pursue a straight life and court Carmelina. Tiberio leaves his baby with his wife in prison to participate in the robbery, but the flea market proprietor breaks his arm for stealing the camera.
The group learns that the elderly occupants will make their weekly trip after all. Re-energized, the gang break into the apartment and set about breaking through the dining room wall. After a couple of miscues, they succeed, but the opening leads to the apartment's own kitchen; the elderly women had rearranged the furniture.
Realizing they now have too little time to try again before the pawn shop opens for business, they resignedly raid the refrigerator. Their repast ends abruptly when ever-starved Capannelle blows up the stove while lighting one of its burners. Thwarted, they all straggle homeward, members peeling off one by one until only Peppe and Capanelle are left. Peppe then surprises Capanelle by deciding to find legitimate work. The film ends with a newspaper article recounting a robbery by unknown persons who apparently broke into an apartment to steal pasta with chickpeas.
This section contains too many or overly lengthy quotations for an encyclopedic entry. (January 2019)
According to director Mario Monicelli, while the film was intended as a parody of neorealism, "by then neorealism was already a thing of the past, something that was surpassed. It was more a parody that was aligned with a certain realism around us, with the poverty, and with people who had to do the best they could with whatever means possible to survive, with petty crimes. ...They are people without education or strong family support who are only attempting to survive. All my films have this type of theme or idea."
Asked if it was also a parody of Jules Dassin's film Rififi, Monicelli said, "Yes because we saw this as a film shot in a very harsh, realist style. Very scientific, as the Peppe character continually says. So we wanted to do the same thing, but the characters didn't have the means. The way they worked was quite the contrary actually."
Monicelli and cinematographer Gianni Di Venanzo agreed on a photographic tone that was not comedic or brightly lit. "On the contrary," Monicelli said, "harsh and dramatic, because the film has a dramatic side in that it is about poor people. We also have the death of Cosimo, and his funeral. So it's a comedy but with death. Which was something new at the time. It was rare to find death and failure in a comedy. I had difficulty making the film because the producers didn’t want me to make it this way. With Vittorio Gassman who wasn’t a comedian, with the film ending in failure, and with the death of a central character. All this made it difficult. But Di Venanzo understood the tone. To make people laugh with a story that was dramatic rather than comic. But seen with a comic eye."
The film was shot in ten weeks on locations throughout Rome. "Even most of the interiors were on location," Monicelli said. "The only interior that was shot in a studio was the wall that gets broken into at the end because I couldn’t break a wall in an actual apartment! But all the other interiors were shot on location. Which of course was a particular trait of Italian cinema, to shoot on location. Especially in those days, although that tendency remains even in contemporary Italian cinema...There were not that many cars and little traffic. Italy was a poor country. People walked or took what little public transport there was, especially in the city peripherals. In the city centers of course it was a little busier, but still not heavy in traffic. Italy was a country not far removed from the war, with much visible destruction. That was the reality."
According to Monicelli, the film adhered to the script, without improvisations. "I don’t do improvising," he said. "I don't know how. I like to know everything in advance and spend a long time in preparation."
Dialogue, as was customary in Italian cinema, was all post-dubbed. Monicelli explained, "First of all because in Italy we often shoot with actors who are not professional. For example the guy who plays the Sicilian, the jealous brother Ferribotte, was not an actor. He was a dishwasher in a restaurant I would frequent. The guy who plays Capannelle, the sporty guy, wasn’t an actor either. I think he was a bricklayer. Of course [Claudia] Cardinale wasn’t an actress then either. But this way of shooting films was quite common in Italy, to use actors taken from the street. So because they didn’t know how to recite their lines they had to be dubbed. On the other hand, you know that in Italy we speak many different dialects. So, for example, the actor who plays the Sicilian was not Sicilian. He was neither an actor, or a Sicilian! So I had to have a Sicilian dub his voice. Another one of the actors who was supposed to be Bolognesian (from Bologna) was from Naples, so I had to dub his voice. Cardinale spoke French so I had to dub her voice into Sicilian."
The film was a hit in Italy when it was released and won two Italian Nastro d'Argento awards: Best Leading Actor (Gassman) and Best Screenplay. It also garnered the prestigious Silver Shell for Best Director at the San Sebastián Film Festival in Spain. The film won Best Comedy at the 12th annual Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland. The film was also Italy's Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film at the 31st Academy Awards. It lost to Jacques Tati's Mon Oncle.
According to the New York Times, for its American release the film was “dubbed into English over a six-month period with considerable money and effort expended in matching voices and intonations to achieve artistic and mechanical perfection.” At the time there was a general debate over dubbing versus subtitling foreign films, and the American distributor, Richard Davis, screened the first reel of both versions for critics and writers and asked for their preference. They chose subtitles. (However, the dubbed version did make it to American TV in the early 1960s.)
Several critics decried the subtitles. New York Times critic Bosley Crowther called it "an essentially funny picture, artfully and joyously played. It’s just too bad those incongruous, flat subtitles have to get in the way.”  Chicago Tribune critic James Rich liked the film but felt “the humor tarnished only when the parade of subtitles makes viewing a sort of exercise in speed reading.”  Philip K. Scheuer, in the Los Angeles Times, called it “cleverly directed and acted...but there is one disadvantage for the linguistically limited: they have to wait to read the joke at the bottom of the screen, and by the time they can appreciate its purport the actors have already gone on to the next one.”
Other critics simply praised the film. The critic for the New York Herald-Tribune called it “one of the most irresistible Italian comedies in years. No one with a sense of humor and an appreciation of humanity should miss it.”  The Washington Post thought, “Most unusual, however, and ever so clever, are the ways the script progresses to its climactic goof-up.” The Baltimore Sun wrote, “Director Mario Monicelli has endowed the film with such flashes of brilliance, and the cast...has enacted it with such tasteful understatement, that ‘The Big Deal on Madonna Street’ must be listed as one of the funniest comedies of the last ten years.”
Crowther, in a follow-up essay, wrote, “Although the routines have whiskers, so old and used in vaudeville are they, the picture has an ageless zest for laughter.”
A sequel directed by Nanni Loy titled Audace colpo dei soliti ignoti (released in English as Hold-up à la Milanaise) followed in 1960, reuniting the entire cast aside from Totò and Mastroianni. A further sequel was directed by Amanzio Todini titled I Soliti ignoti vent'anni dopo (1987). It was released on DVD in the United States as Big Deal on Madonna Street - 20 Years Later by Koch Lorber.
Two remakes of the film were shot in the United States: the 1984 film Crackers by Louis Malle (set in San Francisco) and the 2002 film Welcome to Collinwood by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo (set in Cleveland).
Bob Fosse created a Broadway musical titled Big Deal based on the film. Set in 1930s Chicago with an African-American cast and using popular songs of the era, the show opened at the Broadway Theatre on April 10, 1986 and closed on June 8, 1986 after 69 performances. It received five Tony Award nominations, with Fosse winning for Choreography.
- "NY Times: Big Deal on Madonna Street". NY Times.com. Retrieved 2009-03-21.
- Crowther, Bosley. "The Screen: Italian Parody of 'Rififi':'Big Deal on Madonna Street' in Premiere Toto Among Bungling Burglars at the Paris" (The New York Times, November 23, 1960)
- "Big Deal on Madonna Street". The Criterion Collection.
- Totaro, Donato (September 1999). "Interview with Mario Monicelli". Offscreen. 3 (5). ISSN 1712-9559. Retrieved 1 January 2019.
- "#ViadelleTreCannelle Instagram posts (photos and videos) - instazu.com". www.instazu.com.
- "The 31st Academy Awards (1959) Nominees and Winners". oscars.org. Retrieved 2011-10-27.
- "Big Deal On Madonna Street (1958) - Articles - TCM.com". Turner Classic Movies.
- New York Times. 13 Nov 1960: X9.
- New York Times. 23 Nov 1960: 20.
- Chicago Daily Tribune; Sep 8, 1961; pg. B15
- Los Angeles Times. 22 Sep 1961: A11.
- Beckley, Paul V. New York Herald Tribune. 23 Nov 1960: 13.
- The Washington Post. 08 June 1961: D8.
- The Sun. 29 July 1961
- Italian Comeback: Two Dandy Films Give Promise of Renascence.New York Times. 04 Dec 1960: X1.
- "Big Deal on Madonna Street (I Soliti Ignoti) (1960)". Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango. Retrieved 2019-05-02.