I Soliti Ignoti (1958)

When I think of I Soliti Ignoti (literally, The Usual Unknown Thieves, though the English title of the film is Big Deal on Madonna Street), this is one of the scenes that comes to mind: one evening, a pawnshop is about to close for the day. A thief’s decided to hold up the pawnshop and steal all the jewellery in the safe. He arrives at the shop with a pistol in his hand, a newspaper draped over it.

When the last customer at the counter has gone, the thief steps up to the counter, points the gun at the man behind the counter and says, “Do you know it?”—indicating the gun.
The man behind the counter reaches over, grabs the gun, and has a quick look at it before saying, “Sure I know it. It’s a small calibre Beretta, in very poor condition. One thousand lira.”
When the thief stands there, gaping, the man adds, impatiently: “Well?!”
The thief snatches his gun back and leaves the pawnshop, too disgruntled to bother holding it up.

That one scene is very typical of all of I Soliti Ignoti. Amidst the plethora of clever onscreen heists—Ocean’s Eleven, The Thomas Crown Affair, How to Steal a Million, and whatnot—this is one film that stands endearingly and superbly apart.
It begins one night, in a deserted street where Cosimo (Memmo Carotenuto) attempts to steal a car by breaking its window with a brick, then opening the door and trying to get the car started by shorting its wires. Unfortunately, he shorts the horn, which gets stuck and begins a ceaseless beeping.

—with the result that the police come thundering up and arrest Cosimo. His accomplice, the gnarled old Capannelle (Carlo Pisacane) manages to escape without being spotted by the cops, but Cosimo ends up in jail for a good few months.
Cosimo’s girlfriend Norma (Rossana Rory) comes visiting along with his lawyer, but it’s no use: Cosimo’s record is terrible and there’s no way he’ll be able to wriggle free of this one…

…unless someone else is found to take the blame for it.
So Capannelle is deputed to find someone (whom Cosimo will pay 100,000 lira) to confess to the crime. Capannelle himself can’t take the blame, because his record is a mile long and he’ll get life if he shows his face to the police now.
The first candidate Capannelle goes after is Mario (Renato Salvatori—he looks uncannily like Brad Pitt!) Mario is a petty thief who steals things like umbrellas and prams, and tells Capannelle straight off that he’s not going to stand in for Cosimo: his (Mario’s) mother wouldn’t like it.

But Mario has an alternative to offer: the oily little Sicilian, Michele Feribotte (Tiberio Murgia). Feribotte lives in a tiny apartment with his beautiful sister Carmela (Claudia Cardinale), about whom Feribotte is so jealously protective that he doesn’t let her step out of the house—and locks her in whenever he has to go anywhere. When Mario and Capannelle arrive asking for help, Feribotte first makes sure Carmela can’t be seen by these two outsiders, then expresses his regrets: who will look after Carmela if he is in jail?

Fortunately, Feribotte has a solution: the photographer Tiberio (Marcello Mastroianni, in one of his early roles). The trio troop off to meet Tiberio, and it transpires that Tiberio won’t be able to take the rap, either. His wife’s been arrested for smuggling cigarettes and is in jail for a long time. And Tiberio has a baby son who just won’t stop howling—Tiberio spends hours just trying to get the baby to sleep; things are so bad that he’s been reduced to making baby food for the baby and then sharing it with the baby.

So. Now who’s going to stand in for Cosimo? Another idea emerges: what they need is someone who’s unknown to the police. And the man they pick out is the debonair and self-assured (self-deluded, too!) Peppe il Pantera, Peppe ‘the panther’ (Vittorio Gassman), a boxer who’s on the verge of making it big—if only he wouldn’t get knocked out so frequently.
Peppe agrees, for 150,000 lira (the others pool in with the extra 50,000 he’s asking for, over Cosimo’s offer). The next day, Peppe goes off to confess to the police. There’s a heartrendingly (well, hilariously, actually) melodramatic scene when Cosimo pretends to forgive Peppe for getting Cosimo into trouble, etc…

And the next we know, a sentence of 3 years has been slammed onto Peppe too. Cosimo decides that since Peppe is in for a long time, he might as well reveal why he, Cosimo, needs to get out fast.
The point is, Cosimo had made friends with a bricklayer who was in prison, and that bricklayer had told Cosimo about a very thin wall he had been commissioned to make, separating the safe room of a pawnshop from a vacant apartment. Cosimo’s plan is to get into the vacant apartment and drill in to the pawnshop from there. If only Cosimo wasn’t in jail.

The next minute, Cosimo’s ready to kill himself—or Peppe, for that matter—because Peppe springs a surprise: he’s got 3 years all right, but he’s out now on a year’s probation. Before Cosimo can begin to rave and rant, Peppe’s out of jail and ganging up with Capannelle, Mario, Feribotte, and Tiberio to get into that vacant flat on Via della Madonna, drill through into the pawnshop next door—and make millions.

That is what Big Deal on Madonna Street is all about: how five crooks, none of them big time, decide to pull off the robbery of the millennium and end up finding it isn’t easy as pie. Peppe goes on insisting that all it needs is for them to be scientific, methodical, organised—but when they try to get organised, even fate seems to play against them.
A stolen camera rigged up on a rooftop by Tiberio and used to record the operation of the pawnshop safe, through the window, begins to act up and jump just as things get interesting… or somebody decides to hang out their washing across the window at the critical moment.

And the safe-cracking expert, Dante Cruciani (Totò) whom they hire to teach them how to go about the job, finds his training sessions being interrupted by neighbourhood urchins and police officers who want to check that he’s keeping on the straight and narrow:

Worse, just as they’ve started to get a hang of the pawnshop’s hours of work and how it functions, two crotchety old ladies rent that vacant apartment—and Peppe ends up trying to work his charm on the pretty maid Nicoletta (Carla Gravina) who works for the two old women. Maybe he can charm her enough to help him get into the pawnshop through the apartment, anyway…

That, incidentally, is less than half of the film. There’s plenty more to come as this mad quintet try to pull off a job for which none of them is really equipped. They bumble and they bluster, they try to juggle the job with their personal lives—Tiberio and the baby; Mario and his ‘mother’, plus his growing romance with Feribotte’s sister Carmela; Feribotte’s attempts to keep a hold on an increasingly devious Carmela; and—of course—our hero Peppe’s crusade to woo Nicoletta in the hope that she will invite him to the apartment.

This is a delightful, fast-paced and very funny film, with great plot twists and fantastic surprises sprinkled all through the story that keep it racing along. The scripting is excellent and the acting topnotch. Do not miss if you like humour!

What I liked about this film:

Plenty, but the best part of it is the script. The story is very funny, because it’s not as if these crooks are especially inept—it’s just that their luck is so bad. As I mentioned, lots of surprises all through the story (as our ‘heroes’ adapt themselves to situations that they’d never imagined would develop), and lots of humour, not just from the main plot but also from the little personal interactions of all the main characters.

Another important element are the immensely likeable characters of Peppe, Tiberio, Mario, Feribotte and Capannelle. True, they are crooks, and true, they are out to commit a crime; but you can’t help but like men who:
(a) would rather spend time filming a cute baby than a safe in a boring pawnshop
(b) fall in love with women they’re supposed to be fooling
(c) decide they can’t get into a life of crime because Mama won’t like it
(d) spend all their spare time looking for free food—even if it’s from a pan of baby food
I like to think I’m a law-abiding citizen, but these guys are just so endearing, I was rooting for them all the way.

If you pay close attention, you’ll see also hidden in the madcap shenanigans of the five men some of the more typical ‘standard elements’ of film noir. Some of it obviously pokes fun at what’s de rigueur in mystery movies: for instance, there’s a scene where someone’s chasing Peppe to hit him, and Peppe has taken Nicoletta out on a date, driving a kiddie car in an amusement park. The man who’s chasing Peppe can’t find an empty kiddie car, so he jumps into one that’s being ‘driven’ by a small kid, and tells the child (gesturing towards Peppe’s ‘car’): “Chase that car!”

Hehehe. I love films like this. *very big grin*

What I didn’t like:

It drags a bit in places. For instance, there’s a scene where Peppe takes Nicoletta dancing, and has a fight with two other men she dances with. Not a bad scene, even somewhat funny in parts, but it tends to take away from the pace of the film and doesn’t contribute very much to the main plot.

But. I will forgive that. I will forgive the other couple of scenes that slow the film down, and I will forgive the fact that the very handsome Vittorio Gassman acted here with a false nose and layers of makeup (he did; he was considered too elegant to effectively portray Peppe). I Soliti Ignoti is too funny and too enjoyable a film to hold such minor grievances against.

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19 thoughts on “I Soliti Ignoti (1958)

  1. Oh God. I’m in splits already. Can imagine what will happen once I see it :D It is so funnily written. Have to see this. Gosh so many films to watch and so small a life!! :)

  2. You have to, have to see this one. It’s just too funny! It got nominated in 1959 for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, though Mon Oncle won, eventually.

  3. I can understand. The first para shows what a laugh riot it must be. Superb situational comedy with blundering goof-ups sure guarantee uproarious gags! Thanks for telling us about this film :)

  4. This sounds wonderful! Is it just me, or do vintage Italian films sound a lot more interesting than our normal Hollywood and Bollywood ones? I NEED to see this film – preferably without dishing out the $27+shipping that Amazon wants me to pay for it!

  5. Sharmi: You’re welcome! I actually just happened to stumble upon this film, because I’d been watching the Audrey Hepburn-Mel Ferrer War and Peace and spotted Vittorio Gassman in that. He was very magnetic, so I wanted to know more about this actor, perhaps see some more films… and I Soliti Ignoti was what I found!

    bollyviewer: I can’t say I’ve seen enough Italian cinema to have an opinion, but the two films I’ve reviewed on this blog so far have definitely impressed me a lot! By the way, I found this interesting page that I’m going to be referring to frequently in the future, every time I have enough gift certificates to spend on Amazon and no particular purchase in mind!

    sunheriyaadein: Thank you!

  6. bollyviewer: vinate Italian produced some really great films, both comic and serious. This one is a real laugh, and these laughs are not gratutious or due to gross exageration, but through tweaking human follies and manias here and there.

    Highly recommended ones include El Ladrón de Bicicletas (TheBicycle Thieves), Rocco y sus hermanos (Rocco and his brothers)- with a very young and fabolous Alain Delon, Il Oro de Napoli (Naples Gold), Ocho y Mezzo (Eight and a half), Matromonio/Divorzio alla Italian (Marraige/Divorce Italian style),, Lilagro en Milan (Miracle in Milan), La Grande Guerra:and many others.

    A recent, very low-key one, that I really enjoyed was Pranzo di Ferrogosto, Mid-August Lunch.

  7. The only Italian films I’ve watched are of a gory nature, don’t know if you like horror, but Demoni (demons) come to mind

    and Suspiria is yet another well loved Italian film with a great cult following, however i just found it Ok, couldn’t see what the fuss was all about

  8. bawa: Thank you for all those suggestions! 8 1/2 and La Grande Guerra were already on my list of have-to-watch films, and the rest of your suggestions go into that as well! Will look out for them.

    bollywoodeewana: Oooo! (or Yikes!) No, I’m not much of a horror fan – especially not of the very explicit kind, where you have streams of blood running all over the place. So no Ramsay Brothers or Demoni or Suspiria for me! But a very good friend of mine is mad about horror films, so will pass on these suggestions to her. :-)

  9. This is a film to fall in love with!
    many people have recommended this to me.
    And congratulations, you have described it in your inimitable style so beautifully! It is a pleasure reading it.
    I’m surely going to watch this as soon as I return from Öblarn!

  10. I have seen this movie countless times, and I always laugh as if I were watching it for the first time. While Marcello Mastorianni, Vittorio Gassman and Claudia Cardinale are definately pleasure to the eyes, and charming amoungst the rest of the cast, Capannelle and Dante Cruciani are hilarious and embody the true spirit of Italian comedians in old films that make you burst out with laughter. Delivered with natural grace and elegance. Another movie recommendation of the same era and genre would be the magnificent Alberto Sordi in ‘Mafioso’.

  11. I’m so glad to find others who’ve seen I Soliti Ignoti and have enjoyed it as much as I did! Wonderful film, and so, so much fun. Thank you for the Mafioso recommendation – I hadn’t heard of that, but will certainly look out for it!

    • It’s a delightful film, Anu – do look for it, I’m sure you’ll enjoy it. Search for Big Deal on Madonna Street, since that is likely to yield more subtitled versions. There’s a Criterion Collection version (oddly enough listed as ‘Hot Adult Movie!) up on Youtube, but it isn’t subtitled. :-( Netflix may have it.

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