1969: Neil Armstrong walks on the moon, America bombs Vietnam, and dozens of Minis bring Turin to a standstill. Nostalgia Central takes you behind the scenes of The Italian Job – The greatest caper movie of all time.
Troy Kennedy Martin as The Screenwriter
It says a lot for Troy Kennedy Martin that you’d still probably know who he was even if he hadn’t written The Italian Job.
The author of Clint Eastwood caper movie Kelly’s Heroes (1970) and Arnie action-fest Red Heat (1988), Kennedy Martin also penned episodes of Colditz and The Sweeney and dreamed up the only truly indispensable piece of British 80s TV drama, Edge Of Darkness. He also single-handedly created Z Cars.
Despite his fine ear for dialogue and keen understanding of plot mechanics, his masterstroke was his insistence on the use of a certain type of escape car. . .
“I immediately thought that the cars should be Minis. Minis were classless, very fast and sort of cheeky. They represented the new Britain which was kind of laddish, cheerful, self-confident and didn’t take itself too seriously”.
As excellent as his screenplay is, Kennedy Martin cannot take credit for the superb, genuinely cliff-hanging climax. Paramount Pictures came up with the idea with a view to possibly making a sequel.
If Kennedy Martin had had his way, Croker and his chaps would have simply driven off into the sunset.
“I thought it was a superb ending, but if a writer had come up with an idea like that, they’d have laughed at it, torn it up and thrown it in the bin”.
Rémy Julienne as The Stuntman
It is ironic that there should be a Frenchman at the heart of the very English Italian Job. Rallycross champion Rémy Julienne was no ordinary frog though. As Michael Deeley puts it;
“Julienne was simply the best. His stunt team was like no other in the business. They were truly fearless”.
Julienne’s enthusiasm for the film was boundless;
“It was a dream opportunity to be able to express all my fantasies and dreams and ideas”.
As a consequence, for the first time ever on the big screen – and an entire decade before the carmageddon of The Blues Brothers – we witness a car chase that takes place in a shopping arcade, across a weir, over the roof of buildings and through a sewer.
Rémy attributes such inventiveness to the enthusiasm of the studio who encouraged his team to undertake a 60ft jump across the rooftops of Turin. Shot within the Fiat factory for safety purposes, it was, as Julienne recalls, a truly nerve-racking feat;
“It was a Saturday and since they had the day off, 600 Fiat workers came to say goodbye to us. They all touched their Virgin Mary medallions and made the sign of the cross. It was a time of very intense emotion. Peter Collinson tried to calm us down by saying that if we made the jump he’d buy us all bottles of Scotch. I said that I’d prefer champagne. We eventually took the jump at 100kph.”
“One car broke its suspension another broke its engine. Nobody died. And no sooner were we done than I saw Peter Collinson running over to me in a coat that was bulging full of bottles of champagne!”.
Ken Norris as The Special Effects Man
The man who was “only supposed to blow the bloody doors off”, special effects man Ken Norris, was The Italian Job‘s problem solver. Destroying said van was, as it turned out, one of his simpler tasks . . .
“A lot of things in the script sounded pretty easy to complete but when it came to, say, getting the Minis onto the back of the coach we discovered that we had an entire army of difficulties to overcome”.
The coach stunt was particularly tricky since, in order to get the Minis on board, both they and the bus had to be travelling at high speed. As Norris remembers:
“It was terrifying to be in that coach as the Minis came on board. Rémy and his boys had amazing control over the cars but it was still pretty hair-raising.”
“I was so concerned that to give the coach driver some protection I installed some joists between him and the vehicles. It was just as well that I did because when the third Mini pulled in, the cars shot forward through the joists leaving the driver with his belly sitting on the steering wheel. I dread to think what might have happened if we hadn’t taken those precautions”.
Norris also oversaw the disposal of the vehicles. “In the film it looks as if the criminals simply push the cars out of the coach, but at the speeds they were travelling that simply couldn’t be done so I had to use a special device to literally blow the Minis out of the vehicle”.
And as for how the cars looked when they had made it down the mountain side?
“By the time they came to rest they were nothing but a solid cube of metal”.
Turin as The Host City
With a script that called for elaborate chase sequences, traffic jams and general chaos, producer Michael Deeley originally assumed that he would have to shoot the majority of the Turin-based Italian Job using back projection and sound stages . . .
“But then a very dear friend of mine put a call through to Gianni Agnelli who was the head of Fiat at the time. And since the business of Fiat is the business of Turin, and since the police respected Mr Agnelli, we were allowed to do whatever we wanted!”.
The assistance of the police force was particularly important when it came to bringing the city to a standstill. As Second Unit Director Philip Wrestler recalls;
“We were allowed to park cars at crossing points and they were sufficient to stop the traffic and bring the Italians to boiling point. You could hear the horns honking miles away. It was a good thing that we had the police on our side and that they didn’t see the camera or I think they might have lynched us”.
Agnelli’s generosity was warmly appreciated by Michael Caine too; “Despite the fact that our Minis were in direct competition with his Fiats, he let us film a chase on the test track on top of his Fiat factory in Turin”.
Happy to let the production race their cars through piazzas and plazas, the only thing Agnelli couldn’t provide was a sewer.
And so for just one sequence the entire production had to relocate . . . to sunny Coventry.
Stuntman Rémy Julienne attempted three times to do a full 360° of the sewer tunnel – The first time the car fell off (although it didn’t kill the driver as is often reported), the second time it skidded on algae, and the third time the car hit a lip at the top of the tunnel which wrecked the suspension.
Michael Deeley as The Producer
Deeley recalls; “The film came about because Paramount hit upon the idea that if you made a lot of films in Britain, you only needed a few of them to be successful to make a lot of money. So I was given $3 million and told to go and shoot my movie. I think we went about $200,000 over budget but that didn’t really matter because the film was a hit”.
Indeed, the only regrets Deeley has are with regard to his dealings with Mini manufacturers BMC. . .
“We presumed they’d be delighted that there was going to be this film that would make heroes of their Minis. You couldn’t buy advertising like that. So I said; ‘Here’s your chance. We need some help from you’ “.
Instead of a limitless supply of cars, Deeley got the cold shoulder.
“They were completely disinterested. I think they finally sold us six Minis at trade price and the other 30 we had to purchase retail. I think the continued existence of Fiat and the demise of BMC tells its own story about their behaviour”.