I soliti ignoti (1958)



(director/writer: Mario Monicelli; screenwriters: from a story by Agenore Incrocci & Furio Scarpelli/Suso Cecchi d’Amico/Agenore Incrocci/Furio Scarpelli; cinematographer: Gianni Di Venanzo; editor: Adriana Novelli; music: Piero Umiliani; cast: Vittorio Gassman (Peppe), Marcello Mastroianni (Tiberio), Renato Salvatori (Mario Angeletti), Memmo Carotenuto (Cosimo), Rossana Rory (Norma), Carla Gravina (Nicoletta), Claudia Cardinale (Carmelina), Carlo Pisacane (Capannelle), Toto (Dante Cruciani), Tiberio Murgia (Michele Ferribotte), Gina Rovere (Teresa, Tiberio’s wife), Gina Amendola (Nerina, Mario’s mother); Runtime: 106; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Franco Cristaldi; Criterion Collection, The; 1958-Italy-in Italian with English subtitles)

“A devilish black comedy about an inept gang of thieves in Rome that turned out to be a big influence in spoof heist films.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The master of Italian comedy, Mario Monicelli (“Dark Illness”/”The Roses of the Desert”/”Lady Liberty”), directs and cowrites a devilish black comedy about an inept gang of thieves in Rome that turned out to be a big influence in spoof heist films. It’s a heist film that tries to cash in on the success that Huston’s Asphalt Jungle (1950) gave to that mostly ignored genre till then and offers a satire on the perfect heist in Dassin’s Rififi (1955). The film is based on the story by Agenore Incrocci & Furio Scarpelli. The black-and-white comedy of errors scored big in Italy (won two Italian Nastri d’Argento awards – for Best Leading Actor (Gassman) and Best Screenplay) and America (was nominated for Best Foreign Film), but was mostly a yawn to the rest of the world. With this all-star Italian ensemble cast, it should have been funnier—it perhaps lost some of its charm by being imported across the Atlantic. The inspired Monicelli combines neo-realism (great location shots of a dank Rome) and Italian farce, as the director does his famed commedia all’italiana style (from the characters created by sixteenth century Italian writer and actor Ruzante and Machiavelli, where comedy and tragedy crossover).

A motley crew of incompetent petty and amateur criminals who can barely survive hustling small-time on the streets, get wind of a safe filled with riches in a state-run pawn shop, on Madonna Street, that is adjacent to an empty apartment (who later learn it’s the apartment of two elderly spinsters who only leave the apartment on Thursdays and they are cared for by a pretty maid named Nicoletta-Carla Gravina), and join forces to pull the biggest heist in their life. The film spends most of its energy showing how these cartoonish characters learn of the safe, get together, plan the heist, meet with many unfortunate incidents, two of them fall madly love to a point they all but forget about the burglary, have several fallouts over personal conflicts, and eventually the ones left pull this supposed ‘walk in the park’ perfect robbery like in Rififi but only end up stealing a meal of pasta and beans after elaborately drilling through a wall only to discover it’s the wrong wall.

Cosimo (Memmo Carotenuto) is the inept car thief who gets pinched in the act and is sentenced to a few months in jail. He learned from a fellow jailbird of the safe kept by the pawn shop and wishes to get someone to take his short sentence for a 100,000 lira by confessing to the crime. But when Cosimo’s unfaithful girlfriend Nora (Rossana Rory) and his lowlife ex-con street hustler friends on the outside— Mario (Renato Salvatori), a momma’s boy and petty thief; Tiberio (Marcello Mastroianni), a nice guy thief who takes care of his always bawling toddler because his wife Teresa’s doing a prison stretch for selling black market goods; the proud hot-tempered Sicilian Michele Ferribotte (Tiberio Murgia), who watches over his pretty sister Carmelina (Claudia Cardinale, first major role) like a hawk and keeps her locked inside her apartment so she’ll be a virgin for her prospective husband; and the washed-up ex-con, the elderly always eating one-toothed Capannelle (Carlo Pisacane), all come up with excuses for not taking up the offer and they are forced to recruit failed boxer Peppe (Vittorio Gassman) because he needs the money and has no criminal record. But the authorities don’t believe him and release him after a short stay in prison. But the foolish Cosimo gave him all the details needed for the robbery scheme while in jail together, and Peppe and the inept gang, without Cosimo, go ahead with the heist. Because of the gang’s inexperience, they hire for 50,00 lira the safe-cracker expert Dante Cruciani (Toto) to advise them. He can’t participate because he is under close scrutiny by the police, but manages for extra-money to rent them the necessary tools of the trade for the job.

The film was remade by Malle as Crackers in 1984 and had a San Francisco setting.