Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Big Deal on Madonna Street

(I Soliti ignoti, Italy, 1958)

Online translation renders the Italian title as The Unknown Habits. (Habitual criminals? All these people are.) Alternate titles are Big Deal (USA), Persons Unknown (UK), and The Usual Unidentified Thieves. I might suggest The Usual Suspects … though it’s completely unlike that wonderful puzzler. This is an early example of the caper movies I love so much, and is said to be a satire on the granddaddy of them all, Jules Dassin’s Rififi. These movies fall into two broad categories, and we could call them the pros and the cons … in the sense that the pros have a great plan, well thought out (of course it almost always comes apart in an unexpected way), and the cons … well, they have a stupid plan, or a simple plan, or they’re buffoons, and they end up in prison, where they’ve been before. This one is deeply comic.
By the way, both aspects of this genre reach their highest fruition in the person of one man, Donald E Westlake, who under his own name writes of the John Dortmunder gang, who are by no means stupid, and by no means bad planners, but whose plans go awry in amazing and hilarious ways. And under the pen name Richard Stark he writes of one Parker (no first name), who makes things work by sheer brute force and total ruthlessness.
That these people couldn’t caper themselves into or out of a paper bag is abundantly clear in the first five minutes, though they are continually scheming. I’m not giving anything away when I say that the burglary they plan goes comically awry. But this is the first caper movie I recall where they don’t even get within sight of their goal. It’s as if Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible gets past the first impossible barrier, thinks it over, sighs, says “Fuck this,” and turns back. But it is loads of fun watching them.