Crossing the line movie car chases: The Italian Job

A classic film, a classic car chase. Join us as we salute The Italian Job, as we continue to look to the release of Need For Speed Rivals...

On November 21st, we’re screening – in conjunection with EA and Need For Speed Rivals – your pick from ten movies that epitomise crossing the line to get one up in a car chase. How, then, could we not put The Italian Job on the shortlist? Not the remake: the pure, golden original. Here’s the case for its inclusion…

The film

With its quintessentially British cast, rousing theme by Quincy Jones, and its trio of plucky red, white and blue Mini Cooper Ss, The Italian Job is like a time capsule from a decade of 60s Cool Britannia. A breezy crime caper comedy with Michael Caine at the helm, it’s been hailed as a classic since its release in 1969.

Yet at the time, The Italian Job was a relatively low-budget production (made for a lean $3m), and British critics failed to warm to it. The movie didn’t make a huge impact on the US box office, either, perhaps because the strange marketing positioned The Italian Job as a tough gangster movie – several posters show Michael Caine wearing shades and holding a Tommy gun, while an anonymous, scantily-clad woman sits with her back to the viewer.

But like those tenacious Mini Coopers, the film refused to give up, and while we never got the planned Brazilian Job sequel, the movie still stands as an automotive action gem.

Our favourite fact about The Italian Job? Surely that, even though it’s commonly regarded as one of the best car-related films ever made, its star Michael Caine couldn’t even drive at the time of shooting – which is why, for so much of the story, he’s essentially a very charismatic and very bossy passenger-seat driver.

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“Look for the bloody exit,” indeed.

The rivalry

Michael Caine plays smooth criminal Charlie Croker, who assembles a team of expert thieves to steal $4m of gold from a vault in Turin, Italy. Croker’s ingenious scheme is to disrupt the city’s traffic system, then make off with the gold in the back of three Mini Coopers. For much of the film, then, Croker and his gang’s rivals are the city’s police – though the Italian Mafia are also waiting in the wings, too.

The particular scene we’ve picked from the movie’s legion classic car moments takes place on the roof of Fiat’s main factory, which also happens to function as a racing track. While the streets below the building are utterly gridlocked, Croker and his band of thieves are making a clean getaway on the roof above, with an police squad car and motorcycle in hot pursuit.

The driving

“These three chinless wonders will get you out of Turin faster than anyone on four wheels,” Croker says of his Mini Cooper drivers, Chris (Barry Cox), Tony (Richard Essame) and Dominic (David Salamone). In reality, we have the legendary stunt driver and coordinator Remy Julienne and his team to thank for The Italian Job‘s imaginative chase sequences, which were still relatively new back in the late 1960s.

In fact, The Italian Job was the first feature film Julienne and his company Remy Julienne L’Equipe worked on, and his expert planning and driving here kicked off a long and remarkable stunt career in film and television.

Back in the realm of The Italian Job’s story, the trio of Minis and their nimble handling is just about keeping the police off their tail. But as Croker – who’s the passenger in the red Mini – points out, “we can’t drive round here all night”, so the drivers decide to make a rather risky manoeuver to get away from the cops…

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Crossing the line

Despite the burden of the gold bars clattering around in the back of the Minis, Croker’s team of dare devil drivers heads for a gap between two buildings at top speed. And with a conveniently-placed ramp giving the cars just the right lift, the Minis clear the chasm, leaving the less brave police screeching to a halt in their wake.

In the film, the jump’s executed with such coolness that it’s not obvious how dangerous the stunt was to perform. It’s a pity, in fact, that director Peter Collinson didn’t manage to get more coverage of Remy Julienne’s stunt, because the 60ft gap between the buildings is barely apparent in the shots where the Minis perform the jump.

Behind the scenes, there was a considerable amount of anxiety among the crew, who were fearful that the stunt could end in disaster – legend has it that producer Michael Deeley was quite prepared to leave the set in an awaiting car should the stunt go wrong.

Look closely as the police car comes to a halt at the edge of the jump, and you’ll also see quite a few people peering up from the ground below. Although the nose-to-tail vehicles are entirely in keeping with the story, the people we can see staring back at us are just a few of the 600 or so spectators who’d turned up to see the stunt being performed.

Thankfully, Julienne and his two drivers managed to pull the jump off with barely a hitch – though one car did suffer severe engine and suspension damage on landing, and you can clearly see a fairly significant puff of white smoke emerge from the underside of the white Mini as it hits the building on the other side.

In the context of the finished film, the jump was but one moment in a classic pursuit sequence. The march of time may mean that the gravity of that 60ft leap is lost on some modern audiences, but The Italian Job remains evergreen in its ability to entertain.

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