A review requested by Josep, with thanks for contributing to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

There are plenty of things that could be one's immediate response to Big Deal on Madonna Street, a 1958 Italian caper movie that is one of the small handful of films directed by Mario Monicelli to have any meaningful presence on the radar of English-speaking cinephiles, despite his (and the film's) key role in developing an explosion of enormously popular sardonic social comedies in the ensuing decade. Mine was that it's nice to be reminded every now and then that there can be such a thing as comedy that boasts a deft screenplay, performed with brightness by a talented cast, and which is also good as a movie. It being the case that comedy, more than any other genre, has an annoying tendency (and has had it basically since the beginning of sound cinema) to coast on dialogue writing and staging physical gags, and to treat such niceties as well-constructed images and tight dramatic plotting as largely disposable.

Big Deal on Madonna Street - the infinitely less-evocative title of a film whose original Italian name, I soliti ignoti, means something akin to "the usual suspects" - is absolutely not that kind of comedy. As shot by Gianni Di Venanzo and designed by the great Piero Gherardi, it's a rich film of thick, moody atmosphere, low-rent and dangerous, perfectly etching out the grimy urban world its characters operate in and framing it as the site of constant hunted-animal tension. Take out every last joke but leave the rest alone, and you're still left with a crackerjack movie about a gang of frayed, mutually distrustful characters, operating in a mode that takes the spatial texture and busy, deep compositions of neorealism and genrefies them with the visual murkiness of film noir.

It's a splendid peek into a particular corner of the Roman underworld by any means, and that's a huge part of what makes it so much more interesting than a comedy content to keep the actors in frame, in focus, and clearly lit. But it's not only that. In fact, and this seems to have been Monicelli's great genius revelation, it's the very same aesthetic seriousness that makes Big Deal on Madonna Street such a great comedy - which it is to a degree that shocked me, given the difficulties of translating humor across language and culture, and the less than amazing state of film comedy generally around that period. The jokes present in the script written by Monicelli alongside Agenore Incrocci & Furio Scarpelli & Suso Cecchi D'Amico, as well as those inherent to the visualisation of that screenplay, come in a lot of different flavors, but if I had to pick the one thing the film tends to do over and over again, I'd go with its habit of allowing its characters to take themselves very, very seriously, despite their unfailing tendency towards incompetency. It's borderline parody how much the film mocks the figures at its center and the trappings of crime thrillers, and none of that humor would play if it didn't look so very much like an actual caper with its own internal reality. So the film gets it both ways: its style makes it thematically deeper and more sociologically alert than just any old dippy comedy about hapless idiots, and it's also a much funnier dippy comedy for the same reason.

The plot quickly becomes too sprawling to do much with a synopsis, but the basic outline is that minor criminal, Cosimo (Memmo Carotenuto) is in jail for a crime he did commit, but he wants somebody else to take his place regardless. After a great deal of finagling and hunting, his accomplices scrounge up Peppe (Vittorio Gassman), whose spotless record means he'll receive a much shorter sentence, to take the fall, but the unimpressed judge sees through the ruse and sends both men to prison. An irritated Peppe forces Cosimo to share the plans for a perfect heist, and is then immediately released on probation. This leaves him free to take over the heist himself, recruiting several of his and Cosimo's acquaintences for the job: the romantic Mario (Renato Salvatori); the tyrannical Michele (Tiberio Murgia), who keeps his sister (Claudia Cardinale) under lock and key; old Capannelle (Carlo Pisacane), who's munching on something almost every time we see him; and most delightfully of all, sweet Tiberio (an absurdly beguiling, fresh-faced Marcello Mastroianni), whose wife is in prison, leaving him to hall around a baby through all of the gang's planning. After receiving advice from a very dubious career criminal, safecracker Dante (Totò, an icon of Italian screen comedy), the gang is... not so ready to take the job on. They spend at least as much time bumbling around, living their messy lives, as readying to carry off the great heist, and it's not the remotest surprise that the heist itself is one fuck-up after another.

There are subtleties that are invisible to anyone who isn't a fluent speaker of Italian - my understanding is that the characters are all regional caricatures and the dialogue a smorgasbord of slang and casual expression - but even in the form that the rest of us can appreciate it, Big Deal on Madonna Street is delightful, a perfectly-timed comedy that turns the fizzy pleasures of a Rififi (its primary stated influence) into something even more lighthearted, with the moody lighting always making even the most inconsequential gags seem sharper and more unexpected and thus funnier. It helps that, for something that basically pivots on "stupid criminals sure are stupid", Big Deal on Madonna Street is extraordinarily intelligent, both in pacing out its jokes and in the implications of those jokes; it's an overreach and a half to call this a "satire", but like the visually similar, vastly more serious dramas that were still the main force in Italian filmmaking, it's attentive to how people live in the everyday modern world, and its observations about machismo and culture are pointedly mocking, however gently, and however full of love for the characters.

There's a baseline of social realism that the film shares with tonier, graver films of the same period, it's just filtered through good-natured ribbing instead of shell-shocked melodrama. The actors are all having an obvious good time, goofing around, and yet there's enough meat to their performances that it never feels like they're just fooling around - Gassman, in particular, was no kind of comic performer prior to this movie, and while its success altered the face of his career, he didn't at all abandon the basic sincerity of his dramatic work. Peppe, and all the rest, are still recognisable, grounded human beings, even if they're flopping around like clowns and being subjected to the silliest, lightest-touch humiliations available. This essential grounding in real-life, with a sharp eye towards using ridiculous comic excess as a way of calling attention to real-life behavior rather than distracting from it, is one of the cornerstones of the commedia all'italiana movement that largely began here, and while I greatly admire some of its followers - Divorce Italian Style is particularly close to my heart - it's pretty clear that this was one of the cases where the first of its kind got everything just about perfect, right out of the gate.