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Big Deal on Madonna Street: The Criterion Collection

Every couple of years a foreign film will become a "sleeper" hit, gaining the attention of mainstream American audiences with both critical acclaim and commercial success. In fact, film studios and production companies nowadays are more than willing to push foreign films they think might have crossover appeal (Saving Grace, Waking Ned Devine, et. al.), even though these essentially are light comedies with foreign casts, played differently enough to appear exotic, while common enough to be palatable. Yet, while Mario Monicelli's Big Deal on Madonna Street (1958) was an early crossover film, it wasn't made as such — in fact, it succeeds on its own merits and will appeal to anybody who enjoys crime capers or films noir. Madonna Street (aka I Soliti Ignoti — "persons unknown") is a comic rendering of popular heist dramas like Rififi, and The Asphalt Jungle, gently poking fun at their heightened seriousness and dark fatality. Boxer Peppe (Vittorio Gassman) is asked to accept money in exchange for confessing to a crime committed by car thief Cosimo (Memmo Carotenuto). Peppe agrees to the fraud, but it does little good — both men are jailed by a disbelieving judge. While in lockup, Peppe learns why Cosimo was so anxious to get out: He's got a prime target for a new robbery. Thus, when paroled, Peppe sets up the heist himself, assembling a crew from the men who wouldn't go to prison for Cosimo. They are Tiberio (Marcello Mastroianni), a photographer who's hocked his equipment to care for his family; Mario (Renato Salvatori), a petty thief who steals to provide for his three mothers; Ferribotte (Tiberio Murgia), a Sicilian always protecting his beautiful sister (Claudia Cardinale, at her most gorgeous) from the outside word; and Campanelle (Carlo Pasacane), an old, toothless thief. Peppe tells the group that they must act "scientifically," but all are bumblers at best and easily distracted, as Mario falls for Ferribotte's sister, and Peppe falls for a woman he is supposed to be using to commit the crime. Big Deal on Madonna Street is an appealing comedy that thoroughly follows the heist genre template while letting the characters provide the humor, and not the set pieces (though one of the best gags in Woody Allen's Small Time Crooks was obviously lifted from this film). They are the kind of sad-sack losers for whom Hollywood always tries to generate sympathy, even though their goals are morally questionable. Here it works — the closer they get to committing the crime, the more we don't want them to try, as we suspect they are bound for failure. Their pseudo-tough veneers are easily penetrable, and all the characters — without being stereotypical or cartoonish — are amusingly lovable lugs. This is the kind of film that normally doesn't work, and probably shouldn't, but Big Deal on Madonna Street does succeed as an enjoyable criminal comedy of errors. Criterion's DVD release is in the original full-frame (1.33:1) with audio from the original monaural Italian soundtrack (DD 1.0). The source-print has a few small bumps and scratches, but looks pleasing throughout. The English subtitles are optional, with the only supplement an American release trailer. Keep-case.

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