“Stealing is a serious profession. You need serious people.”
Cosimo Proietti (Memmo Carotenuto) has just received a tip about a job that could make him a fortune and set him up for life. Oh, sure, it’s not exactly a legitimate enterprise — it entails breaking into a pawnshop on Rome’s (fictitious) Via delle Madonne through the empty apartment next door and opening a locked safe — but Cosimo isn’t the sort of man to quibble about legality. In fact, that’s the sole problem with this scheme: He’s already in jail for attempting to steal a car, and he isn’t scheduled to be released for over a year. His only hope is to convince someone else to claim responsibility for his crime, thereby setting him free. Although he offers to pay the scapegoat 100,000 lire, none of his acquaintances are willing to take the rap: Capannelle (Carlo Pisacane) would be facing a life sentence due to his past convictions, Mario (Renato Salvatori) fears upsetting his mother, Michele (Tiberio Murgia) doesn’t want to abandon his closely guarded sister Carmela (Claudia Cardinale) or jeopardize her upcoming marriage, and Tiberio (Marcello Mastroianni) not only has a prior offense but also has to take care of his baby son while his wife (Gina Rovere) serves time for smuggling cigarettes. “Guys, you’ll never get an ex-con for 100,000 lire,” Tiberio tells the others. “You need someone with a clean record.”
Finding a person to fit that bill is no easy task in their less-than-elevated social circles, but at last, with the addition of 50,000 lire of their own money, they manage to persuade a boxer named Peppe (Vittorio Gassman) to accept the blame for the attempted car theft. Unfortunately, his histrionic confession merely convinces the authorities of his own guilt, not of Cosimo’s innocence. Much to Cosimo’s dismay, the two men are soon co-prisoners. He’s outraged that Peppe refuses to return the payment he received for the botched scapegoat gambit, but that’s nothing compared to his wrath when the boxer get out on probation — immediately after tricking Cosimo into revealing all of the details of the intended pawnshop heist to him.
Naturally, upon learning what’s happened, the other men want their money back as well. When it appears that they’re not likely to get it without taking action, they gang up on Peppe, who assures them that he was just about to invite them to join him in robbing the pawnshop. Though they don’t believe that, the proposition is too tempting to pass up, and they agree to participate. “To pull this one off, we’ve gotta prepare everything beforehand, calculate everything scientifically,” says Peppe, the group’s de facto leader. That includes casing the shop with a stolen camera (making use of Tiberio’s questionable photography skills) and hiring an experienced safecracker (Totò) as a consultant — but, this being a comedy, all of their carefully laid plans eventually go awry, scientific or not.
Big Deal on Madonna Street, directed by Mario Monicelli and released in 1958, is a humorous take on the heist film subgenre. Unlike many of their counterparts in more typical examples such as Rififi (1955) and The Asphalt Jungle (1950), the characters aren’t hardened, sometimes ruthless criminals (or, for that matter, particularly adept ones). Crime — mostly low-level stealing and smuggling — just seems to be a natural way of life to them, something absorbed from their environment. This is suggested early on when Capannelle tries to find Mario, only to be told by a young boy that there are a thousand Marios in that neighborhood. “Yes, but this one is a thief,” Capannelle says. “There are still a thousand,” the boy replies. A little while later, Capannelle suggests that Tiberio put his baby in the prison nursery. He begins to wax nostalgic about the time he spent there when he was a child of three, but Tiberio interrupts. “No, no, the kid’ll go to jail when he’s all grown up,” he says, “and if he chooses.”
And as for honest labor? It’s not out of the question — Tiberio is a photographer, or was until he was reduced to selling his camera — but it’s not always available or convenient. For Mario, trying to get a job could even be humiliating: He obtained a diploma in cabinetmaking at the orphanage where he was raised, and it’s marked accordingly. “Why does it have to say ‘orphanage’… ‘charitable institution’?” he asks. “What kind of a diploma is that? It’s like being branded a son of a…” Notably, when a setback forces Peppe to romance a girl named Nicoletta (Carla Gravina), she lies to him so that he won’t find out she’s a maid; work, at least when it’s menial, is a point of shame for her. (He lies to her too, partly to prevent the planned crime from falling apart, but also, no doubt, simply to impress her.) Perhaps more than anything, though, honest labor simply isn’t appealing, especially compared to the lure of easy riches. They see the pawnshop robbery as their ticket to a better life, and they have dreams for the money: Mario wants to help the women who brought him up at the orphanage, Tibiero wants a house and a bank account for his son, Capannelle wants a mistress. (“But she pays for her food.”)
In a different film, these might be the ingredients for a tragedy or a somber look at society’s ills; not in this one. While the protagonists’ circumstances are difficult, sometimes bordering on desperate, the movie itself never gets bogged down in misery and hopelessness, never loses sight of the fact that its main goal is making its audience laugh. Even Cosimo, who may be the most serious and potentially dangerous character (and is occasionally filmed in a rather noirish fashion), is never allowed to remain serious and dangerous for long; witness, for instance, his attempt at a hold-up, which abruptly ends in his being disarmed by an unruffled clerk who doesn’t even realize Cosimo is trying to rob him.
The rest of the would-be burglars are less threatening still (though Michele does swear vengeance against Mario after discovering that he and Carmela have been meeting in secret). There’s the long-suffering, perpetually stressed out Tiberio; there’s Capannelle, a shabby, diminutive older man who blithely digs into any food he happens to encounter, including the baby biscuits in Tiberio’s pocket; and, taking charge of the whole operation, there’s Peppe, vain and cocky, who sees himself as a great boxer, an irresistible ladies’ man, and a budding criminal mastermind — despite significant evidence to the contrary.
Characters in heist films tend to have an air of doom hanging over them — almost inevitably, they’re done in by greed, by betrayal, by the cruelties of fate — but although Peppe and company appear destined for failure from the start, “doom” feels like much too strong a word. Certainly, Big Deal on Madonna Street‘s playful atmosphere and style discourage viewers from regarding the gang and its misadventures with undue gravity. In addition to the main happenings of the story, it’s full of humorous touches: Cosimo’s thorough knowledge of the penal code, safecracker Dante trying to quiet Tiberio’s crying baby by waving a pen at him, inmates playing leapfrog in the prison yard, a poster for the 1957 film Kean: Genius or Scoundrel featuring a prominent picture of Vittorio Gassman. (Maybe Peppe is more successful than anyone realizes.) Also amusing are the silent movie-esque intertitles that open quite a few scenes, one of which refers to the characters as “our heroes.”
Heroes they aren’t, by any stretch of the imagination. The original Italian title, I soliti ignoti, translates literally to “the usual unknowns.” These hapless men have nothing extraordinary about them, no greatness, not even by criminal standards. Their efforts are thwarted by a variety of factors (including, at one point, Peppe’s decision to do a good deed for someone else), but their biggest liabilities are the bad luck that plagues them at every turn and their incompetence. On the day of the robbery, when Tiberio goes to the prison to drop his baby off at the nursery, he has a brief conversation about his plans with his wife, Teresa. “In case something might happen — it shouldn’t, though…” he begins. Teresa cuts in: “Knowing you, it will happen for sure.” She’s right, of course — how couldn’t she be? — and that’s what makes Big Deal on Madonna Street so much fun to watch.