Big Deal on Madonna Street, a 1958 film directed by Mario Monicelli, is a spoof of the heist film genre, exemplified by such films as The Asphalt Jungle, The Killing, and especially Jules Dassin’s Rififi. The story goes like this. A jailed ex-boxer, played by Vittorio Gassman, catches wind of a perfect opportunity for a heist—a safe in a pawnshop with an empty apartment next door. When he gets out of jail, he organizes a gang of misfits to pull off the job, including a photographer (Marcello Mastrioanni) who has to bring his baby along to planning meetings because his wife is in jail, a womanizer (Renato Salvatori) who falls for the sister of a crazy Sicilian thief, and an aging crook (Carlo Pisacane) who is obsessed with food.
This marvelous comedy avoids the over-exaggeration or self-satisfied winking at the audience that have plagued so many parodies, including later heist comedies that have tried to improve on this one. Monicelli portrays the seedy underworld of the Italian slums with a realism and attention to detail that makes the ridiculous behavior of the characters all the more amusing.
Three writers teamed up on the screenplay, which mixes dry wit with farce in inventive ways. Gassman is splendid in the role of the lead crook. It broadened his appeal as an actor—up until then he had been confined to serious roles. Mastrioanni’s supporting role was an important step on his road to ultimate stardom. And the great comic actor Totò shows up as an old safecracker who hilariously instructs the gang on the fine points of his art, but wisely refuses to participate in the heist itself. Of course, when the time comes for the gang to go into action, everything that could possibly go wrong, does.
If you’ve seen a lot of crime spoofs, this one may seem familiar, but you need to remember that it was the first of its kind. Since the late 1940s, the tough, world-weary criminal had been a favorite character in the movies, and so there came a time, finally, when someone decided to make fun of this genre. Instead of suave, fatalistic gangsters, we have a group of quarrelsome and inept bunglers, in a portrayal of street culture that pays a kind of backhanded tribute to the great neorealist films that became a hallmark of Italian cinema. The humor ranges from character-driven absurdity to clever gags—my favorite is when a crook points a gun at a shop owner and says, “You know what this is?” and the proprietor takes the gun from his hand and says, “A Beretta in poor condition,” offering him twenty lire for it. The ending may be on the broad side, but overall the combination of parody against a realistic urban background is unique, and priceless.
Big Deal on Madonna Street is available on DVD.