Big Deal on Madonna Street (1958): Monicelli’s Classic Comedy

1958: Best Foreign Language Film Oscar: Year 3

In the third year of the foreign-language Oscar category, the five nominees were: “Mon Oncle” (My Uncle”) from France, which won, “Arms and the Man” from the Federal Republic of Germany, “”The Road a Year Long” from Yugoslavia, “The Usual Unidentified Thieves” (aka “Big Deal on Madonna Street”) from Italy, and “La Venganza” from Spain.

 

The original title of Mario Monicelli’s classic spoof is “I Solti Ignoti” (literally meaning “Persons Unknown”), but the better-known one is “Big Deal on Madonna Street” (aka “The Usual Unidentified Thieves”).

 

An all-star cast, headed by Marcello Mastroianni, Vittorio Gassman, Toto, and Claudia Cardinale, elevates this seminal comedy of amateur thieves to delightful buffoonery.  A gang of hapless guys plots an elaborate heist into a pawnshop, only to be undone by a series of funny and unexpected circumstances, and their own incompetence.

 

Gassman, Mastroianni and Cardinale would achieve international success in Italian and other European (and Hollywood) films.  Not so Toto, the great Italian comic, who belongs to another generation, and represents in this film the noted Italian regional humor and the theatrical tradition of Naples.

 

The characters in this film are charming, but not too bright, inept, and self-centered. And like major figures in other Italian films (such as Fellini’s early work), they symbolize guys who are caught in perpetual adolescence—refusing and/or unable to grow up.

 

Replete with many hilarious sight gags that bring to mind classic silent comedy, “Big Deal on Madonna Street” pokes fun at all of Hollywood heist and caper films, as well as French samplers such as “Rififi” and “Bob Le Flambeur.” 

 

Extremely popular wherever it played, the movie has been imitated to death with a number of U.S. efforts, such as Louis Malle’s failed effort “Crackers” and Alan Taylor’s more successful indie “Palookaville,” though none is as delectable as the original, black-and-white picture.

 

Some critics consider the film to be part of Monicelli’s trilogy of Italian comedies, which also includes “The Great War” (1959) and “The Organizer” (1963).

 

The text was later used for an unsuccessful Broadway musical as well as a 1985 sequel, “Big Deal on Madonna Street—20 Years Later.”

 

Cast

 

Peppe (Vittorio Gassman)

Mario (Renato Salvatori)

Norma (Rosanna Rory)

Nicoletta (Carla Gravina)

Carmelina (Claudia Cardinale)

Capannelle (Carlo Pisacane)

Ferribotte (Tiberio Murgia)

Cosimo (Memmo Carotenuto)

Dante (Toto)

Tiberio (Marcello Mastroianni)

 

Running time: 91 Minutes