If you lived in England from about the 1970s onwards, your first car was probably a Mini - which may help to explain the lasting popularity of this quintessentially British film.
In case you are wondering whether a description of the plot and, most importantly, the ending will spoil the pleasure of someone seeing the film for the first time, you have a guarantee thast it still delights after over thirty viewings, so knowing the ending is unlikely to be an issue.
The film starts when Beckerman is killed by the Mafia led by Senor Altabani. The opening scene is sumptuous and atmospheric: Beckerman drives his red Lamborghini Miura V12 at speed around an Alpine road to the accompaniment of Matt Monroe singing "On Days Like These." He enters a tunnel; the sound of his engine is amplified - then - Boom! The Mafia have placed a bulldozer1 in the tunnel, and Beckerman is no more. The car is bulldozed over a cliff2, the Mafia remove their hats and Altabani throws a wreath.
Meanwhile, Charlie Croker has just been released from prison. He is collected by his girlfirend Lorna in a car which he rapidly realises belongs to the Pakistani Ambassador. "Typical. I've only been out of prison five minutes and already I'm in a hot car."
Noel Coward and Michael Caine do...
Beckerman's audacious plan is delivered in the form of a film. "Charlie Croker, I am dead" says Beckerman, who continues to outline how the theft of the regular money delivery to FIAT in Turin can be pulled off through a massive traffic jam in Turin caused by crippling the traffic computer. The escape is to be made along a carefully designed route, the only route which will not be blocked. In the background we see Altabani...
Croker decides to secure the backing of Mr Bridger, underworld boss, temporarily a guest of Her Majesty at the prison from which Croker has just been released. He finds the "usual channels" ("Camp" Freddie) less than helpful. "Charlie," opines Freddie, "you couldn't even spell big." So Croker is forced to break into the prison and put the plan before Mr Bridger. This upsets him. He complains to the governor, and also requires that Charlie is given "A good going over. I don't want him killed, I just want him given a good going over." "I know exactly what you mean, sir" says Keats, his faithful retainer. "Do you, Keats. That's very imaginitive of you."
But then Bridger hears that FIAT is about to receive a shipment of four million dollars in gold - and the job is on.
The Italian Job
The raid has to be well organised. Croker introduces people to each other - "You all know Bill - he's just done three years in Parkhurst, and is as honest as the day is long." "We work as a team," says Croker, "and that means you do exactly what I say." The gold will be transported in three specially prepared Mini Coopers - one each in red, white and blue - which will be picked up on the move in a Harrington Legionnaire3 coach for no adequately explained reason. An England - Italy football match helpfully provides cover for the operation.
They must practice the dangerous manoeuvre of getting into the moving coach. Numerous Minis are damaged, much to Bridger's chagrin4. They rehearse using explosives to remove the doors of the armoured car, with spectacular results. "You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!"
They must also secure the services of computer expert Professor Peach, which causes some concern. "What if he's not bent?" asks "Camp" Freddie "Everyone in the world is bent," answers Bridger. Peach's Achilles heel turns out to be ladies of a certain size ("I like them big, you know") and his services are readily secured for the venture with the assistance of two quite enormous young women.
Once in Italy they are greeted by the Mafia, and their escape cars (two E-Types and an Aston) are destroyed by the Caterpillar. Only some fast talking from Croker saves the conspirators, and Altabani advises them: "It's a long walk back to England, and it's that way."
Undaunted, they continue. The traffic computer (in reality the Thorn EMI data centre in Borehamwood) is successfully nobbled and the armoured car stops at precisely the right place. It is dragged into a building and the doors barred. The gold is transferred, and the Minis escape. The rest of the team disguise themselves as supporters of the victorious England football team, and head off in a minibus. The tension in the bus is unbearable. "Look happy you stupid b******s," says Bill laconically, "we won, didn't we?"
The car chase
This was more than just a routine car chase. The Minis were driven up steps, across a weir (any Mini owner will tell you just how likely it is that a Mini will keep running when even the smallest amount of water enters through the grille), onto buildings, round the FIAT test track on the roof of its old factory, and they jump across a gap from there to another building.
L'Equipe Rémy Julienne, probably the foremost auto stunt team in the world, arranged the stunts, and the Minis required remarkably little preparation to achieve them. An extended sump guard was fitted, to enable them to slide down stone steps, and Minilite alloy wheels were necessary for the jumps. Apart form that they were very much standard cars.
Contrary to popular belief the cars were not donated by the manufacturer, BMC. With the usual deft instinct of the British motor industry for missing an obvious winner, they wanted nothing to do with the film, and culd only be persuaded to part with six cars at cost price, the rest being bought retail. BMC did give assistance in putting an 1800cc B series 'landcrab'5 engine into the Mini for the stair-climbing sequence. Kids - don't try this at home! The thing was practically unsteerable. Interestingly, FIAT were far more co-operative and even offered to supply cars for nothing - but the makers stuck with the Mini.
At one point the Minis drive onto the roof of what is now the Turin Aircraft Museam. This happened becauise of a misunderstanding: the Italian Machina can mean either car or camera. By the time they realised that the cars were on the roof and the cameras safely on the ground, it was too late.
The final part of the escape through Turin is via a sewer, which is actually the Birmingham - Coventry Tithebarn main sewer (then under construction). Although Rémy Julienne attempted to do a full 360 in the tunnel, after two crashes and a skid it was decided it was too dangerous.
The chase is accompanied by the song "Get A Bloomin' Move On" whose lyrics include much cockney rhyming slang and whose refrain is "we are the self-preservation society."
The cliffhanger ending
The film ends with a cliffhanger - literally. The team have the gold, the cars have been pushed out of the bus and over a cliff (again without stopping) and the bus is heading for the Alps. They've made it! Or have they? Big William is driving too fast; the coach skids and lands with its rear wheels hanging over the abyss. It is balanced on a knife-edge - and the gold is in the part of the bus hanging over the edge!
As Croker crawls towards the gold, the bus tilts alarmingly. "Hang on a minute lads - I've got a great idea. Er...."
Roll credits, and pan out to see the spectacular scenery and the bus still hanging in mid-air....
After the show
The Italian Job has a huge cult following, and remains popular to this day - although the soundtrack is, inexplicably, long-deleted and virtually unobtainable except in a rare French re-release. As with any cult film, there is a wealth of speculation and activity following on. Here's some further information:
All sixteen Mini Coopers were destroyed during filming, as were several Fiats and Lancias. Other cars were sold off afterwards to the crew - for example, the Land-Rover which was used to tow the bullion van was bought afterwards by Ken Wright, a welder and mechanic on the film, who used to weld Minis for the population of a village neear St Albans in Hertfordshire. Naming no names.
The Aston Martin and the E-Type Jaguars were luckier. This is especially fortunate as one E-Type, chassis no. 12 (yes, they really rammed a wheel-loader bucket into the roof of the twelfth production Jaguar E-Type and then rolled it down a hill), had been the first to compete in motorsport. Although badly damaged it was fully restored and is now in a private collection. The Aston, too, was unusual; a convertible DB4 by Touring, one of only 215 made. While the seven- or eight-year-old E-Types probably weren't worth much in 1969, the Aston undoubtedly would have been. This car was also restored.
More than one sequel has been proposed, and at least one has got to the scripting stage and was later turned into a novel, but no sequel was made.
They are talking about a remake. Nobody seems quite sure why, as it would be almost impossible to improve on the sublime casting of the original. But there's worse. It's reported to be set in Rome or Milan (because "American audiences don't know where Turin is"), and the cars are intended to be the new Beetle. Nothing wrong with this as a car, but it lacks the unintentional charm and innovative design of the Mini. The original Beetle would be a better candidate; at least it was revolutionary in its day. But the new Beetle is based on the transverse-engine front-wheel-drive design which Issignis pioneered in the Mini. In the same way as the studio remake of Red Dwarf wouldn't allow Lister to be a slob or Rimmer a failure, and demanded that Cat was female - the things which gave the original its character are sacrificed at the altar of focus group research. When will studios realise that the formulae they follow so slavishly are set by the films and programmes which ignore them, and which break new ground as a result?
Every year since 1990 up to a hundred Minis have set off for Italy in a long-distance navigational rally for children's charities. So far they have raised well over half a million pounds, and have been accompanied by various vehicles from the film including That Jaguar, now registered 848 CRY (originally 2 BBC).
The fan club
There is at least one fan club who are, unsurprisingly, known as The Self-Preservation Society. There are official and unofficial websites. And there is the website for the rally.
- Michael Caine: Charlie Croker
- Noel Coward: Mr. Bridger (his last ever film role, and he only did it because the director, Peter Collinson, was his adoptee.
- Benny Hill: Professor Peach
- Raf Vallone: Altabani
- Tony Beckley: 'Camp' Freddie
- Margaret Blye: Lorna
- Irene Handl: Miss Peach
- John Le Mesurier: Governor
- Fred Emney: Birkinshaw
- John Clive: Garage Manager
- Graham Payn: Keats
- Michael Standing: Arthur
- Stanley Caine: Coco (Michael Caine's brother, by the way)
- Barry Cox: Chris
- Harry Baird: Big William
- George Innes: Bill Bailey
- John Forgeham: Frank
- Robert Powell: Yellow (and later Jesus Christ in Jesus of Nazareth)
- Derek Ware: Rozzer
- Frank Jarvis: Roger
- David Salamone: Dominic
- Richard Essome: Tony
- Mario Valgoi: Manzo
- Renato Romano: Cosca
- Franco Novelli: Altabini's Driver
- Robert Rietty: Police Chief (and later the voice of Jack Hawkins when his larynx was removed during cancer surgery; also a voice-over on The Prisoner)
- Timothy Bateson: Dentist
- David Kelly: Vicar
- Arnold Diamond: Senior Computer Room Officer
- Simon Dee: Shirtmaker (and in real life a famous DJ)
- Alastair Hunter: Warder (Cinema)
- Lana Gatto: Mrs. Cosca
- John Morris: Standin
- Louis Mansi: Computer Room Official
- Rossano Brazzi: Roger Beckerman
- Original music by: Quincy Jones (who is, within an hour, exactly the same age as Michael Caine)
We are the self-preservation society,
The self preservation society.
Put on your almond rocks and daisy roots
Brush your Hampstead Heath, wear your whistle-and-flute
Lots of lah-de-dahs and Cockneys here
Look alive and get out of here
Get your skates on mate, get your skates on mate
No bib around your Gregory Peck today, hey!
Drop your plates of meat right on the seat
This is the self-preservation society,
The self-preservation society.
Almond rocks: Socks
Daisy roots: boots
Hampstead Heath: teetch
Gregory Peck: Neck
Plates of meat: feet