The Italian cinema thought up a great idea when they decided to make a funny “caper” film in 1958. The film, “Big Deal on Madonna Street,” follows the story of 5 completely inept small-time hoods who decide to burglarize a pawn shop. The plan involves knocking down a wall shared by an apartment next door to the shop, and then drilling open the safe. But an even more intriguing story is the look the film gives of impoverished and desperate characters trying to make a living in Italy during the late 1950’s.
Among the inept crooks, Marcello Mastroianni plays a terrible photographer whose casing of the pawn shop results in a broken arm. Vittorio Gassman plays an awful glass-jawed boxer who takes over as the ringleader of the heist after leaving prison. Memmo Carotenuto, who plays a would-be don named Cosimo, thinks up the heist scheme, but then resorts to petty theft. When Carmelina, (Claudia Cardenale), the shuttered sister of one of the gang members, catches the eye of Mario, played by Renato Salvatori, he decides that love is more important than loot.
What makes the film so funny is that the members of the gang join the heist in all sincerity, try to do their best, but then run into various troubles during the planning stage. In heist films, the script tries to explain the intricacies of the theft so the audience doesn’t continuously wonder what’s going on during the heist. In this film, so many complications occur because of the idiotic crooks that I expected the heist to be called off at the last second. Nevertheless, the gang eventually does break into the pawn shop, making an enormous racket while experiencing a comedy of errors. They work off a map of the premises that proves to be wrong in every way possible. It’s a testament to the filmmakers that they can continually throw interesting complications in the way of stumblebums who probably would have botched the burglary anyway.
The film, directed by Mario Monicelli, contains plenty of social references that could only come from Italy. For instance, much is made of the differences between northern and southern Italians. About Sicily, Mario says: “Nothing but rocks and cacti down there.” At that time, apparently, men or women could hire scapegoats to serve prison terms for themselves. This satirical and very funny film makes it seem like a wide-spread occurrence, and it’s believable in the realm of these desperate characters.