I gather you've been in lndia for two years, sir.I often think of The Italian Job when we're driving through the mountains just to the north, between where we live and the border with France. We go there in our VW Transporter van, or our Nissan Micra, rather than a Lamborghini, so we take the bends more slowly and less smoothly than Rossano Brazzi does in the opening credits. But the feeling is much the same, that once you're there, you're up and away, unbothered, on your own apart from the very occasional cars that come past the other way. The snow comes into view and Matt Monro comes with it, smooth as the sweep of Brazzi's Miura.
Yes, shooting tigers.
You must have shot an awful lot of tigers, sir.
Yes, I used a machine gun.
No harm can come to anybody here, it seems, as long as they stay on the road: and that's what makes the end of the scene so jarring, when the car enters the tunnel and runs into a JCB parked at the exit. I can remember seeing the movie as a kid: I was impressed with the way the broken car rolled right the way down the mountainside and into the river.
The other jarring thing about the sequence, is that however great, it doesn't fit the movie that it opens, a caper movie with comedy Italians outwitted by comedy Brits. It's not so much that Brazzi's ride ends so abruptly: it's that neither the carefree mood of his drive, nor the suddenness of his death, make a proper match with the sudden appearance of a bunch of clowns in black hats standing on alternate ledges while another clown rolls a wreath (why?) into the river. It's as if the opening was a trailer for a film different to the one that was actually shown.
I've not actually seen the film in many years, not all the way through, though I've seen bits and pieces, dubbed into Spanish, a couple of times in hotel rooms on the Paramount Channel. I can't imagine what the Spanish make of it, whether they know who Noël Coward is or care what he's doing in prison, whether they give a monkey's (si les importen un pito) if those three lads in Union Jack helmets driving Minis get away from the police through the Turin sewers, or whether they have any interest in unpicking what is patriotic flagwaving, what is ironic reference to the same and what is both at the same time. Presumably people have the same problem with James Bond.
The subtext of the film is of course that Britain won the war, even though Germans in the movie are thin on the ground (although Rossano Brazzi's character is called Roger Beckermann, and the novelisation of the film featured German as well as Italian gangsters). Still, we beat the Italians as well, and the one thing we all know about our history is that we won the war. We even knew that in the playground - we used to parade round chanting
We won the war!which especially amuses me, now, given that one thing I do in schools is to give a talk about the first moon landing, which the kids - aged ten to twelve - may place at any point in the last century or even the previous one. The film itself is set in 1969 - the football match portrayed was a friendly that England won 1-0 - and England could still feel they were the best team in the world, even if they had only been third in the previous year's European Championships, also held in Italy. As it turned out, that was the last time England finished ahead of Germany, West or united, in an international tournament until they were third to Germany's fourth in Group A in the European Championships thirty-two years later.
In nineteen sixty-four!
I first watched the film as a child and you have to, really: it's a childish film, but a good one if you watch through eyes that should be old enough to know a little bit better. Troy Kennedy Martin scripted and came up with one of my favourite exchanges in cinema, reproduced above. It was all childish fun and games back then. Gangsters were only comedy gangsters and if the heroes didn't win in the end they didn't actually fall off the edge of the cliff. But a decade and a half later Kennedy Martin would close Edge of Darkness with a terrorist attack on NATO, and one of which the viewer is expected to approve.
It was much simpler back when it was all about us, and the fact that we'd beaten Hitler. Everybody knows that we beat Hitler, and that as much as anything may explain why it is always Hitler who is invoked whenever we are considering fighting anybody else. Hitler, Hitler, Hitler, whether it is the death cult Hitler or the dictator Hitler fighting them or the other Hitler who is fighting on the same side as the second one.
I imagine we could go in easily enough, if we have to (which they will probably have to, though they say that they will not) and drive the death cult away from the centres of population whose people they have spent the last two years persecuting. And then, there they will be, with Assad and Hezbollah to the west of them, the Russians and the Turks to the north, the Iranians and Iraqis to the east of them and the Saudis to the south, but all of these - and the people they are giving arms to - mixed in together and either allied to or fighting one another. And what will happen then?
What will happen is that David Cameron will turn round and say to us:
Hang on a minute lads. I've got a great idea.