Cinema: Britannia Waives the Rules

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To psychologists and social reformers, he may be the victim of society; to existentialists, he is a genius manqué. But to the makers of film farces, the thief is only a lovable boob.

In The Italian Job, he is Charlie Croker, played by Michael Caine with his bag of standard accessories: cockney locutions, drooping eyelids and acute satyriasis. Charlie uses jail the way some men use their country clubs—to make valuable contacts. Though he is a petty criminal, Charlie contrives to rub shoulders with the larcenist laureate of England, an elegant superpatriot of a prisoner known only as Mr. Bridger (Noel Coward). Britannia waives the rules for Bridger, who affects Savile Row threads, dines alone, and stabilizes sterling by masterminding foreign robberies from his cell.

Charlie, on parole, conceives a plan to steal $4 million from a stronghold in Turin, Italy. Mr. Bridger finds it a simply wizard idea and puts up expense money. Alas, Charlie's elephantine ambitions arise from a gnat-sized intellect. His gang is so crooked that none of them can drive straight. They wreck cars, argue with each other, assault fat ladies on the Turin buses and infuriate the Mafia by treading on its turf. Throughout, Charlie's eyes remain at half-mast; his lassitude finally lulls the crooks, the polizia—and the audience. Caine and Coward play a splendid game of verbal tennis, but by the final reel the laughs are lost in an anthology of dull and deafening car chases.

From Big Deal on Madonna Street to How to Steal a Million, film makers have been trying to perfect the genre known in the trade as "caper comedies," films which center around a masterminded robbery. Like most criminals, however, the creators expend all their energies on the heist and not nearly enough building their characters.