If you need only one scene to be indicative of everything Big Deal on Madonna Street exemplifies as a caper comedy, the opening scene puts it out on a platter, ready for consumption.
A shrimpy man with a mustache waits on the street corner as a lookout while another named Cosimo (Memmo Carotenuto) busts open a window to hotwire a car. Except he totally bungles getting nabbed by the cops for his efforts. Even as the alarm goes off, he’s too much of a stiff to make a break for it. Now he’s on the inside, and he deserves it, if not for his botched crime, then at least for being a numbskull.
But he’s also an idea man looking to get out of the can as soon as possible. The job now is finding someone to be his scapegoat. It’s not as easy as it sounds. Everyone has their underlining excuses. A wife already in prison. A baby to take care of. Previous prison time. It’s difficult to scrounge someone up when all your dopey friends are two-bit crooks.
Finally, they settle on Peppe (Vittorio Gassman), a beefcake with a glass jaw. He has no prior record and with a dead-end boxing career, he could use the dough. So he goes into the police precinct, lays out his sob story, and proceeds to get handed a prison sentence of his own. Now he’s in the clink to keep Cosimo company.
He requests at least the common courtesy to know why he had to end up in prison in the first place. Cosimo tells him about a golden opportunity in the form of a heist. He’s got it all planned in his head, sans all the gory details. Regardless, it’s going to be the crime of the century, or the decade, or the year, or maybe the month…You get the idea.
When he finally gets on the outside on parole, it’s now Peppe who gathers the usual suspects together to put their plans into action. Their first mistake is probably taking their cues from a lug head, but they’re desperate and a little loopy themselves.
Soon they’re casing the joint and making sure they know what they’re getting into. It’s all very “scientific,” but not quite foolproof. They’ve watched one too many crime movies. The first professional they actually cross paths with is a safecracker (Toto) — a real pro — but he just gives them advice; he’s not actually prepared to take on the job for himself. He’s got his own parole to think about. And so he supplies them some of the tools of his trade and wishes them well.
Normally heist stories are constructed in a very specific manner. There’s the planning process, then the heist, and the reversal where everything goes haywire. Big Deal is made entirely in its foundation — the best-laid plans that have no choice but to go awry — and their continued complications and digressions only make the scenario more hilarious. Rest assured, we foresee the problems before they ever come to a head. How can we not? But they proceed to get worse and worse.
The vacant apartment they were going to use as their in-road has been filled and so they look to woo one of the tenants so they can gain access. Peppe dons his most charming persona to get a foot in the door, except he goes and falls in love with a maid (Carla Gravina) he’s supposed to be romancing, getting jealous of her steady row of suitors. Then, she gets herself fired and the whole reason she was of value to them in the first place goes out the window. Peppe still loves her.
What ever happened to Cosimo, you ask? He finally gets out, intent on his cut, only to then seek vengeance on his former compatriots, going so far as to ambush Peppe in the carnival’s bumper cars. The youngster Mario (Renato Salvatori) starts his own forbidden love affair with the chaste younger sister (Claudia Cardinale) of one of their co-conspirators. Soon he loses heart and drops out. The family man, Tibero (Marcello Mastrianni), struggles to take care of his son. He also gets his arm broken nabbing a camera for recon. Worse yet, the camera’s worthless.
Their luck never gets better, nor should it. When it comes time to synchronize their watches, of course, they don’t have any. They’re either too expensive or already hocked. A lover’s quarrel heats up, and with it, the lights go on, cutting into the crew’s surreptitious activities up above on the rooftops. Their timetable is abruptly derailed.
Big Deal on Madonna Street milks comedy from the telling observation that life is never picture perfect and even the most tightly wrought plans have a way of being unraveled or upended by the most unsubstantial wrinkle. These fellows aren’t exactly master criminals to begin with so their brand of setbacks more than fit the size and scope of the crime.
When they do finally get inside, there are leaks. Noises. Cats. Midnight snacks. Major miscalculations. They continue bumbling their way through every waking minute and we wouldn’t have it any other way. Normally heist films go horribly amiss at the most inopportune moment. In Big Deal on Madonna Street, they shoot themselves in the foot countless times, and still, they go for it anyway.
You’ve got to admire their dogged determination and this motley crew is quite likable. It comes from knowing they are criminals who never will succeed. They are armed with a prevailing obliviousness. We can laugh at them and like them, and watch them stumble off into their lives, after having made a complete mess of everything.
Part of this comes with walking with them in their lives and seeing them as commonfolk with all the foibles that come with small-town life. What a lovable pack of misfits and malcontents they are and we learn them to appreciate them for precisely these reasons. They’re unequivocally silly. If nothing else, they provided their audience with some quality entertainment. As a heist film shot as a comedy of errors, Madonna Street has never quite found its equal.