Saturday, September 29, 2012

#113: Big Deal on Madonna Street

(Mario Monicelli, 1958)

Big Deal on Madonna Street sits in an early, rare string of comedies in the Collection, bookended by Tati's great Hulot films and the sparkling screwball classic My Man Godfrey. The film is also the first Italian comedy in the collection (unless you count Nights of Cabiria, which anyone who has seen the final sequence should not), and it has not been joined by much company along the way. This shouldn't be much of a surprise: most Italian comedy is pretty brutal. I don't want to pile onto the Roberto Benigni-trashing bandwagon, but broad physical humor that emphasizes exaggerated caricatures in ludicrous situations gets old pretty fast.

Big Deal on Madonna Street walks the tightrope, though, and even with a few real close calls manages to make it to the other side. This is mostly because the performances are believable and mindful of keeping the characters grounded in the reality of their environment. Monicelli, who would later make the worthwhile recent Criterion addition The Organizer, certainly has a bit of that social consciousness in mind here, even if it's being used in the service of comedy. Not that this would ever be mistaken for a message picture - the film serves only to make the viewer laugh, and it got me enough times that I enjoyed watching it.

Where Big Deal on Madonna Street came up short for me was its reputation as a noir satire. The movie clearly had ancillary noir products like Rififi in mind, but that film straddled the heist and noir worlds very effectively. Big Deal on Madonna Street lacks any of the noir elements that might make it a more compelling parody of the genre. Without this edge, the film is simply a bumbling thieves farce - albeit one of the first. Many of the movies that have come after it were influenced by this, but I happened to like them better. The film ends up being a pretty brilliant, almost archetypal premise for a movie done fairly well, which makes for a worthwhile Criterion entry but not necessarily classic status.

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