Produced by Roberto Capitani and Luigi Mondello for ICM (Rome) and Fenix Film (Madrid)
Director: Lucio Fulci
Story & screenplay: Giacomo Furia, Ottavio Jemma, Lucio Fulci
Cinematography: Manuel Berenguer
Music: Carlo Innocenzi
Art direction: Guido Pericoli
Cast: Armando Calvo (Joe Castagnola), Totò (Commissioner di Savio), Giacomo Furia (Vincenzo Scognamiglio), Enzo Turco (Brig. Nocella), Giovanna Ralli (Maddalena, Scognamiglio’s wife), Juanjo Menéndez (Salvatore, Vincenzo’s brother), Rafael Luis Calvo (don Antonio Ciardella), Félix Fernández (Doctor Ascione), Leopoldo Valentini (a policeman), Maria Luisa Rolando (Concetta Improta), Renato De Simone (Alberto, Vincenzo’s uncle), Fred Buscaglione (himself)
The Thieves is a 1959 vehicle for the hugely popular Italian comic Totò, which plays on the tenets of the American gangster genre in a very Italianesque fashion. A Spanish co-production, it was produced by Luigi Mondello and Roberto Capitani, who were better known for their work in the peplum genre but who also had a hand in assorted polizieschi, from The Barrier of the Law (54) to The Paid with Bullets (69). And it’s also of some historical interest for being the debut of Lucio Fulci, who would go on to have a long and fruitful career directing horror films (and other genre fare).
When the notorious Italo-American gangster Joe Castagnato (Armando Calvo) turns up in Naples – on the run from the States after committing a series of daring robberies – it doesn’t do anything to lower the blood-pressure of excitable local Commissioner Di Savio (Totò), who’s quite rightly convinced that his declarations of having retired from criminal life are little more than a ruse. He’s also certain that Castagnato has smuggled the proceeds of his illicit activities into the country, a stash worth many millions of lira, although nobody seems to know quite where he’s hidden it.
Nobody, that is, except the hapless Vincenzo Scognamiglio (Giacomo Furia), a layabout who steals a jar of jam from a packing case by the harbour and discovers it to be full of English pound coins. After consulting with his savvy wife, Maddalena (Giovanni Ralli), his sleepy brother (Juanjo Menéndez) and his kleptomaniac Uncle (Roberto De Simone), they figure he must have stumbled across the gangster’s elusive loot and decide to sell the information of its whereabouts to him. Castagnato agrees to give them a percentage, but only if they help him further by breaking into the secure warehouse where the cases are now locked up and nabbing them (again). In the meantime, he also has another plan afoot: breaking into the safe of the very same fence to who they’re planning to sell the purloined pounds and stealing the substantial wad of ready cash he has stored there. Inevitably, things go wrong.
Obviously much influenced by Mario Monicelli’s Big Deal on Madonna Street, this is an entertaining comedy that’s rather old fashioned but nonetheless rather good fun. With its black and cinematography, reliance on studio settings and rather theatrical feel, it’s a film that really makes clear just how much Italian cinema changed over the course of the early 1960s. The way in which these kinds of low budget films were made – according to a workshop methodology with a group of experienced artisans and established crews, tight deadlines and modest means – didn’t change, but the style and look developed enormously.
That said, Fulci’s direction is pretty decent, especially for a debutant, and it feels far more cinematic than many similar productions of the time. There are a couple of sequences which have a truly cinematic feel – the raid on the warehouse, a really quite cool Fred Buscaglione song and dance routine (complete with zoot-suited gangsters and a stripping moll) – and it’s put together with some vim, managing to be both playful and effective. It’s a b-movie, for sure, shot with an eye on the profit margin, but it’s a good b-movie, and it’s not difficult to see that Fulci had the ability to go further.
Those looking for some kind of subtext might be interested in the way that, as with many of these gangster movie parodies made in Italy, it pits a sophisticated American hoodlum against a range of Italian idiots who somehow – and quite accidentally – manage to finally put him behind bars, something which the high-powered, super organised FBI have been notably unable to do. So is it a celebration of the slapdash European way if doing things? Well, perhaps. Or perhaps it’s just an easy way of getting a laugh, and any film which features a lengthy hula-hoop scene can’t be bad.
Although ostensibly a vehicle for Totò, it’s actually an ensemble piece, and Furia and Ralli – who make for an astonishingly unlikely married couple – have just as much of the screen time. In fact, despite his tendency to gabble, Totò’s character is a wily old bird, far from the imbeciles usually played by Franco and Ciccio or the self-deluded dreamers of Alberto Sordi. Apparently, Totò agreed to appear as a favour to Fulci, who was a friend of his. The most charismatic performer, though, is Armando Calvo, who has a peach of a role and pulls it off nicely; he’d go on to have a busy career in Italo-Spanish co-productions throughout the sixties, often playing similarly smooth villains.