2019 marks the 60th anniversary of the Mini as well as the 50th anniversary of British cult classic film The Italian Job, in which of course the Mini plays the starring role. The film has gathered somewhat of a cult following over the years and fans of both the film and car can now celebrate these two anniversaries with a wonderful new hardback book by Porter Press entitled The Self Preservation Society – 50 Years of The Italian Job, which is written by the world authority on the film, Matthew Field.
The book takes a fascinating, behind-the-scenes look at how the film made its way to our screens and is based on over 50 in-depth interviews with cast and crew members which have taken place over the last 20 years of research by the author. This beautiful 334-page tome features fabulous illustrations of hundreds of never-before-seen photographs and production documents and should take pride of place on your coffee table at home.
The launch of the book took place at both the Royal Automobile Club and Brooklands, where a number of the original cast from the film along with Oscar-winning Producer Michael Deeley, joined club members and the press to talk about the film. Fans of the film may remember, Robert Powell who played Yellow and David Salamone who played Dominic and drove the red Mini in the film and was also responsible for finding most of the cars that were used. He also gives an insight into the challenges racing them, as they had to get the stunts right first time, as there were only a limited number of cars available.
There is a wonderful forward by lead actor Sir Michael Caine, in which he says: “The Italian Job was not a big hit when it was first released. As a result we never made the sequel. However, since then, it has become a cult classic and one of the most popular films of all time in England.” He goes on to say that “The Italian Job is a snapshot of that time and perfectly encapsulated the decade: the cars, the fashion, the fun and the optimistic attitude that was in the air.”
Despite the film not doing so well here when it was launched and bombing in the United States, it was subsequently voted the greatest British film ever made, following a survey of more than 2,000 British movie-goers in 2017. And of course, there is that famous line from Michael Caine that we all remember: “You’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off.”
There are some wonderful insights from Michael Deeley who says at one point in the book when choosing the cast, that “I wanted to pack the film full of people who were loved on British Television. Benny Hill and Irene Handl, with just a flicker of the eye, can tell the whole story.”
It’s interesting to read what inspired the film to be made and how the locations were chosen, such as that great tunnel scene – and no it wasn’t filmed in Italy, but rather Coventry!
Matthew Field also takes a detailed look at the life of Peter Collinson, who was the British director who controlled all creative aspects of the film, and whose life was somewhat complex to say the least. He was discovered by Noël Coward, who also starred in the film, and became Collinson’s surrogate godfather. The critics were not kind, but the film’s eventual success proved them wrong, and even Paramount was sceptical about whether the film would be successful or not.
There is a must-read introduction by Michael Deeley, who is now 87 years old, and puts the lack of success of the film in the US down to the simple fact that there was no appeal because it had nothing to do with America. The film was a “cheeky look at the difference between the British and our European neighbours.” He goes on to say that “This movie was released just as Britain was joining the Common Market – a hot topic of conversation. It’s ironic that here we are 50 years later, and still the UK is conflicted about its place in the European Union. The Italian Job is the perfect Brexit movie, whatever your view.”
The book takes the reader on a journey through the “Swinging Sixties” in London and opens with an insight into developing the screenplay with Troy Kennedy Martin, who had worked for the BBC and on successful series like Z-Cars and Diary of a Young Man and was a successful television writer. The timing was perfect, as he “…was looking for a vehicle that would allow me to move into films. I wanted to do a caper, which would in some way incorporate the spirit of individualism, confidence and cockiness that existed in London in the sixties.”
The first chapter also has a profile of Michael Deeley who sums up the role of producer by saying: “A Producer is a person who causes a film to be made. They are on the picture from start to finish and are the longest-serving member of the crew.”
The second chapter offers a detailed insight into the film’s director Peter Collinson, who although relatively unknown at the time, was the front runner to direct The Italian Job. Sadly, Collinson died long before the film became the classic it is today and to many, he still remains something of an enigma and someone who lived on the edge.
Chapter three looks at how the team was chosen and developed and how automotive giant Fiat came to play a vital role in the movie as they looked for a city to film in. Although Milan was where the script was set, the “Italian authorities pointed out that as much as they would like to help, to bring the traffic to a standstill in Milan, which was probably the busiest city in Italy, would be asking a bit too much, even of Italian generosity.”
Gianni Agnelli, head of Fiat, found the script amusing and was prepared to give the film producers whatever help he could and summoned the Chief of Police from Rome to arrange things like the traffic jams and as Martin says, “I don’t think we could have made it without his help. He made very few demands upon us. In fact he gave us three Fiat Dinos, which served as unit cars and which were also used by the Mafia in the film.”
Michael Caine added: “When Agnelli said ‘yes’, the city said ‘yes’. I don’t think we would have been able to pull any of it off without the word from Gianni.”
The fourth chapter of the book goes into detail of how the cast was chosen with the likes of Noël Coward who played Mr Bridger, Benny Hill who played Professor Simon Peach, Raf Vallone who played Altabani, Tony Beckley as Camp Freddie, Rossano Brazzi as Beckerman and Maggie Blye who played Lorna, who was described in the screenplay as a ‘Dolly Bird’, personifying the sexy, swinging spirit of the decade. There were also some cameos from Irene Handl as Miss Peach, Fred Emney as Birkshaw, Simon Dee as Adrian, the shirt-maker and John Le Mesurier as the Prison Governor.
Chapter five goes into the making of the film as the actors tried to remember to drive on the ‘wrong’ side of the road! It is also where some of the cars used in the making of film are featured, such as the Lamborghini Miura P400. Two Aston Martin DB4 Convertibles were also used. And while the script describes a dark blue Aston Martin, the actual car they managed to source was a snow shadow grey DB4.
Four cheap disposable E-Type Jaguars were additionally purchased for the film, two dark blue fixed heads and two red roasters.
The famous Mini Cooper chase, described as “one of the most famous car chases in cinema history” is featured in chapter six and was perhaps “the greatest car commercial ever” as Roy Kennedy Martin “understood how the film could benefit the marketing and publicity departments at the British Motor Corporation.” As a result, an agreement was reached with BMC for six Mk 1 Minis to be delivered on a transporter from the Longbridge plant to Blenheim Motors in St John’s Wood. However, the cars appeared to be test mules, with mechanical faults that needed to be repaired and were not new cars. Stunt driver Rémy Julienne discussed modifications with David Salmone that had to be made to the cars by Blenheim Motors, such as stripping out the interiors of the cars and adding huge sump guards underneath to protect them as they drove down steps.
As Rémy Julienne said: “[The Mini] was the perfect car for the film. It was compact, very low and could fit anywhere. It’s a bit like a go-kart.”
Naturally many people have asked about the identity and what became of the six minis that were used in the film? Well, last year a box was discovered containing the details of all the cars used in the film. It reveals the true identity of the six hero Mini Coopers. At the time BMC was selling Minis under two marques: Austin and Morris and out of the six cars, two were Morris and four were Austin Minis.
The stunts including the roof-top jump the Minis performed are revealed in great detail and how the famous chase sequences and getaway were all filmed. We also learn how the Minis got into the coach toward the end of the film and how important it was to make sure the wheels were all in line on the ramp!
The sound effects of the Minis in the film come from time spent at Brands Hatch where David Salmone and the ground crew recorded genuine Minis going around the circuit.
Chapter seven describes the literal cliff-hanger finale, where the coach is dangling over the edge of the cliff. As Troy Kennedy Martin said: “I think the ending of The Italian Job was very good, but it had to be something that had been invented by a senior executive. If a writer had come up with that, they would have laughed, torn it up and thrown it in the bin.” Apparently, the filmmakers deliberated for months on how to close the film.
Chapter eight of the book talks about the post-production of the film, which started almost immediately after filming stopped. The soundtrack to the film was written by the legendary American musician, producer and composer Quincy Jones, whose brief was to “write a song that made the Italian Riviera look irresistible, to transport the audience to a gorgeous sunny setting.”
The penultimate chapter talks about the release and promotion of the film with wonderful illustrations of some of the movie posters used to promote it around the world.
The final chapter sums up 50 years of The Italian Job, talking about how the film grew in popularity throughout the eighties and into the nineties, where it gained its label as a ‘cult classic.’ Then in 1999, to celebrate the film’s 30th anniversary, it was re-released in UK cinemas, along with a new trailer and poster campaign to bring it a little more up to date.
Then in 2003 the remake of The Italian Job was released with a Hollywood makeover, using the new BMW MINI. It starred Mark Wahlberg as Charlie Cocker and Donald Sutherland played Mr Bridger, with new characters written for Charlize Theron, Edward Norton and Jason Statham.
So here are half a century later and The Self Preservation Society, 50 years of The Italian Job is a must-get book for any aficionado of the film. It is published by Porter Press International available at £45. There is also a special Collector’s edition of the book priced at £95, limited to just 300 copies.
Simon Burrell is Editor of Our Man Behind The Wheel, a professional photographer and former saloon car racing driver.
Illustrations courtesy of Porter Press International and photographs by Gary Harman