The Italian Job is a movie about style. The heist is incidental.
We’re of course talking about Michael Caine’s turn as an impossibly dapper Charlie Croker from the 1969 original (the film was remade in 2003 and starred Mark Wahlberg, but comparing the two is like comparing Giovanni Passerini to Chef Boyardee). It isn’t simply a stylish film; it’s a revolutionarily stylish film. That is, the world changed after The Italian Job, as did the concept of masculinity, which theretofore had ascribed itself to a kind of Ernest Hemingway-cum-John Wayne archetype—grizzled, wooden, heart like a clenched fist, vulnerable as a fire hydrant, the embers of masculine rage always one stiff wind away from total combustion.
To wit: some of the highest-grossing films from 1969 include Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Midnight Cowboy, Easy Rider and, of course, True Grit.
That isn’t to say The Italian Job is a movie about clothes or fashion, although Croker’s suede reefer coat, blue worsted suit, black leather Chelsea boots, paisley cravat, burgundy pin-tucked Nappa leather gloves, Yvan tortoiseshell sunglasses, etc. might suggest otherwise. The tailor/shirtmaker scenes together last exactly 41 seconds. There is nothing didactic about this film. It’s wonderful taste, however center stage, is ancillary. Laser-sharp sprezzatura, Carnaby Street swag, automobiles so breathtaking one must look away when they’re destroyed. It’s set dressing, but executed in such a way that these elements become—and have maintained—the focus of The Italian Job. And while very much a late ’60s film, it remains a case study in timeless cool (flippant objectification of women and Benny Hill’s predatory Professor Simon Peach notwithstanding).
American men a decade prior fit into a rigid schematic; big and loud, all but drowning in boxy and cartoonishly wide-shouldered sport coats—as if the silhouettes were intended to impose and create the illusion of size and success in post-World War II U.S.A., to reassure every man and boy that he alone were “stand[ing] at the summit of the world.”
Charlie Croker, on the other hand, was soft-spoken and demure, exhibiting both languid sexuality and boyish vulnerability. He favored suits in an Italian cut, which were fastidious in detail and silhouette, a style brought into prominence by Italian fashion house Brioni in the mid-1950s. It was a more youthful fit, with both buttons higher on the jacket’s front, no pocket flaps, no trouser breaks, and no superfluous details that could mar the lines.
Croker’s was a kinder, more “cultured” masculinity, with an obvious sartorial focus. The type of guy who might defuse conflict with atomic wit over fisticuffs. This was not a cowboy but a gentleman, offering something of an aspirational ideal—both sensitive and strong, a figure to absorb into the schemata of our own personhood, to subtly replicate in mannerism and appearance until we become one.
A guy can dream.
Written by Andrew Stark.
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