Posted by: greercn | March 21, 2010

The Italian Job and Radio On

Once in awhile, the Stratford Picture House does a special screening for members, as a reward for making us put up with its many quirks. There is no need – we love it anyway – but Sunday’s double bill freebie reminded me of the lost joy of the double feature.

What might unite these two disparate films? I had seen both many times before. “The Italian Job” is a classic. I don’t mind the remake, but this original film from 1969 stays fresh as a daisy in my mind and should have been paid for by the Mini, given its endless advertising of the car as a cool brand.

“Radio On” is the last of the downbeat pre-Thatcher movies. I remembered David Beames’ bravura lead performance, the astonishing cinematography of Martin Schafer (who worked with Wim Wenders on this and found fame later) and a curious cameo by Sting.  The soundtrack – Bowie, Kraftwerk, Lene Lovich and Wreckless Eric stayed with me too, as did the brave decision to not have subtitles of the German sections.

Surely the 2004 “improved edit” would add subtitles and dumb down? No, it didn’t. One quibble; I would have shown these the other way round, with “The Italian Job” coming second. But this is a minor quibble and shows I wish to be left laughing rather than thoughtful.

What links these two disparate movies is cars. Both movies love cars and see them as tools of change in society and a way to comment on social change. Their visions are different but complementary.

Michael Caine has a run of good movies in the late 60s and early 70s, including “Alfie”, the spy movies and this, the sheer fun of “The Italian Job”. It’s just highly entertaining from start to finish, without a duff scene. Noel Coward is astonishing, Benny Hill is very funny and Rossano Brazzi is very, very cool. Maggie Blye and Irene Handl are under-used, but memorable. Tony Beckley is excellent as “Camp Freddie”.

The gorgeous use of Turin and the Alps, the theft and the cliffhanger ending can never be forgotten. It was bliss to see this again on a big screen. It glorifies robbery and patronises women and – well, who cares? It’s just terrific.

After a brief intermission, we were into the much grimmer “Radio On” in which our hero drives from London to Bristol in search of whether his brother died as the result of suicide or murder. He has terrific taste in music. He meets up with an army deserter, a German woman seeking her lost child and Sting, among others. In marked contrast to Michael Caine’s character in “The Italian Job”, he is curiously passive, backing off from confrontation and using music and his car to keep himself, as the vernacular of the time said, together.

The closing or closed factories, the high-rise tower blocks, rural landscapes and run-down pubs, as well as the seedy homes all add to the sense of person and country at the crossroads. Again, we are left with a sort of cliffhanger. But the sense of horror at the ugliness of Britain in 1979 is clear.

I have a German friend who visits England regularly who likes to pick up on a piece I wrote in the early 1980s. The theme was “England falling to the banshees” and he quotes my writing then in disturbing detail. When I see this movie, I see the eyes I wrote through then. The one good thing about this bleak but stirring film vision is that life goes on and hope stays strong in the human spirit. Light and dark even out, in cinematography and in life.

On a less deep level, both films show that cool cars can transport you, in more ways that the obvious one.

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