Cosimo, a small time criminal in Rome, decides to steal a car one night. He is too inept to get the job done, attracting the attention of the patrolling police. Landing in jail, Cosimo hears of a possibility for a caper, the only problem is, he still has to serve his time. With the help of his friends, a search for a man to come forward to confess to the actual crime would clear Cosimo. After asking around, without much success, Peppe, another street hustler, and womanizer, decides to do it for the money. Unfortunately, he ends up in jail and Cosimo too. Jail time proves to be an opportunity for Peppe to learn about the caper Cosimo has been so carefully planning.
When Peppe is released, he looks for the men that would have been involved with Cosimo in the original plan. They include an assortment of petty street criminals who have no experience in how to go about doing the job. Enter Dante, a master safe cracker, who for money, will teach the gang how to open the safe at one of Rome's pawn shops. The only problem with the plan, Dante will not participate, thus leaving everything to Peppe and the gang.
Peppe, who has met Nicoletta, the niece of the occupants of the apartment he thought was empty, has a short romance with the woman, from whom he learns when will the two old ladies be away. Involved in the gang is Mario, who discovers the beautiful Carmelina, sister of Ferribotti, a Sicilian man who is guarding her chaste for a possible good marriage. There is Tiberio, a photographer, whose wife is serving jail time and he is now taking care of his infant son. Campanelle, an inept older man who is always hungry, completes the gang.
When the big night for the heist arrives, everything that could gone wrong, and more, is what happens. The men have absolutely no clue as to what to do, therefore, their plan will never be put in action. At the end, the gang come out empty handed, not before Campanelle discovers a pot of pasta and chick peas, which he praises to the others, who soon share the dish with him, agreeing how delicious it was.
Mario Monicelli, the director, who also collaborated with the screen play, seemed to be doing a funny take off on the more serious "Rififi", directed by Jules Dassin. That's where the comparison ends. Mr. Monicelli was more interesting in capitalizing in the comic aspects of a serious caper with a bunch of lunatics that have no clue what they really want. The result is one of the best movies of the fifties. The director was blessed in bringing together some of the best of the Italian cinema of the era.
The wonderful Vittorio Gassman is Peppe, the man in charge of the caper. This legendary actor was at a great moment of his career, and although his character is not a serious one, he runs away with the film because he clearly understood what made Peppe tick. Toto, another magnificent actor plays Dante, who knows a thing, or two, about how to crack a safe. Renato Salvatori makes a good impression as Mario, who discovers he is in love with Carmelina. Marcello Mastroianni has a small role here, as Tiberio, the man with a wife in jail who must bring the infant son to all the gang meetings. Carlo Pisacane has some excellent moments as Campanelle. The same goes for Tiberio Murgia who as Ferribotte wants to protect his sister from all his male friends.
The women in the film have lesser roles to play, but they clearly show they understood the material well. Carla Gravina makes a great Nicoletta. Claudia Cardinali appears as Carmelina, and lastly, Rosanna Rory is seen as Norma, Cosimo's girlfriend.
The DVD we recently watched has been carefully transferred and looks as good as when the film was released. It helps that Monicelli employed cinematographer Gianni DiVenzano to capture his story in black and white. The jazzy score by Piero Umiliani goes along well with the action. Mario Monicelli directed with an eye for the picaresque in a film that is imitated, but never equaled.