OK, this one is complicated, so we’ll have to be careful. It’s one of those rabbit hole things where you know where you start, and not where you are going to end up.
But let’s try.
And we’ll start from the bottom, and climb up the rabbit hole: our story sort of begins in 1950, when an 11-men gang of robbers hits the Brink Building in Boston, Mass. stealing 2.775 million dollars of the time (over 28 million at the current rate) – the largest robbery in American history.
Five years later, they made a movie based on the Brink Building Robbery – a noir called Six Bridges to Cross, featuring Tony Curtis (Clint Eastwood had auditioned for the part, but was rejected).
And three years after that, in Italy, a group of small-time criminals saw the Tony Curtis movie and thought… why not?
On the morning of the 27th of February 1958, seven men attacked a money transport in Via Osoppo, Milan.
They hit (literally, they crashed into it with a truck) the armored van and made good their escape with 500 million Lire (back then, the average monthly salary for a white collar job was 50.000 Lire).
The heist was carried out in full daylight, without shooting a single bullet and under the eyes of the people living on the street. Famously, while the guys were loading the loot on a car, a lady shouted from a window “Go get a job!”, to which one of the men replied “What do you think is this we’re doing?”
They were caught, and for six years their trial made the headlines. And when they were finally sentenced to jail, in 1964, the public was sort of let down: the guys were working class lowlifes, common people, and they had beat the system and stuck it to the Man. The money they had stolen belonged to a bank, and the crime elicited little sympathy: like Berthold Brecht wrote, if robbing a bank is a crime, then what is founding one?
The press had a field day, of course, and called the robbers The Academy of Crime and also I Sette Uomini d’Oro – the Seven Golden Men.
And this is where our story really begins.
Marco Vicario started in movies in 1949, and for a decade he’d been a solid but overlooked actor in a number of historical and adventure movies shot in Cinecittà.
In 1959 he decided for a change of career, and he became a producer, screenwriter and director, and created his own production company, Atlantica Cinematografica.
In 1964 he produced the classic horror Danza Macabra (distributed internationally as Castle of Blood) featuring Barbara Steele.
And in 1965 he wrote, produced and directed a movie called I 7 Uomini d’Oro (Seven Golden Men for the English market), a medium-budget caper movie very loosely inspired by the events that had ended just the year before with the final trial of the Via Osoppo gang.
It was a smash.
The plot in a nutshell: The Professor (French actor Philippe Leroy, playing a Brit) puts together an international team of expert criminals (a German, an Italian, a Portuguese, a Spaniard, a Frenchman and an Irishman) and together with his cigar-smoking lover and femme fatale (Rossana Podestà), sets up a hi-tech heist against a Swiss bank. The target, seven tonnes of gold bricks.
The movie is considered one of the highlights of 1960s Italian cinema, and it is fast, furious and fun, a fine example of comedy thriller.
The dialogue is snappy, the action tight, the gadgets and the gimmicks are a cross between James Bond and Mission: Impossible. Rossana Podestà (that was the director’s wife at the time) is positively breathtaking, and sports a series of outrageous outfits that underscore her beauty.
The whole cast is excellent, aligning some of the best – and most underrated – Italian and European actors. Apart from Leroy and Podestà, Gastone Moschin (playing the German techie) and Giampiero Albertini (as the down-to-earth Portuguese guy) shine in what is by all means a dream team.
The plot is deceptively simple – and as it is to be expected, the real trouble will begin after the heist, as the criminals start fighting among themselves.
The movie was an Italian/French/Spanish co-production, and the movie was shot in Italy and Switzerland.
Curiously enough, the troupe had to shoot using a fake script while on location in Geneva: Swiss law forbade to film a heist movie in front of an actual bank.
The movie was awarded two Silver Ribbons, one of Italy’s foremost cinema awards, for the production and for Armando Trovajoli’s swinging vocalese jazz soundtrack – very much an artefact of the mid-60s.
Such was the success of the movie in Europe, that the following year the same cast came back for Il grande colpo dei 7 uomini d’oro (aka Seven Golden Men Strike Again), in which the seven robbers (and their sexy cigar-smoking lady) are back in the game, this time to steal 7000 tonnes (!) of gold on behalf of a cabal of corrupt politicians. Enrico Maria Salerno, a big name of Italian cinema, appears as a Castro-esque dictator.
The movie turned up to 11 all the elements of the first film, and it was another colossal success, and not just in Europe. In Japan and the far east they loved the series, and it probably influenced the Lupin the 3rd manga and anime series.
Two years later, Vicario would produce – but not write nor direct – 7 volte 7 (Seven times seven), not exactly a sequel nor a spin-off but rather a variation on the theme, featuring many actors from the previous two films in different roles. Alas, we get no Leroy and no Podestà, but the cast includes Terry-Thomas (and he’s great, but no substitute for either former stars).
The plot of 7 volte 7 shows an uncanny number of similarities with the following year’s The Italian Job, including the part set in a British jail: in this case, seven criminals hatch a plan to evade during the football finals in London, to break into the mint, print a few million pounds and then get back in the can to wait for their release to enjoy the profits.
The Men of Gold movies mark a high point in Italian action thrillers, before the relaxing of censorship ushered a decade of insipid sexy comedies and ultra-violent (for the times) cop movies1. It’s light but classy, sexy but elegant, and makes every cent of the budget work.
And yes, almost sixty years on a lot of the stuff looks naive and simplistic, and there’s no SFX worth mentioning and all that – but consider this: the first movie in the series came out in 1965, almost exactly halfway between the Rat Pack’s Ocean’s 11 (1960) and Michael Caine’s The Italian Job (1969). This is seminal stuff.
In case you are interested, the three films can be found, in acceptable quality, on Youtube. And here is the award-winning soundtrack, just because.
- there was also a 7 Men of Gold in Space, shot in 1979, but we’ll save that for later… much later. ↩