East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

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Something light: Surprise Package, 1960

I was ten or twelve years old, and I was in bed with a bad case of the flu, and I caught half a movie on the TV one morning – on the old family Zenith black and white television. It was the end of the ’70s – 1977 or 1979. I watched it – there was Yul Brynner in it, and Yul Brynner was the guy from Magnificent 7 and Westworld, and that movie about the Czar’s daughter my mother liked. Yul Brynner was cool.
Later that day, checking the TV listings, I learned the movie was called Surprise Package, and forty years on, last night, I finally watched it form the beginning.

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Seven Golden Men

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’Orothe Seven Golden Men.
And this is where our story really begins. Continue reading

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Travels with Graham Greene’s Aunt

I watched George Cukor’s Travels with my Aunt again, last night.
I had a chat with a friend about Graham Greene, his books and entertainments, and the movies that had been made from those stories, and Travels came back to me.


I did not remember the movie opened at a sparsely-attended funeral, but I remembered very well Maggie Smith in the title role.
And being a Graham Greene story, it is of course a caper movie, a story of less-than-straight individuals doing less-than-legal things.
It’s great fun, and highly melancholic in spots, and it takes place in London, Paris and parts south around the Mediterranean, in the sixties. And it features an eccentric, non-conformist, absolutely scandalous woman. I had to watch it again. Continue reading