A tale of two ‘Jobs’

Hollywood has rediscovered the ’60s and ’70s, but can it capture that era’s lightning without the creative spark that spawned it?

According to current revisionist thinking, the movies of the ’60s and ’70s have been seriously underrated, a fact that’s triggered a sudden rush of remakes from that period. The latest example is a 1969 caper movie called “The Italian Job,” a new version of which is about to go into production at Paramount.

I think it’s a great idea to remake the movies of the past, especially given the wariness with which studios approach contemporary subjects. Nonetheless, the ’60s and ’70s were a curious moment in time, and while it’s tempting to appropriate the movie plots of that period, there are hidden traps to be overcome. And they’re especially evident in “The Italian Job.”

Maybe that’s why it took 10 years for Paramount to mobilize a remake, compared with the 10 weeks required to put together the original. As a youthful newcomer to Paramount, I was surprised to find myself in the middle of the initial maelstrom.

Movies happened fast in the ’60s and ’70s because the studios were looking to create alchemy, not franchises. Start dates were triggered by the passion of the moment, not the presence of co-financiers and marketing partners. Movies would open on four or five screens, then try to build on word-of-mouth. The tyranny of the 5,000-screen premiere and the $40 million ad campaign was not even remotely foreseen.

Hence studio executives were searching for the hot idea, not the built-in sequel. Filmmakers wanted to shake up their audiences, but that didn’t mean taking them on a theme park ride. The movies that resulted often were distinguished more by their subtext than by their narrative.

Which brings us back to “The Italian Job.” It was one of the first scripts I read when I got to Paramount. It struck me first and foremost as a terrific action film, replete with vivid characters, great chases and all sorts of delicious conceits going on in the background.

It also was one of the first movies to deal with the brave new world of computers: A gang of thieves would reprogram the newly computerized traffic system of Turin, Italy, in order to pull off a gold heist. While the entire city choked in traffic, a single corridor would provide the escape route.

That was the basic plot, but when you saw the movie (I watched it again last week after a 30-year gap), it was all the stuff going on in the background that grabbed you.

The script, by a young Brit named Troy Kennedy Martin, brilliantly captured the hypocrisies and contradictions of swinging London, circa 1969 — the class tensions, the sexual rebellion, the Carnaby Street garishness. Though the caper was led by a working-class bumbler played by Michael Caine, its mastermind was none other than Noel Coward, cast as a regal criminal who managed to sustain his baronial life style in a London prison, faithfully keeping his photo of the Queen on the wall of his cell.

To Martin and his uniquely eccentric young director, Peter Collinson, the tensions between the British thieves and their Italian counterparts represented a metaphor for the budding capitalist rivalries gripping Western Europe.

“The script may have been about robbing a bank, but to Michael Caine and the rest of us, it was really about stealing money from Hollywood,” Martin said. “Suddenly the studios had discovered British filmmaking, and big money was flowing and we were all determined to get in on the action.”

Martin gave his script of “The Italian Job” to Caine, who passed it on to Robert Evans, who in turn gave it to me. Since Evans and I sparked to it, he instantly closed a deal with the writer while they were riding up 35 floors in the Paramount elevator in New York. Evans also elicited a promise from his friend, Gianni Agnelli, the king of Fiat, to help us secure Turin as the site of the cosmic traffic jam.

It seemed like the movie started shooting instantly, even before a proper ending was agreed upon (the final one was shot over the objections of Collinson). When it opened, there were no lines around the block, but the $3 million film was a box office success and ultimately went on to become a cult movie.

The new incarnation of “The Italian Job” did not have as easy a path. For 10 years a succession of producers presided over a succession of scripts. Evans himself approached the studio with an idea for a remake — he even had Agnelli’s backing once again — but the studio demurred. Working Title worked on the script for awhile, but after three sets of writers Eric Fellner and Tim Bevan decided the studio just didn’t see it their way.

Three years ago Donald De Line decided to take a stab at it. He went through several drafts but he, too, found that while everyone liked the general idea, no one could agree on its precise execution. Until now, that is.

The script that will finally go into production in August will be directed by F. Gary Gray, who did “The Negotiator,” and the cast will include Mark Wahlberg, Edward Norton and Charlize Theron.

Though partially set in Italy, involving a short chase on the Venice canals, the big caper will be staged in Los Angeles, not Turin. The comedic elements will be toned down, the action dialed up. There will be no Noel Coward or Benny Hill. But there may be some inspired product placements for BMW’s new line of minis.

“I think it will be a very hip caper movie,” says De Line, with a producer’s optimism. At the same time, it will clearly be a post-2000 movie, not an idiosyncratic product of the ’60s.

After all, times change. What remains to be seen, of course, is whether a product of the ’60s can or should be slotted into the 2002 pipeline.

Are remakes an homage or a vulgarization? Stay tuned.

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