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Big Deal on Madonna Street

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Big Deal on Madonna Street
(I soliti ignoti)
Italian film poster
Directed byMario Monicelli
Written byAge ~ Scarpelli
Suso Cecchi d'Amico
Mario Monicelli
Produced byFranco Cristaldi
StarringVittorio Gassman
Renato Salvatori
Memmo Carotenuto
Rossana Rory
Carla Gravina
Claudia Cardinale
Marcello Mastroianni
CinematographyGianni di Venanzo a.i.c.
Edited byAdriana Novelli
Music byPiero Umiliani
Distributed byLux Film
Release date
  • 30 June 1958 (1958-06-30)
Running time
111 minutes

Big Deal on Madonna Street (Italian: I soliti ignoti; released in the UK as Persons Unknown) is a 1958 Italian comedy caper film directed by Mario Monicelli[1] and considered to be among the masterpieces of Italian cinema. Its original Italian title literally translates as “the usual unknown ones,” which is roughly equivalent to the English phrase “the usual suspects.” The name of the Roman street in the English title is a slight mistranslation, as the Italian name of the fictional Roman street on which the midnight burglary in the film takes place is the Via delle Madonne (The Street of the Madonnas) rather than “Madonna Street.” Compounding the confusion is the fact that the real Roman street on which the scene was filmed is the Via delle tre cannelle (The Street of the Three Spouts), rather than the Via delle tre Madonne (The Street of the Three Madonnas).

The film is a comedy about a group of small-time thieves and ne'er-do-wells who bungle an attempt to burgle a pawn shop in Rome.[2] The five hapless would-be burglars are played by Vittorio Gassman, Renato Salvatori, Carlo Pisacane, Tiberio Murgia and Marcello Mastroianni. The careers of both Gassman and Mastroianni were considerably helped by the success of the film—Gassman in particular, since before this point he was not deemed suitable for comedic roles. Claudia Cardinale is featured in a minor role (a chaste, black-clad Sicilian girl, almost held prisoner at home by her overbearing brother, played by Murgia); she would later rise to fame for other work. In addition to its cast and plot,the film is also notable for its breezy jazz score by composer Piero Umiliani, who helped develop the style of the jazz soundtracks now considered characteristic of European films in the 1960s and 1970s.

The producers were initially skeptical about the film's success, so the appearance of the famous comedian Totò was highlighted on the original poster to boost audience interest, even though his character chooses to remain a consultant to the heist gang, rather than joining it outright.

The film is distributed in Region 1 by The Criterion Collection and for the Italian market in Region 2 by 20th Century Fox.[3]


A hapless small-time Roman crook, Cosimo (Memmo Carotenuto), is arrested for a bungled car theft and sentenced to a few months in prison. He is desperate to be released so he can carry out a heist idea stolen from another inmate, a dishonest bricklayer who purposely constructed a flimsy wall between the dining room of a vacant apartment and the room in a pawn shop containing its safe, and tells his girlfriend, Norma (Rossana Rory), to get Capannelle (Carlo Pisacane), his elderly sidekick, to find someone to confess to his crime so he will be released. After first getting turned down by Mario (Renato Salvatori), a young petty thief, Ferribotte (Tiberio Murgia), a posturing Sicilian crook who needs money for his sheltered sister's dowry, and Tiberio (Marcello Mastroianni), a down and out photographer who had to sell his camera to support his baby while his wife is in jail for smuggling cigarettes, Capannelle finally is able to bribe a boxer with a glass jaw named Peppe (Vittorio Gassman) to take the fall for Cosimo. The judge does not believe Peppe, however, and he ends up in prison alongside Cosimo. He tells Cosimo that he has been sentenced to three long years for his minor offense and gets Cosimo, who feels guilty, to explain the details of the pawn shop heist. Peppe then gleefully reveals that he has been given a year's probation and walks out the prison gate, infuriating Cosimo.

When Capanelle, Mario, Ferribotte, Tiberio, and Norma hear Peppe has been released, they go to his apartment to get back the money they contributed to his bribe for helping Cosimo, and he enlists them to help with the heist. The group case the pawn shop: to get into the apartment, they must cut a lock on a coal chute, slide into the basement, sneak into a small courtyard, climb onto the roof of a first floor apartment, break into the vacant apartment through a window, and then punch through the wall between the apartment and the pawn shop. Tiberio steals a movie camera with a telephoto lens from a flea market to get the safe's combination by filming it being opened from across the street, but the technology fails him. Since no one involved knows how to crack the safe, they enlist the help of genteel local safecracker Dante Cruciani (Totò), who is cautious not to violate his parole, but gives them a brief primer and supplies tools.

The gang discover the vacant apartment is now occupied by two spinsters and their young, attractive maid Nicoletta (Carla Gravina). Ladies' man Peppe attempts to strike up a relationship with Nicoletta, but his efforts are threatened by her apparent indifference to him, as well as the reappearance of Cosimo, who has been released from prison earlier than had been expected. Peppe offers to let Cosimo in on the plan, but Cosimo refuses to accept only an equal share of the haul and goes off to rob the pawn shop on his own. He first tries just entering the pawn shop with a gun, but the blasé pawnbroker assumes he wants to hock it and, not knowing how to respond, Cosimo leaves. His next plan is to steal the cash box from a female employee of the pawn shop when she is on her way to the bank, but a male coworker arrives to accompany her, and Cosimo loses his nerve. Deflated, he sees another female pedestrian and tries to steal her purse, but she resists and he is killed by a streetcar while he is attempting to escape. There is not much time to mourn Cosimo, however, because Nicoletta, who began to like Peppe when she saw Norma get jealous and knock him out at a Carnival party, has invited Pepe to come over to the apartment where she works the day after the funeral, since the spinsters will be away for the night, though Peppe still has not figured out how he will keep Nicoletta out of the way while he and his compatriots knock down a wall and rob the pawn shop.

While he is getting ready for the heist, Ferribotte discovers that Mario has been spending time with his sister, Carmelina (Claudia Cardinale), and confronts Mario at Capannelle's apartment, where the gang, including Tiberio with a newly broken arm, is assembling. Mario says he has fallen for Carmelina and lost his heart for crime and then quits the caper, adding that he has already gotten a job at a theater. Ferribotte believes that Mario is genuine and tells Mario to take care of Carmelina if something should happen to him during the heist.

Nicoletta arrives unexpectedly to announce to Peppe that their date is off because she has quit her job in a huff and therefore no longer has access to the apartment. She reveals that her former employers have not cancelled their trip and then discovers the keys to the apartment in her purse, so Tiberio encourages Peppe to steal the keys so the gang can still go through with their plan. When they are on their way to where she is staying for the night, Nicoletta asks Peppe to drop off the keys with the doorman at the building where the spinsters live, which he does to help keep suspicion away from Nicoletta when the robbery is discovered.

Without the keys, Peppe, Tiberio, Ferribotte, and Capanelle revert to their initial plan and succeed in making it into the apartment next to the pawn shop. They set about breaking through the dining room wall, only to discover that what is on the other side is nothing but the apartment's own kitchen; the correct wall is in what was the dining room before the spinsters recently had Nicoletta rearrange the furniture in the apartment. Realizing they now have too little time to break down another wall and crack the safe before the pawn shop opens for business, the gang resignedly raids the refrigerator. Their repast ends abruptly when the ever-starved Capannelle blows up the stove while attempting to light one of its burners.

Finally thwarted, the four men straggle homeward. Tiberio and Ferribotte stop to catch a streetcar, leaving only Peppe and Capanelle. They hide in a crowd when the alarm on a clock that Capanelle stole from the apartment attracts the attention of some policemen, but find they are in a group of men who are waiting in hopes of getting some work for the day. Capanelle is happy to get thrown out after the gates are opened, but he is surprised to see that Peppe does not leave after he finds out where the group is heading, seemingly ready to give legitimate work a try.

The film ends with a newspaper article recounting a robbery by unknown persons who apparently broke into an apartment to steal pasta with chickpeas.


(character names are not indicated in on-screen cast credits)


The building depicted in the film, photographed in 2019
The building depicted in the film, photographed in 2019

According to director Mario Monicelli, while the film was intended as a parody of neorealism, "by then neorealism was already a thing of the past, something that was surpassed. It was more a parody that was aligned with a certain realism around us, with the poverty, and with people who had to do the best they could with whatever means possible to survive, with petty crimes. ...They are people without education or strong family support who are only attempting to survive. All my films have this type of theme or idea."[4]

Asked if it was also a parody of Jules Dassin's film Rififi, Monicelli said, "Yes because we saw this as a film shot in a very harsh, realist style. Very scientific, as the Peppe character continually says. So we wanted to do the same thing, but the characters didn't have the means. The way they worked was quite the contrary actually."[4]

Monicelli and cinematographer Gianni Di Venanzo agreed on a photographic tone that was not comedic or brightly lit. "On the contrary," Monicelli said, "harsh and dramatic, because the film has a dramatic side in that it is about poor people. We also have the death of Cosimo, and his funeral. So it's a comedy but with death. Which was something new at the time. It was rare to find death and failure in a comedy. I had difficulty making the film because the producers didn’t want me to make it this way. With Vittorio Gassman who wasn’t a comedian, with the film ending in failure, and with the death of a central character. All this made it difficult. But Di Venanzo understood the tone. To make people laugh with a story that was dramatic rather than comic. But seen with a comic eye."[4]

The film was shot in ten weeks on locations throughout Rome. "Even most of the interiors were on location," Monicelli said. "The only interior that was shot in a studio was the wall that gets broken into at the end because I couldn’t break a wall in an actual apartment! But all the other interiors were shot on location. Which of course was a particular trait of Italian cinema, to shoot on location. Especially in those days, although that tendency remains even in contemporary Italian cinema...There were not that many cars and little traffic. Italy was a poor country. People walked or took what little public transport there was, especially in the city peripherals. In the city centers of course it was a little busier, but still not heavy in traffic. Italy was a country not far removed from the war, with much visible destruction. That was the reality."[4]

According to Monicelli, the film adhered to the script, without improvisations. "I don’t do improvising," he said. "I don't know how. I like to know everything in advance and spend a long time in preparation."[4]

Dialogue, as was customary in Italian cinema, was all post-dubbed. Monicelli explained, "First of all because in Italy we often shoot with actors who are not professional. For example the guy who plays the Sicilian, the jealous brother Ferribotte, was not an actor. He was a dishwasher in a restaurant I would frequent. The guy who plays Capannelle, the sporty guy, wasn’t an actor either. I think he was a bricklayer. Of course [Claudia] Cardinale wasn’t an actress then either. But this way of shooting films was quite common in Italy, to use actors taken from the street. So because they didn’t know how to recite their lines they had to be dubbed. On the other hand, you know that in Italy we speak many different dialects. So, for example, the actor who plays the Sicilian was not Sicilian. He was neither an actor, or a Sicilian! So I had to have a Sicilian dub his voice. Another one of the actors who was supposed to be Bolognesian (from Bologna) was from Naples, so I had to dub his voice. Cardinale spoke French so I had to dub her voice into Sicilian."[4]

The apartment and pawnshop on "Via della Madonna" was in reality located at 7–8, Via delle Tre Cannelle (41°53′48″N 12°29′10″E / 41.896613°N 12.486°E / 41.896613; 12.486), immediately north of Trajan's Market. The building is still standing as of 2019.[5]


The film was a hit in Italy when it was released and won two Italian Nastro d'Argento awards: Best Leading Actor (Gassman) and Best Screenplay. It also garnered the prestigious Silver Shell for Best Director at the San Sebastián Film Festival in Spain. The film won Best Comedy at the 12th annual Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland. The film was also Italy's Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film at the 31st Academy Awards.[6] It lost to Jacques Tati's Mon Oncle.[7]


According to the New York Times, for its American release the film was “dubbed into English over a six-month period with considerable money and effort expended in matching voices and intonations to achieve artistic and mechanical perfection.” At the time, there was a general debate over dubbing versus subtitling foreign films, and the American distributor, Richard Davis, screened the first reel of both versions for critics and writers and asked for their preference. They chose subtitles,[8] though the dubbed version did make it to American TV in the early 1960s.

Several critics decried the subtitles. New York Times critic Bosley Crowther called it "an essentially funny picture, artfully and joyously played. It's just too bad those incongruous, flat subtitles have to get in the way.” [9] Chicago Tribune critic James Rich liked the film, though he noted “the humor [is] tarnished only when the parade of subtitles makes viewing a sort of exercise in speed reading.” [10] Philip K. Scheuer, writing for the Los Angeles Times, called it “cleverly directed and acted...but there is one disadvantage for the linguistically limited: they have to wait to read the joke at the bottom of the screen, and by the time they can appreciate its purport the actors have already gone on to the next one.”[11]

Other critics simply praised the film. The critic for the New York Herald-Tribune called it “one of the most irresistible Italian comedies in years. No one with a sense of humor and an appreciation of humanity should miss it.” [12] The Washington Post wrote: “Most unusual, however, and ever so clever, are the ways the script progresses to its climactic goof-up.”[13] The Baltimore Sun said: “Director Mario Monicelli has endowed the film with such flashes of brilliance, and the cast...has enacted it with such tasteful understatement, that ‘The Big Deal on Madonna Street’ must be listed as one of the funniest comedies of the last ten years.”[14]

Crowther, in a follow-up essay, wrote: “Although the routines have whiskers, so old and used in vaudeville are they, the picture has an ageless zest for laughter.”[15]

According to the review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, 89% of critics have given the film a positive review based on 9 reviews, with an average rating of 7.47/10.[16]


A sequel directed by Nanni Loy titled Audace colpo dei soliti ignoti (also known as Fiasco in Milan or Hold-up à la Milanaise) followed in 1960, reuniting the entire main cast, aside from Totò and Mastroianni.

Another sequel was released in 1985, directed by Amanzio Todini and titled I Soliti ignoti vent'anni dopo (known in English-speaking countries as Big Deal After 20 Years; it was released by Koch Lorber on DVD in the United States as Big Deal on Madonna Street - 20 Years Later).


Two remakes of the film were shot in the United States: the 1984 film Crackers by Louis Malle (set in San Francisco) and the 2002 film Welcome to Collinwood by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo (set in Cleveland).

Bob Fosse created a Broadway musical titled Big Deal based on the film. Set in 1930s Chicago with an African-American cast and using popular songs of the era, the show opened at the Broadway Theatre on April 10, 1986, and closed on June 8, 1986, after 69 performances. It received five Tony Award nominations, with Fosse winning for his choreography.

See also


  1. ^ "NY Times: Big Deal on Madonna Street". Movies & TV Dept. The New York Times. Baseline & All Movie Guide. 2012. Archived from the original on 2012-10-20. Retrieved 2009-03-21.
  2. ^ Crowther, Bosley. "The Screen: Italian Parody of 'Rififi':'Big Deal on Madonna Street' in Premiere Toto Among Bungling Burglars at the Paris" (The New York Times, November 23, 1960)
  3. ^ "Big Deal on Madonna Street". The Criterion Collection.
  4. ^ a b c d e f Totaro, Donato (September 1999). "Interview with Mario Monicelli". Offscreen. 3 (5). ISSN 1712-9559. Retrieved 1 January 2019.
  5. ^ "#ViadelleTreCannelle Instagram posts (photos and videos) -".
  6. ^ "The 31st Academy Awards (1959) Nominees and Winners". Retrieved 2011-10-27.
  7. ^ "Big Deal On Madonna Street (1958) - Articles -". Turner Classic Movies.
  8. ^ New York Times. 13 Nov 1960: X9.
  9. ^ New York Times. 23 Nov 1960: 20.
  10. ^ Chicago Daily Tribune; Sep 8, 1961; pg. B15
  11. ^ Los Angeles Times. 22 Sep 1961: A11.
  12. ^ Beckley, Paul V. New York Herald Tribune. 23 Nov 1960: 13.
  13. ^ The Washington Post. 08 June 1961: D8.
  14. ^ The Sun. 29 July 1961
  15. ^ Italian Comeback: Two Dandy Films Give Promise of Renascence.New York Times. 04 Dec 1960: X1.
  16. ^ "Big Deal on Madonna Street (I Soliti Ignoti) (1960)". Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango. Retrieved 2019-05-02.

External links

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