[12 June 2014]
I have a weakness for heist or caper films, a chic and sleek subgenre of action (or comedy, or both) that flourished in the Sixties, yielding much silliness. Today’s example, The Biggest Bundle of Them All, manages to be entertaining while remaining utterly trivial and disposable. Even though it coincides with The Thomas Crown Affair and pre-dates The Italian Job, classics of the genre, it already feels like late-model decadence is setting in.
Vittorio de Sica, a filmmaker who played lots of throwaway comic roles, stars as former gangster Cesare Celli, in forced retirement in Italy after being deported from America. He lives on nothing but dignity, and that takes him far, but he and old crony Professor Samuels (Edward G. Robinson) launch a plan to hijack a shipment of platinum. Celli directs the operation like a film, complete with rehearsals. His gang comprises a pushy, unpleasant “punk” (Robert Wagner), the latter’s groovy “chick” (Raquel Welch), and three hapless amateurs, including a mugging and pirouetting Godfrey Cambridge. This huge black comedian, hoarse of voice and graceful of manner, was all over the place at the time, and here we see him between his best roles in The President’s Analyst and Watermelon Man.
This plot begins well enough and spins into a shambolic series of misfired escapades, not that many viewers would imagine they’ll be rewarded by paying attention to the story. The picture aims for a frolicsome air, achieving it least during those scenes that pay homage to Hollywood’s notion that those crazy Italians are most hilarious when shouting at each other in the midst of general riots (the ultimate example being The Secret of Santa Vittoria ).
The welcome and formidable Robinson graces every film he’s in, this one being no exception. He displays quiet command with a light touch. This movie belongs to his late-career run of heist capers: Seven Thieves, Grand Slam and Lucio Fulci’s obscure Operation St. Peter’s. It’s too bad he hasn’t much to do here and exits the film just after the halfway mark.
Now and then we get some pictorial value from what must have been their day’s rental of the helicopter, as various shots swoop across country over speeding vehicles while Riz Ortolani’s theme bounces breezily. We also hear Johnny Mathis sing over the beginning and end credits.
No matter how many helicopters were at his disposal, director Ken Annakin knew the movie’s biggest asset was Welch, whose under-dressed domination of the poster art implies that she herself is the biggest bundle. Her character somehow goes from being pretty decoration and shallow vamp to the film’s moral center, perhaps because the script subscribes to Plato’s idea that it’s impossible for the truly beautiful to be evil. More than renting the tank and plane (used with the copter in the big finale), the producers shelled out for her many colorful changes of costume—none of which would befit a nun, even the mother superior. The movie’s most joyful scene, in which she and Robinson perform the watusi in a discotheque while we hear The Animals sing the title song, begins with a close-up on her wagging white bikini pants.
This film is now available on demand from Warner Archive. Fluctuation in color values during different shots of an early sequence remind us that this widescreen print could easily benefit from restoration, but mostly it looks pleasing.