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Inspired by Criminals Who Couldn't Cut It

Avid fans of the Italian heist movie 'Big Deal on Madonna Street,' brothers Anthony and Joe Russo decided to remake it with a Cleveland angle.

October 07, 2002|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For their first feature, "Welcome to Collinwood," Cleveland-born brothers Anthony and Joe Russo decided to transpose one of their favorite films, the 1958 Italian classic "Big Deal on Madonna Street," from post-World War II Rome to an economically depressed Cleveland of today.

"One of the reasons we thought to remake it was because we saw a lot of similarities between post-World War II Rome and Cleveland," Joe Russo says. "Cleveland was kind of brutalized by the industrial crunch."

The $8-million production, which opened Friday, attracted the attention of Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney as producers--Clooney also has a small part as a hot-tempered safecracker in a wheelchair--and an eclectic cast that includes William H. Macy, Patricia Clarkson, Sam Rockwell and Michael Jeter.

But attempting the comedy-caper genre can hold a minefield of problems. For every "Big Deal on Madonna Street," there are such lame farces as "The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight" (1971). Even renowned French director Louis Malle couldn't pull off the first American remake of "Big Deal," the disastrously labored 1984 version, "Crackers," which was set in San Francisco with Donald Sutherland and Sean Penn.

"The first draft we wrote we hated," Anthony Russo says, speaking in Los Angeles last week. "The sensibilities of the late '50s Italy are just radically different than the 21st century America. It was a long process in terms of us finding the voice. At the same time, we feel very close to the Italian sensibility, to European cinema and cinema history, and Cleveland is just chock-full of European neighborhoods."

One reason the writing-directing brothers loved "Big Deal" so much, Joe Russo says, is that it is a universal story about lovable losers. "Everybody could identify with the underdog characters, and what happened to them was so tragically funny, we felt that would translate. It was just trying to find a new voice to apply it to."

Directed by Mario Monicelli, "Big Deal on Madonna Street" satirized such acclaimed caper dramas as John Huston's "The Asphalt Jungle" (1950) and Jules Dassin's dazzling 1955 "Rififi."

Instead of accomplished, analytic thieves, "Big Deal" is populated with wannabes who team up to steal money from a safe in a pawnshop by breaking into the apartment next door and plowing through the conjoining wall.

There's the hopeless accomplice of a jailed car thief, a thief who is taking care of his mother, a hot-tempered Sicilian diligently guarding his sister's virginity, a financially strapped photographer taking care of his baby by himself because his wife is in jail for smuggling cigarettes, and a handsome but hapless boxer with a glass jaw. The film, which was nominated for a foreign-language Oscar, starred Vittorio Gassman, Claudia Cardinale and Marcello Mastroianni.

There had been crime-caper films before "Big Deal on Madonna Street," most notably the 1952 British comedy "The Lavender Hill Mob" with Alec Guinness, but the international success of "Madonna" really created the genre of bumbling but sweet thieves attempting an elaborate heist. Even Dassin got into the act with his acclaimed 1964 "Topkapi."

Other popular entries in the genre include "The Hot Rock" (1972) with Robert Redford, William Wyler's "How to Steal a Million" (1966), "Gambit" with Michael Caine and Shirley MacLaine, "Palookaville" (1996) and Wes Anderson's "Bottle Rocket" (1996).

The Russos realized the key ingredient in making a comedy caper work was getting the right cast. In "Topkapi," for example, Peter Ustinov won an Oscar for his role as a hapless thief; "How to Steal a Million" worked due to the charm of Audrey Hepburn, Peter O'Toole and Hugh Griffith.

With "Collinwood," Joe Russo says, "we were trying to create a film that was emotionally grounded and a character piece. You really care about these characters. So we got people who are supremely well trained so they would approach the characters from an emotional point of view and let the humor come from the situation."

Their edict to the actors was simply don't try to be funny. "We know that all of these actors had an amazing capacity for drama and comedy," Anthony Russo says. "We would know they would never pander to humor."

In fact, Joe Russo says, they wanted these characters to "sort of present the arc of the ethnic Americans through the 20th century. Even though the film is a comedy, we wanted to address an important theme--is there any physical reward in the American dream? When these characters get to where they get to at the end of the film, do they have to look inside to find value when all the material things they were chasing after slipped away from them?"

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