Matthew Field: The Self Preservation Society

The Notebook | 24th July 2019

The author of a new coffee-table tome on The Italian Job discusses why the iconic sixties film still feels fresh fifty years since its release

There are only handful of films from any era that can genuinely be described as iconic–tapping into the zeitgiest and public imagination to such a degree to become the stuff of legend. Among them, is undoubtedly The Italian Job, which became emblematic of the swinging sixties, working-class heroism and the apparently ongoing culture clash between the United Kingdom and her European cousins. The world's leading authority on the film in which three MINI’s pull-off a major heist in Turin helmed by cockney charmer Michael Caine, is Matthew Field–author of The Self Preservation Society: 50 Years of The Italian Job, published by Porter Press. Matthew Field has written numerous books on cinema, including the autobiography of Oscar-winning film producer, Michael Deeley, and he has worked on feature films around the world, producing behind-the-scenes marketing materials. Here he discusses The Self Preservation Society (which features a foreword by Sir Michael Caine, and launched earlier this month at Mortimer House), and tells us why its final scene, in which a coach-full of gold bullion teeters on a cliff-edge, has parallels with the UK’s current economic and political relationship with Europe.

When did you first see The Italian Job?
The Italian Job was the first film I ever saw – the first movie to enter my consciousness. I saw it sometime in 1985, when I was four years old. My dad showed me the 15-minute Mini Cooper chase and I immediately fell in love. We were a ‘Mini’ family – my parents had owned them, and both my grandmothers each drove a Mini 1000. I would spend hours sitting on the driveway, clutching the steering wheel of my Nan’s chocolate brown Mini, lost in my own Italian Job dream. I re-played that car chase over and over until I wore out the videotape. The Italian Job was not in vogue during by early childhood, but by my adolescent years suddenly everybody was discovering ‘my’ film. ‘You’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!’ was no longer just a cheeky exchange between my brother and I, but a catchphrase that provided Michael Caine impersonators with their best punch-line. 

Why did you decide to write a book about it?
Over Christmas 1998, Channel 4 aired a documentary about the making of the film. It reignited my interest and, as I finished my A-levels and contemplated university, it struck me that the film would make a good subject for a book. I decided to take a gap year and attempt to write it myself. That book was published in 2001. Nearly 20 years later I have re-visited the subject with this new book – The Self Preservation Society: 50 Years of The Italian Job. It is a much more detailed and mature volume than the book I wrote when I was a kid.:

Do you think there are amusing parallels to be made with the BREXIT mindset and if so what are they? 
In the book we describe The Italian Job as the first Eurosceptic movie of its kind. Troy Kennedy Martin wrote the screenplay as a reaction to Britain entering the common market - which was a hot topic back in the late sixties. It is a cheeky look at the difference between the British and our European neighbours, the same old love–hate relationship that flourishes to this day between mainland Europe and offshore Britain. So of course that makes the film quite relevant now.  I think The Italian Job perfectly sums up where we are as a nation right now. As we await the fate of BREXIT, the UK is a bit like Michael Caine and the gang at the end of The Italian Job…teetering over a cliff with no obvious way out! I’m a remainer, by the way.

How much is the film ‘of its time’ in that sense, and how much enjoyment of it is due to a sense of nostalgia?
In 1969, The Italian Job was seen as just another heist movie. In fact, it bombed in America and was only number 14 at the UK box office that year! Sometimes creative forces collide at precisely the right moment and lightening is bottled. I guess apart from a contemporary story as already discussed it is all about nostalgia. The Italian Job has come to represent the sixties, even though it is a fantasy version of it. I think why it appeals to a younger audience is the wit and anarchy, the cars and the chase. The characters are very broad, but instantly recognisable.

In modern terms how would you describe a character like Charlie Croker–what kind of male would you say he represents? 
Charlie Croker was written specifically for Michael Caine–a character brimming with confidence. As Caine highlights in my book there had been this tremendous class change in the acting world. Up until then the leads in British movies were never working-class. It was only when people like Caine came along, and writers like Harold Pinter and John Osborne started writing about working-class heroes that things changed. Croker is a working-class hero. The Italian Job was about working-class heroes with all their foibles. In a previous British movie life, they would all have been villains but they weren’t, they were the heroes. 

Why do you feel a need to comment upon cultural gems such as The Italian Job?
What drives me is what interests me. What fascinates me about The Italian Job is the love that exists for it like no other film. I have been on an extensive tour with this book and it excites people of all classes and ages. As soon as you mention it people light up. I don’t have the desire to examine it in an intellectual way. 

Finally, let’s discuss the MINI Why do you think such a tiny car has become iconic? 
The cool thing about the MINI is that it is classless. As writer Troy Kennedy Martin said the car represented a new modern Britain. Minis were and still are egalitarian–a prince or a student can drive one. The idea this little car could then go on to win the Monte Carlo rally numerous times is fantastic. Sixty years later, MINI is stronger than ever–a successful international export with multiple variations. Nearly 10million new MINIs have been sold around the world. The brand operates from the same factory in Cowley where the first Morris MINI Minors were built in 1959. I love the car. I have two–an original and a new one.