"The Passionate Thief" is an Italian comedy from the past that will make you smile like there is no tomorrow. Fifty-five years old but newly restored to sparkling black and white, it's a throwback to the days when comedies didn't need adjectives like "raunchy" or "adult" to describe them. They were simply funny.
Mario Monicelli, "Thief's" director, was one of the great names in Italian comedy. Monicelli, who was nominated for several Oscars and directed the unstoppably amusing "Big Deal on Madonna Street," made antic movies that also managed to touch the heart.
Working with three of Italy's top screenwriters (Suso Cecchi D'Amico and the team of Agenore Incrocci and Furio Scarpelli), Monicelli came up with an anarchic examination of a long and raucous New Year's Eve where a trio of wild and crazy characters, often working at cross purposes, create complete mayhem.
A major pleasure of "The Passionate Thief" is the work of its pair of top-billed Italian actors, two of that country's biggest stars, Anna Magnani and Tòto, both of whom take great delight here in playing the roles of insignificant bit players.
Because dubbing was common practice in Italy in those days, these two are joined by young American actor Ben Gazzara, fresh off his starring role in "Anatomy of a Murder," who can be observed at moments in the film frankly amused at the theatrics of his costars.
Magnani, a force of nature on-screen best known for serious works like "Rome, Open City" and her Oscar-winning "Rose Tattoo," proves equally adept at comedy here.
She plays Tortorella Fabbricotti (a name intended to make you laugh), an extra who works at the enormous Roman film complex Cinecittà. We see her first in a crowd of other extras, hilariously bellowing "a miracle, a miracle" in a sword and sandal epic about the exploits of some second-tier saint.
A woman who likes to have fun, Tortorella dyes her hair blond in anticipation of a New Year's Eve dinner with friends, but when that doesn't work out she ends up with her old pal and fellow extra Umberto Pennazzuto (Tòto).
The one-of-a-kind, one-name actor, with his silent-era attitudes and air of wounded dignity, has a major place in Italy's film history. He and Magnani worked together in vaudeville in the 1940s, and seeing them interact, especially in a scene where they pretend to be slumming movie stars, is a treat.
Tòto's character, Pennazzuto, however, is not just an extra. As his nickname "Infortunio" indicates, he also specializes in faking accidents to get insurance payoffs. As such, he is in touch with Rome's criminal underworld, which in turn puts him in touch with Lello.
As played by Gazzara, Lello is an adept pickpocket, just out of prison, who can't work without a partner he can pass the pilfered goods to. Pennazzuto ends up being both Tortorella's date and Lello's confederate, which lead to increasingly manic complications, especially when Tortorella gets the idea in her head that Lello is romantically interested in her.
Despite this complex scenario, however, "Passionate Thief" is anything but plot-driven. It's a film that lives for the pleasures of the moment, for the joys of constructing small gems like a scene of an obtuse American (the durable Fred Clark) trying to re-create the Trevi Fountain scene from "La Dolce Vita," much to everyone else's comic disgust.
Screenwriter D'Amico called Monicelli "a superb director, with the rare gift of comic timing — which cannot be taught, either you have it or you don't." No one seeing "The Passionate Thief" will care to argue the point.
‘The Passionate Thief'
MPAA rating: None
Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes
Playing: At Laemmle's Royal, West Los Angeles, Playhouse 7, Pasadena