In all the annals of crime fiction, there can perhaps be no greater task assigned to any filmmaker than the execution of a heist or caper tale. Such a photoplay must be handled with complete and total confidence, caution, care, and subsequently carried out with great attention paid to each and every detail. In fact, making a caper isn't too terribly dissimilar than the act of performing for a daring robbery itself: you need a crew of professionals who not only having the fine art of perfect timing down to a science, but who are also utterly suave and sophisticated in their actions - whether they be on the job or in private. What's more, there's the element of "location, location, location" as well as the need for a completely ideal situation to take advantage of: a story about a tiny Brooklyn convenience store robbery is as likely to be a hit at the box office as was the crime comedy Stealing Harvard.
Sadly, the 1968 production The Biggest Bundle of Them All would have to be classified in the same category as the aforementioned motion picture crime. Granted, The Biggest Bundle of Them All is wholly a much better viewing experience than Stealing Harvard (how could it not be, right?), but it can't hold a candle when compared to say, The Pink Panther - even though it has one of the same stars, young Robert Wagner. Helmed by Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines director Ken Annakin in the late '60s, Annakin tries to recapture the madcap zaniness from that other, better-known feature here in this mediocre adventure, which was one of the many movies from the period to take place and actually be filmed in Europe after Americans remembered it was there.
We begin with top-billed Italian actor Vittorio De Sica, who stars as retired, aging mobster Cesare Celli: a once-powerful American mobster who has since been deported to his native Italy and lives off a meager allowance as provided to him by his uncle. After attending the funeral of his former partner in crime, a fellow named Luigi (nooooo!!!!!), Celli is politely kidnapped by a ragtag group of wanna-be gangsters: Harry (Wagner), who is in some warm water over a few bad checks, and who sports the prettiest baggage this side of the Berlin Wall in the guise of his dance-happy girlfriend Juliana (Raquel Welch); the overweight Benny (Godfrey Cambridge), a classical violinist who is behind in his alimony; the also very portly Antonio (Francesco Mulé), a chef who's butcher girlfriend has sent out on a diet; and Davey (Davy Kaye), a diminutive Brit with an oversexed spouse and eleven damn kids waiting for him at home.
It soon becomes apparent to this group of ill-informed, would-be criminals (who would even have a hard time being bad guys in a Three Stooges short) that their kidnap victim has no net worth whatsoever. In fact, Celli's old pals won't so much as lend him a couple of hundred lira - something that Celli himself is not only surprised to learn, but becomes outraged in such a Italian manner, that he decides to show the world a thing or two. So, Celli turns the tables and hires the very men who kidnapped him, intent to train them just as he did his old (long gone) crew. Calling in the talents of Professor Samuels (the great Edward G. Robinson, nearing the end of not only his Italian period, but his entire career in-general), an aging mastermind who claims to have planned most of the great heists of the 20th Century, and who has his eyes set on a cache of platinum ingots being shipping in from America.
Truly, it sounds much better when it's written down. In fact, in this, the age where everything is remade and rebooted every other year, I would recommend that someone give The Biggest Bundle of Them All another go. It would have been a lot funnier if storywriter Josef Shaftel and screenwriter Sy Salkowitz (both of whom mostly tackled television scripts) had De Sica set out to rob the reigning mobsters who wouldn't give him a centesimo with his new crew of misfits. Or if Ken Annakin tried to tone down the comedy and incompetence of his co-stars. Even De Sica himself is a maroon here; a man too proud to accept change, but who is OK with stooping so low as to rob his mistress of her jewelry in a scene that leads absolutely nowhere and sets up another that never even comes into play.
As you can imagine, Welch is on-hand mostly for her marvelous figure, but the fact she still gets to participate in the big robbery when the time comes while Robert Wagner is off commandeering a plane from the great Victor Spinetti (who was in a later Pink Panther film himself) is commendable. Wagner, on the other hand, is pretty much wasted in his co-starring role as the tough guy. Mainly because he doesn't look the part and rarely acts it. In fact, even though he's the most able-bodied hood out of the entire lod (Welch's bod aside), he doesn't get a chance to participate.
No, instead, Shaftel (who was himself a concert violinist once), Salkowitz, and Annakin send one supporting actor after another into action, just so a funny (but short-lived gag) wherein five different kinds of lawmen are each after one of the characters for a different reason can come to light (and quickly disappear into the shadows immediately thereafter). Mickey Knox - an expatriate who made a career writing the English dialogue for Sergio Leone's epics The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West, and who put in one of his finest latter-day performances as the detective in Dellamorte Dellamore - has a cameo as an army surplus dealer.
Other highlights of the film include an opening shot of Welch dancing on the roof in the buff (behind a veil of drying sheets, so as to keep it family-friendly), several moments where she sports ample fripples, and the few scenes featuring Mr. Edward G. Robinson, who starts out setting up a board meeting presentation in an abandoned Roman relic for the film's motley crew (it'd be a PowerPoint presentation were it to take place today), and who sticks around just long enough to engage in an especially memorable moment in a nightclub with Ms. Welch dancing the Watusi (!) like a little crazy madman. In short, The Biggest Bundle of Them All ultimately fails to live up to its title, but it has its moments. Sadly, the uppity score by the late, world-renown maestro Riz Ortolani doesn't bring much to the fray, nor does a sappy theme song performed by Johnny Mathis or title song as provided for the movie by The Animals.
But hey, there's a bloody ray of sunshine to be found in every sky. And the good news here is that The Biggest Bundle of Them All has finally received a widescreen home video release in the USA from the Warner Archive Collection. Though it may have been done solely to remind Americans once more that that Europe place still exists, it's nice to at long last see this one in its intended viewing format (those fuzzy old cropped VHS copies just didn't do the trick). The anamorphic video transfer brings us the movie in an unrestored presentation, wherein the color of the film tends to change from scene to scene. But then, since the focus of the film tends to change from scene to scene, I guess that's nothing to worry about.
Still though, this Bundle deserves at least one look. I say rent it first.