Cesare Celli (Vittorio De Sica), at the funeral of a good friend, is kidnapped by a group of thieves intent on stealing $50,000 from the former gangster. To his embarrassment, Celli has no money, but merely relies on his long-standing reputation. It’s because of this reputation that he encourages the thieves, led by Harry Price (Robert Wagner), to contact some of his pals for the funds instead; he doesn’t want anyone to know he’s broke. But money is not forthcoming, so Celli brings the thieves in on a job he was about to embark on: the robbery of $5 million worth of platinum from a train. The only catch is that they need $3,000 for the right supplies to pull off a train robbery, thus have to commit a smaller heist to fund the larger one. Wackiness, as they say, ensues.
The Biggest Bundle of Them All (1968) is the subject of one of critic Renata Adler’s first reviews in A Year in the Dark — and if you don’t have your copy of the book handy, her review is happily available online at the New York Times. Having just obtained a replacement copy for myself, I deliberately did not read her review until after I’d seen the film, and was delighted to find Adler also heard De Sica’s line, “He was taken by a master” pronounced as, “He was taken by a mustard!”
Less charming is her obvious distaste for anyone who is not conventionally handsome in the Hollywood way. Does this change as her year goes on? Perhaps I’ll know by the time I finish the book. But it’s a shame she dismisses Edward G. Robinson as being as ugly as a turtle, and Godfrey Cambridge as a “gross” mouth-breather, because what the film does with their characters — with all the supporting characters — is quite nice. Harry’s crew are normal, everyday people: Davey Kaye a mechanic, Antonio Tozzi (Francesco Mule) a chef, and Benny Brownstead (Cambridge) a violinist. They’re not criminals, just some guys Harry got together, and when they embark on a series of smaller heists, they are absolutely useless.
Benny is especially vocal about not using guns, not wanting to hurt people, not even crossing a picket line — “I’m a union man!” — and you think the punchline will be that it’s funny he’s a law-abiding nerd because he’s black, but that’s not the punchline at all. Similarly, you expect there to be some Cockney or British humor at Kaye’s expense, or Italian humor at Tozzi’s expense, but there isn’t. They’re just a ragtag group of misfits, nice people who are tired of the inherent selfishness of the suave 60s criminal.
In fact, the whole film is absolutely done with that trope, and to that end, they bring in the director of Bicycle Thieves to play a hapless, sentimental old gangster who has lost his touch. What at first seems like feigned emotional distress by Cesare Celli as part of a double-cross turns out to legitimately be a bad case of ennui. Then the guy who invented the cinematic gangster archetype arrives, and his entire instructional speech is an anachronism; a little editing and you could turn Edward G. Robinson’s instructional monologue into an opening salvo for your graduate Film Studies thesis. On top of all that, Harry is no Flint. He’s the anti-Flint, a total L7, primarily because Wagner can’t manage the slang with any authenticity, and whether by accident or design, the film uses this to its advantage. You will be irritated with Wagner, and you will roll your eyes at what seems on the surface to be really awful attempts at commercialized coolness. It’s okay, but don’t give up on the film. Keep with it. And when that final joke is told, don’t throw up your hands in exasperation like Adler apparently did, but recognize that joke for what it is.
Coming toward the end of the wacky, sexy 60s comedy trend, Bundle is a touch wiser than the usual farce. It is admittedly hard to tell, given the lower production values and the film’s (and the publicity’s) insistence on using Raquel Welch’s body as bait despite the obvious satirical elements in her character — count how many times she’s told to stop randomly turning on a radio and dancing — but Bundle means to be a little bit more than the million other comedy caper flicks produced that decade. The film is part of the cinematic evolution toward edgier, more intellectually provocative comedies of the late 1960s and early 1970s. What started probably as far back as The Loved One in 1965 slowly evolved to films like Joanna, Candy and Barbarella by 1968, but notably, those films were all released several months after Bundle.
It’s not that there are not flaws. Welch plays her character far too broadly, as though she repeated to herself before each scene began, “This is satire! This is satire!” like a mantra, or perhaps a curse. The typical 60s-era dubbing detracts from the quality, just like it always does in every film that requires nearly 100% dubbing. There is some dialogue that will have you on the floor — “I have got a gun! I am going to shoot you!” — and I doubt you will be laughing kindly. The film is beautiful, though, and quirky enough to keep your interest, and the heist itself is really terrific. You should give it a shot.
The Biggest Bundle of Them All is available from Warner Archive in a MOD DVD. It’s a nice print with some of that typical pink discoloration from the years, though more than watchable.
My memories of this film are too ancient to have any relevance, although I seem to remember being entertained at the time. Heck, I’d watch it again if I got the chance — and probably for the same reason I did the first time: because it had Eddie Robinson and Godfrey Cambridge in the cast. Well, ok, and Raquel Welch …
But Great Googlymoogly, complaining about Robinson’s and Cambridge’s casting because of their looks?!? Particularly Robinson, who by this point in his career was positively distinguished-looking, with that goatee. Cambridge was excellent at playing slightly nebbish-y misfits like the depressed CEA assassin in The President’s Analyst — which he made just the year previous — which would seem to make him a perfect fit for the role. So what do his looks have to do with it? Adler would have preferred maybe Sidney Poitier? Seems like a pretty shallow way to approach a character, if you ask me.
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