There's a book of photographs of American skid-row poet Charles Bukowski on a European tour entitled Shakespeare Never Did This, which this 1966 Fulci comedy somehow reminded me of.
Specifically, it might be subtitled Argento Never Did This, in reference to Fulci's great and more widely recognised rival. For, the more one explores the sheer breadth of Fulci's filmography beyond the horror and gialli films for which he would later become best known, the more he emerges as a talented filmmaker able to engage with just about any material
Though Fulci had certainly directed plenty of comedies by this time, including crime capers such as I Ladri, Operazione San Pietro immediately signals its distinctiveness by beginning more or less where they tended to finish, as a gang of robbers bungles a break-in.
Specifically, The Baron, The Captain and Agonia wind up not in the vault as intended, but in a prison cell, occupied by Lando Buzzanca's Napolean. Before the guards can arrive, all four men escape. (Argento would later begin Le Cinque Giornate with a similar escape from gaol, while Agonia is played by Ugo Fangareggi, later Gigi the Loser in Cat o' Nine Tails.)
Encouraging his new colleagues to think big, in line with his name, Napoleone suggests that they head north, to Rome, where one of his friends is currently in 'business'.
They arrive, only to find that this friend is himself in custody while the only other resident of the less than palatial shack, Jean-Claude Brialy's Majella, is too busy with his own work as a gigolo cum swindler to be of much help.
He does, however, suggest the newcomers take a trip to St Peters. While there Napoleone has the idea for an audacious theft: they will take Michaelangelo's Pieta and sell it on the black market.
Incredibly the plan succeeds, at which point things become more complicated. For not only does the Vatican understandably want the statue back, but a group of gangsters whom Cajella has inadvertently become involved with learn of the theft, which the Vatican has kept top-secret, and naturally want the statue for themselves…
Worse, these gangsters are led by legendary US mobster Joe Ventura, incarnated by none other than Edward G. Robinson, whose idea of subtlety is to bring out the machine guns and kill everyone who stands in his way…
The film obviously had a decent budget given its combination of US, French, German and Italian stars, comparatively large-scale set piece chases and stunts – credited to none less than Remy Julienne and his team – and the delightful animated credits sequence atop which plays some suitable irreverent jazz-pop accompanied with scatted vocals.
While it is hard for the non-Italian and / or non-Catholic to quite get all of the religious references, with the various rival orders present – the Jesuits "always have to be first," as a member of another order remarks when they are overtaken – the overall picture that emerges is of Fulci having fun and making some points at the Church's expense, without overstepping the mark into the more full-blown anti-clericalism that would come to the fore around the time of Beatrice Cenci.
Thus, Napoleone seems about to be let off lightly for his crimes by his confessor, who asks him rhetorically who hasn't stolen these days, until he then admits to stealing from the church, and specifically taking the Pieta, as far more serious matters…
There's also the way in which all the statues in St Peters are covered over, with the guide then telling visitors that they can, however, purchase postcards of said statues from the gift shop; the representation of the Vatican and its agents appear to exist as a shadow state within the state, complete with their own presses for publishing wanted posters, channels for efficiently distributing these, and unofficial police forces, used as an alternative to those of the Italian state who remain oblivious to the whole affair throughout; or Cardinal Brown's dubious past and remark at one point that the Church has been going almost two millennia longer than the cosa nostra.
But, in the end it's all in good fun, rendered safe by a touch of the old deus ex machina and a happy end in which no-one really gets hurt and some are even redeemed…
Not that Fulci only targets the church, however, as the sight of a fake blind beggar – born blind, according to his placard – finishing his meal and going back to work, updates the “court of miracles” while also introducing in passing that most famous of Fulci motifs, the ocular.
Edward G Robinson's gangster presents an amusing self-deprecating throwback to his most famous character types. 35 years or more years on and he's still responding to every situation in the same old way. There's also a sense of his being able to “dish it out” but “not take it,” a la Little Caesar, via a neat black-and-white flashback sequence set in the 1930s, in which he suffers a physical beating at the hands of other members of the mob, resulting in a psychological trauma every time the specific conditions preceding it coincide; a combination that also manages to prefigure both the chain whippings of Don't Torture a Duckling and The Beyond and the more general theme of the giallo “primal scene”.
If there is the risk of over-analysing the film, of seeing something Fulci-esque in every little detail – here we might also note the figure of the crucified Christ in a procession, who comes down off his cross to join a chase, as a further precursor of Schweik in The Beyond – this can be countered by a consideration of the more general visual style of the film, in which close-ups are sparsely used and the emphasis is usually placed more on the long and medium shot to better illustrate the expansiveness (expensiveness) of the film.
In other words, it's Fulci again demonstrating that he knew how to adapt his approach to the material and collaborators at hand, and that his later style was a genuinely personal one emerging as he matured as a filmmaker / auteur in his own right. (The question was perhaps whether critics at the time were able to recognise this, that the zoom, the rack focus, the extreme close-up of the eyes and the nailed-down camera in the set piece, represented an actual aesthetic rather than ineptitude or an unsuccessful attempt to copy Argento; to re-iterate, the two filmmakers have very different aesthetics, with one also doubting that Argento would have ever been able to work effectively with the likes of Buzzanca.)
A nice self-reflexive moment occurs when Napoleone returns to find his friends apparently dead, the victims of Ventura and his gunmen. But then it transpires that the men are really just passed out after a rather large meal, and that the blood around their faces is in fact the sauce from their pasta by way of a nice joke at the expense of what initially seemed unconvincing effects work of the sort where someone can be riddled with bullets yet without any holes or red fluid showing…
Away from Fulci’s films, the other key intertexts are The Treasure of San Gennaro, which also featured Fangareggi, and the two German Father Brown films in which the detective priest was played by Heinz Rühmann, and which give the film its German title, by way of a promotion - The Adventures of Cardinal Brown.
A film of considerable charm.