On the surface, Mario Monicelli’s 1960 comedy The Passionate Thief bears similarities to contemporary entries in the one-crazy-night genre. There is a limited-timeframe narrative (one night), a uniting event (New Year’s Eve), an episodic structure, and, naturally, lovelorn characters looking to make a connection.
Yet what separates The Passionate Thief from its descendants is the sympathy it brings to its central characters, Tortorella (Anna Magnani), a movie extra, and Lello (Ben Gazzara), a thief. Through a circuitous turn of events, Tortorella is ditched by her friends on New Year’s Eve in Rome, which means she’ll spend the evening with a backup, her old friend Umberto (Totò), an actor and sometime con artist.
The problem is, Umberto — unbeknownst to Tortorella — has been engaged to assist Lello, a pickpocket who will be making a killing with the city’s intoxicated residents on this night of revelry. Sexual tension arises between Lello and Tortorella, complicated by the fact that she doesn’t understand the nature of the friendship between the two men.
This odd trio find themselves falling into mishaps, with a narrative of interlocking vignettes (none more entertaining than a sequence in which the group winds up in a mansion teeming with German aristocrats). But while the madcap adventures provide plenty of entertainment, it’s Monicelli’s sympathetic portrait of complex individuals — a thief who is both romantic and a control freak, an aging actress who longs for adventure but also fears the unknown — that wins viewers over.