As a youngster this thriller really got my attention. Sure, the fleeting nudity probably had something to do with it and the hypnotic Ennio Morricone score is truly unforgettable but this was a film where crooks, thieves, murderers and cops all seemed completely intertwined, governed by a code that matched the rules of the playground as I understood them. But then we grow up .. or do we? When this film was released on Blu-ray, I just had to find out if it stood the test of time.
The following review is offered for Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme hosted by Todd Mason at Sweet Freedom.
Vittorio Manalese (Gabin): “You’re the one I don’t trust!”
Roget (Delon): “Me?”
Vittorio: “Yeah, you! All your brains are below your belt! You almost got us all in cold storage last night playing games in a whorehouse!”
This big budget crime drama is set in France, Italy and the US (production funds came from these territories) and stars Alain Delon as the damned career criminal on the run; Jean Gabin is the ageing mafia boss looking to retire to Sicily; and Lino Ventura is the cop determined to arrest them. Irina Demick brings a touch of (much-needed) feminine glamour to a story of an audacious plan to hijack a New York plane and relieve it of its cargo of diamonds. Will they get away with it?
The film is first and foremost a star vehicle for its central triumvirate. Gabin and Delon had already co-starred in writer-director Henri Verneuil’s 1962 film Mélodie en sous-sol (aka Any Number Can Win), which incidentally is also about a jail-bird planning one last job, while Ventura was here making his third movie with the director. Each of them gets their own ‘entrance’ – Delon is the last getting out of a prison van, Ventura is seen initially only from behind as he awaits for Delon and then Gabin gets a classy slow reveal via a descending elevator in his house. Delon is a brutal killer who only loves his sister (who works as a restaurant cashier) but who, with help from Gabin, makes a daring escape while being transported to jail. Ventura, already irritable as he is trying to quit smoking (as he reminds seemingly everyone he meets) is of course furious and does all he can to track Delon down. Delon, while hiding in Gabin’s house, gets just a bit too friendly with Demick. She is married to one of Gabin’s sons but, being French, is an outsider and is instantly attracted to bad boy Delon.
Delon pays for his escape with some valuable stamps but also has, up his sleeves almost (well, sewn in to his jacket actually) a plan for a diamond heist and Gabin is eager for one last score before he retires. He calls on an old ‘family’ friend from New York (Amedeo Nazzari, Italy’s great matinée idol of yore) to help bankroll it. There is a nice scene in which we see them case a museum together and indeed the film goes to a lot of trouble to make sure that the main actors all get an equivalent amount of screen time, cutting between Ventura’s investigation, Delon’s various escapades with the police (including a leap through a window that would have impressed Jason Bourne) and his inevitable transgression with Demick, who in a fairly unsubtle scene goes nude sunbathing while Delon fishes for eels (I’ll let the Freudian squad see through that one). The tempo is occasionally a bit slow and deliberate as the various elements of the heist come into place. However, the hijacking is fairly dynamic if slightly undermined by some occasionally ropey special effects and the basic absurdity of having all the robbers hold up a plane without even bothering to cover their faces – don’t they know it’s the late 60s?
Despite being set in the present day, this does have a very old-fashioned feel despite the aforementioned nudity (French cinema was always much more advanced in this sense anyway), references to porn and some clearly gay characters. But the mindset is clearly one from decades earlier, from a very macho and patriarchal culture. The movie was based on the novel by Auguste Le Breton, author of the Rififi books, the first of which had been turned into a classic Noir by blacklisted emigree director Jules Dassin in 1954 – this later story once again sees a group of thieves falling out after a caper. That same year Gabin had re-launched his postwar career thanks to the huge success of the crime melodrama Touchez pas au grisbi (Don’t Touch the Loot) and while fairly rotund by this point, he still exudes his taciturn authority. This is seen at its best in an early dinner scene, typical of Mafia and Italian movies of course, in which he is the clear ‘pater familias’ serving the spaghetti first to himself, then his grandson and then passing it on to the others. When he sees a guest look at Demick’s legs, he tells his son, and not her, that her skirt is too short. As in Rififi it’s the romantic complications that ultimately lead to everybody’s downfall.
Does the film stand up? Well, the cast is great value though none of them are exactly stretched here. It is a bit slow and ponderous, as is typical of European films of the era, but on the whole this stands up fairly well if you don’t mind a story without any real heroes and a depiction of patriarchal culture that, while doubtless accurate, the social and sexual politics of which are truly mind-boggling. And then there is that killer soundtrack by the great Ennio Morricone (which makes great use of a jew’s harp), which you can listen to illegally over on YouTube. As a bonus, the cinematography by the great Henri Decaë comes across very well indeed here, especially on the English-language version (the movie was literally shot twice – once in French and once in English though only Delon’s original voice was used in the English version).
DVD Availability: This film is available in an excellent region free Blu-ray edition in France which includes both the French and English language edition. The set also provides the film on DVD. Also included is an hour-long documentary on the complex making of the films.
The Sicilian Clan (1969)
Director: Henri Verneuil
Producer: Jacques-Eric Strauss
Screenplay: Henri Verneuil, José Giovanni, Pierre Pelegri
Cinematography: Henri Decaë
Art Direction: Jacques Saulnier
Music: Ennio Morricone
Cast: Alain Delon, Jean Gabin, Lino Ventura, Irina Demick, Amedeo Nazzari,