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March 09, 2021

The Don is Dead

the don is dead.jpg

Richard Fleischer - 1973
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

Time may be an advantage to more clearly assessing The Don is Dead. At the time of release, the film was one of many mafia themed stories that followed after the massive success of Francis Ford Coppola's film of The Godfather. It is certainly no coincidence that the top billed star, Anthony Quinn was one of the several names considered for the role of Vito Corleone. Fleischer's film is neither epic in scope or ambition. The literary source is the 1972 novel by the prolific genre author, Marvin Albert, written under the pseudonym of Nick Quarry. Albert also gets the main credit for the screenplay with assistance from Christopher Trumbo and Michael Butler. Stripped of the criminal aspects, the two main narratives are from classic archtypes.

The film begins with Frank, the son of one of the crime chiefs, finding out his father has just died. The father was one of three men in control of organized crime in an unnamed city. At a national meeting of the various heads of the families, a two way split is agreed upon between Angelo DiMorra and the consigliere representing the imprisoned Jimmy Bernardo, with Frank named as Angelo's son. The consigliere, Luigi Orlando has his own ambitions to take over all the operations with the assistance of Bernardo's wife. Setting up Angelo with a young would-be singer, Ruby, who was in a relationship with Frank, Orlando initiates a rivalry between "father" and "son" that escalates to a multi-sided gang war.

The Don is Dead was produced by Hal Wallis, his penultimate production. While there was probably the desire to cash in on the then current popularity of movies about organized crime, in the case of Wallis, the theme of generational conflicts can be seen in such films as The Roaring Twenties and I Walk Alone. With Robert Forster and Frederic Forrest taking over from Anthony Quinn, there are the faint echoes of Humphrey Bogart pushing aside James Cagney, and Kirk Douglas edging out Burt Lancaster in the older films. As for Richard Fleischer, this is another work for hire during his most productive period. Several Fleischer films, primarily his crime stories, feature women with flexible senses of loyalty towards the men in their lives. That said, Fleischer has had a tendency to be attracted to violent subjects and the brutality here is not that big a leap from his film noir work that first attracted attention. Unlike his Armored Car Robbery (1950) which pushed the envelope regarding on-screen violence, Fleischer is relatively restrained in the depicting of the various shooting, bombings and beatings, neither indulging in graphic close-ups nor letting the camera linger longer than necessary. If not especially visually stylish, Fleischer's hand is in his use of upward tilting shots of his actors in some scenes.

What adds to the fun is spotting there various actors in supporting roles including Victor Argo, Sid Haig, Abe Vigoda and Vic Tayback. Most of the film was shot on studio sets, most glaringly with a medieval castle wall standing in for a prison exterior. Robert Forster's wardrobe is a reminder of some the more dubious men's fashions of the early Seventies. There is also one unfortunate young actress whose dress seems inspired by a pre-coronation Disney princess.

I have to admit frustration with the commentary track by Sergio Mims, considering his credentials as a film critic and programmer. With several critics and historians who have set the bar in their presentations, for me, Mims' commentary is not as well organized as it could be, nor as informative as it should be. Setting aside a few gaffes, my biggest complaint is that Mims' arguments for Richard Fleischer's status as an auteur is weak. Simply repeating that Fleischer was always professional regardless of working in different genres is not enough. And in the case of someone who primarily worked as a director for hire, not every film may share similarities in theme or style, but if one looks close enough, patterns emerge. While there is no extensive study on the films directed by Richard Fleischer, there is writing that can serve as a springboard. A reminder that over fifty years ago, Andrew Sarris wrote, "Responsible critics have advanced Fleischer as a candidate for (Raoul) Walsh's laurels in the adventure category." That was written prior to Fleischer's most productive period. Fleischer's work has been reassessed since his death in 2006. At the time of a 2008 retrospective of Fleischer's films, Dave Kehr wrote in the New York Times that the director was " . . . less interested in the aberrations of a single personality than in the unhealthy interactions of an entire society." While that line was in reference to Violent Saturday, it could well apply to several other films. Kehr goes on to mention another critical evaluation - "For the French critic Jacques Lourcelles, one of Fleischer's most articulate admirers, the recurring theme of his work is society slipping into decadence." While writing about Barabbas for Film Comment, Nick Pinkerton points to another recurring theme, " . . . the struggle for self-determination." in The Don is Dead, this is personified by Robert Forster's presumptive heir and Frederick Forrest's independent operator who initially is looking to go straight. That Forrest's fate may be sealed is suggested by the final two shots, a dissolve from a close-up of Anthony Quinn to that of Forrest, the newly appointed successor to the throne.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at March 9, 2021 06:24 AM