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Blu-Ray Review - THE DON IS DEAD

The Don is Dead review
The death of a Mafia Don triggers a powerplay for control of Las Vegas.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Richard Fleischer

Starring: Robert Forster, Anthony Quinn, Frederic Forrest, Angel Tomkins, Al Lettieri, Joe Santos, Abe Vigoda, Vic Tayback, Victor Argo, Sid Haig

The Don is Dead bluray

Director Richard Fleischer is largely remembered as the journeyman director of big budget hits like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Vikings and Fantastic Voyage, and big budget flops like Dr Dolittle and Soylent Green. But for cinephiles, Fleischer is revered for his work in the crime genre, be it Film Noir (The Narrow Margin, Armored Car Robbery, Violent Saturday), dramas based on real life killers (Compulsion, 10 Rillington Place, The Boston Strangler) or police procedurals (the criminally neglected The New Centurions).

After working on mega-budget blockbusters throughout the second half of the 1950s and '60s, the '70s saw Fleischer return to his lower budget roots. The sort of movies he made for Hollywood studios in this period often play like Roger Corman productions, but with major stars like Mia Farrow (See No Evil), George C. Scott (The Last Run) and Charles Bronson (Mr. Majestyk). They were rugged, well paced pieces of genre storytelling that drew on Fleischer's earlier crime thrillers, but of course now allowed for a more liberal smattering of sex and violence.

The Don is Dead review

The Godfather and its immediate sequel are so revered that the wave of mob movies that arrived in its wake has largely been forgotten. That's the case with 1973's The Don is Dead, which like Coppola's film, is filled with Shakespearean machinations, but moves with the pace of a 1930s Warner Bros gangster picture.

The plot is set in motion with the death of Don Paulo Regalbuto, the most powerful mobster in Las Vegas. A meeting of the region's most important Mafia families is called, and Don Paulo's empire is transferred to Don Angelo DiMorra (Anthony Quinn) rather than to his son and expectant heir, Frank (an impossibly handsome Robert Forster). Frank takes it on the chin, respectful of his father's respect for Angelo, and besides, he's going into business with the Fargo brothers - Tony (Frederic Forrest) and Vince (Al Lettieri).


What Tony and Angelo fail to realise is that they're being manipulated by the Iago-like Luigi Orlando (Charles Cioffi) and his Lady Macbeth-like wife Marie (Jo Anne Meredith). Frank's girlfriend, aspiring singer-songwriter Ruby Dunne (Angel Tompkins), is made a pawn of Luigi, who ensures that she becomes Angelo's lover. When Frank learns of her infidelity, a bloody war breaks out between Frank, backed by the ambitious Fargo brothers, and Angelo's criminal empire.

The Don is Dead review

There's a lot going on in terms of plot here, but Fleischer's background in b-pictures ensures that things never get complicated and it's always easy to follow. Broken down, it's a fairly rudimentary gangster story, but along with Fleischer's mature direction, what elevates it above its contemporary Coppola cash-ins is the acting talent on display. The cast list reads like a who's who of every character actor of the era who could pass for an Italian-American, and some of the period's most neglected performers are given a rare chance to shine in the spotlight.


Best known for supporting roles in Coppola films, Forrest deserved a far better career. The Don is Dead offers him something close to a leading man role as the film's Michael Corleone surrogate, an intelligent young man who wants to leave the family business but finds he has a knack for leading a criminal empire and comes to enjoy it. Forster similarly gets a rare meaty role in a mainstream Hollywood production, his reckless Frank a cousin of De Niro's Johnny Boy from Scorsese's Mean Streets. Quinn's usual histrionics are toned down by Fleischer, making his Angelo a more nuanced figure than you might expect. Watching him deteriorate from the tall, powerful Mafia Don to a withering, wheelchair bound wreck reminds you just what a good actor he could be with a director strong enough to rein in his excesses.


Part of The Don is Dead's critical and commercial failure on its release is likely down to its use of the backlot. By this point, audiences practically demanded location shooting, particularly in the crime genre in the wake of The French Connection. But in hindsight, the use of the familiar facades of the Universal backlot gives The Don is Dead something of a postmodern appeal, much like Don Siegel's remake of The Killers, or S. Craig Zahler's use of obvious sets for the interiors of his own crime epic Dragged Across Concrete. It also ties Fleischer's film back to the studio heyday of the mob movie in the 1930s, a new generation of tough guy actors snatching the screen from Edward G. Robinson and Jimmy Cagney, a reflection of the inter-generational war that constitutes its plot. The Don is Dead feels not so much like it was made by a jobbing director working in the '70s, but rather like it was fashioned by a later auteur working with the benefit of hindsight, pulling together the greatest hits of five decades of American and European genre cinema.

The Don is Dead review

If The Don is Dead feels cliched today, it's because much of its plot and set-pieces were inspired by the real life exploits of America's Mafia clans. But in the wake of two decades of awful gangster movies from Guy Ritchie and his ilk, The Don is Dead is an artefact of a time when the mob movie offered mature storytelling and sophisticated characters rather than comic caricatures. Falling somewhere between the sombre, epic tone of Coppola's films and the manic action of the Italian Poliziotteschi movies of the era, Fleischer's film is an unfairly forgotten thriller that offers a chance to see some of the best actors of the fringes of New American Cinema step into the headlights, guns blazing.

Ironically, for a movie rushed out to exploit the success of The Godfather, the resolution of Don Angelo's arc is suspiciously similar to how Coppola would ultimately resolve that of his own Michael Corleone, a grey-haired, crippled shadow of himself, alone in the heart of his crumbling empire.
Extras:

Feature commentary by author Scott Harrison; trailer; collector's booklet.

The Don is Dead is on UK blu-ray from January 18th from Eureka Entertainment.