Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Cult Classics Revisited: THE SICILIAN CLAN (1969)


Directed by Henri Verneuil.  Written by Henri Verneuil, Jose Giovanni, Pierre Pelegri.  Cast: Jean Gabin, Alain Delon, Lino Ventura, Irina Demick, Amedeo Nazzari, Sydney Chaplin, Philippe Baronnet, Yves Lefebvre, Marc Porel, Gerard Buhr, Sally Nesbitt, Edward Meeks, Leopoldo Trieste, Sabine Sun. (PG, 118 mins)

The caper thriller THE SICILIAN CLAN was hugely popular in its native France due in large part to its starring three of the biggest names in French cinema:  the iconic Alain Delon, Italian tough guy Lino Ventura, and the legendary, beloved Jean Gabin, whose career dated back to the silent era and was voluntarily put on hold when he chose to fight in WWII.  Directed and co-written by the underrated Henri Verneuil (1920-2002), THE SICILIAN CLAN takes its time getting revved up, but once it does, it's a riveting, exciting heist flick that ranks among the best of that crowded 1960s subgenre.  20th Century Fox released it in the US in 1970 (with a bit more nudity that you'd expect in a PG-rated film, but perhaps we weren't as reactionary and prudish back then) and it was a moderate success in its subtitled French-language version.  An English-language version was also prepared, possibly for theatrical release as well but likely for TV airings (it's the dubbed version that occasionaly plays on Fox Movie Channel and HBO), and according to IMDb, the entire film was made in three languages (French, English, and Italian).  That seems like a questionable claim, as prevalent as dubbing was during that period.  At any rate, most of the actors appear to be mouthing in English most of the time (Delon dubs himself, but I doubt Gabin does, and Ventura definitely doesn't).  What's odd is that THE SICILIAN CLAN has never received an official home video release in the US.  It's not on DVD or Blu-ray and it was never released on VHS.  This film is far too entertaining to be relegated to 6:00 am showings in pan & scan format on one of the lesser-watched HBO channels.  In this era of cult films being made available via manufactured-on-demand programs like Warner Archive, MGM Limited Edition, and Twilight Time, a major-studio release like THE SICILIAN CLAN is a prime example of the kind of under-the-radar gem for which those labels were created.

Jean Gabin as Vittorio Manalese
The complex, globe-trotting story begins with criminal Roger Sartet (Delon) being sent to prison for a jewelry store robbery and the subsequent killing of two police officers.  He manages a daring escape--while in transit to the prison--with the help of the Manalese crime family.  Sautet tempts Vittorio (Gabin), the head of the family, with a heist of diamonds on display in a museum.  Vittorio and his sons find the deal too sweet to pass up, but they don't trust Sartet and keep him on a tight leash.  That doesn't stop Sartet from fooling around with Vittorio's sultry daughter-in-law Jeanne (Irina Demick).  Vittorio, after consulting with his New York mob associate Tony Nicosia (Amedeo Nazzari) deems the museum heist too risky and they instead opt to grab the diamonds while they're being transported from Paris to New York City.  Of course this takes intricate planning, which is always jeopardized when no one trusts anyone else and the guy Tony sends to help them pilot the plane once they take it over is Jack (Sydney Chaplin), an unreliable alcoholic.  Plus, dogged Inspector Le Goff (Ventura) is behind them every step of the way.

Delon, Gabin, and Ventura in a publicity shot
Filled with a generous amount of humor and some truly inventive set pieces, THE SICILIAN CLAN is a terrific thriller that deserves to be better known today.  The long sequence aboard the plane takes up about 30 minutes of screen time and is a magnificently-done exercise is suspense and tension, even with some occasionally iffy rearscreen projection work.  This bit, with Jack's landing of the plane on an under-construction highway outside of Manhattan, probably called for the kind of over-the-top destruction that 1969 visual effects weren't capable of delivering, but it still works.  Also aiding the film greatly is a marvelously catchy score by Ennio Morricone (you'll be humming the action theme for days), that's dampened only by the overuse of a "boing!" that seems more suited for one of Terence Hill's comedic westerns of the time.  And even dubbed, the screen presence of the actors resonates beautifully.  Delon, the top star in France at the time, takes a backseat for much of the film, almost stepping aside in respectful deference to Gabin, who's really the star here (and Verneuil gives him a grand entrance) and commands the screen even when he's just standing there watching someone.  Ventura, a veteran Italian actor who found fame in French cinema in the 1960s, doesn't get as much to do, but he makes the most of it with his incredulous looks when he knows he's being lied to, and an amusing running gag about his attempts to quit smoking.

Irina Demick, just because
Perhaps one reason THE SICILIAN CLAN is largely forgotten outside of cult circles--other than its infrequent cable airings, its lack of availability outside of the bootleg circuit, and that it came at the end of the Euroheist cycle--is because it lacks the arthouse merit that say, the rediscovered works of Jean-Pierre Melville exhibit.  It plays a lot like a commercial, popcorn version of a Melville crime film (Delon and Ventura had both been in Melville films prior to this), but doesn't purport to be anything but escapist entertainment.  It's not serious.  Now I'm not putting Verneuil on Melville's level, but the guy made some good films--1968's GUNS FOR SAN SEBASTIAN, 1973's NIGHT FLIGHT FROM MOSCOW, and I haven't seen 1975's FEAR OVER THE CITY, but it's highly regarded by fans of French action--and might be worthy of some study, perhaps not as an auteur who influenced future filmmakers but as a reliable and skilled journeyman who knew how to put an entertaining picture together and did his job well.

No comments:

Post a Comment