Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: With Black Mass currently in theaters, and Legend on its way to them, we’re recommending gangster movies.
When movie fans think of rip-offs, a likely candidate would be the duplicitous named works of The Asylum (Transmorphers, Lord Of The Elves). However, copying blockbuster hits is a practice as old as Hollywood itself. So when Paramount Pictures made one of the biggest cinematic splashes ever with The Godfather in 1972, Universal responded the next year with Richard Fleischer’s The Don Is Dead.
Make no mistake: The Don Is Dead never reaches for the grand portentousness of Francis Ford Coppola’s iconic work. But under the hands of Fleischer, a longtime studio craftsman with a knack for spectacle, the film has its shares of pleasures. The script begins as a mimic, following an Al Pacino-esque character: Frederic Forrest’s sharp but eventually methodically chilling Tony Fargo as a mafia “handyman” who begrudgingly rises through the ranks during a gang war. The title cites the inciting incident, and the three families meet to discuss how the naïve son, Robert Forester’s Frank Regalbuto, will fit into the crime landscape. But these families are also rivals, so an unknown party in desire of power puts Frank’s blond girlfriend in the tempting hands of Don Angelo DiMorra (a rambunctious Anthony Quinn), and a war breaks out.
Where The Godfather relies on an operatic structure, The Don Is Dead embraces a tone closer to the gangster films of the 1930s, moving from location to location with zippy plotting; there’s no sense of reverence and a good deal of sleaze. (Jerry Goldsmith’s score appropriately imitates the giallo films of Italy with a snappy bass guitar rhythm.) Most essentially, the action—a specialty for the director of Violent Saturday, The Vikings, and The Last Run—is shot with acute precision. Fleischer avoids slowing the tempo, but he adds short beats to allow characters to think and choose where to shoot or run despite the chaos around them. This rhythmic pace makes an alley shootout (complete with a giant fruit stand spill) and a show-stopping demolition particularly thrilling, but it also reflects how the film’s most levelheaded characters survive while the hotheads meet their fate.
One of the first major studio directors to embrace widescreen composition, Fleischer works in a 1.85 aspect ratio here with a neat chaos; there’s always a particular order within the frame, but he provides just enough space for some disorder to peek through. The Don is Dead might not take all its themes of loyalty and family as seriously as its white elephant cousin, but this termite flick demands serious attention for the pleasures of its craft.
Availability: The Don Is Dead is available on DVD from Amazon or possibly your local video store/library. It can also be rented or purchased through the major digital services.