Released a year after The Godfather, Richard Fleischer’s pot-boiler The Don is Dead is a decent mid-tier effort that trades in similar themes as Francis Ford Coppola‘s cultural monolith, yet opts for Stakhanovite efficiency in place of Shakespearean operatics. Succession is the name of the familiar game as the death of a Las Vegas Mafia don triggers a frantic turf war between rival operations. Originality is at a premium, but with every aspect of production full of safe hands, this is a gritty, brisk, and entertaining gangster thriller.
When hot-heated young hood Frank (Robert Forster) is denied what he sees as his rightful place as head of his crime family by veteran mob boss Don Angelo (Anthony Quinn). The Don, quite rightly, sees the younger man as too inexperienced. Seeing the chance to sow discord, the power hungry Luigi (Charles Cioffi) orchestrates an affair between the Don and Ruby (Angel Tompkins), Frank’s girlfriend and an aspiring singer. This ignites Frank’s jealousy and the result is an internecine power struggle that also draws in the mercenary Fargo brothers, (Al Lettieri and Frederic Forrest) who become loose-cannon players in the chaos.
The Don is Dead threads the needle between the post-Godfather Euro-sleaze like Almost Human and Fleischer’s classic Hollywood sensibilities. The milieu is suitably lurid, and the story hints at a bloodbath, but the violence is infrequent and restrained. The capable journeyman behind such disparate fare as Doctor Dolittle, 10 Rillington Place, and Soylent Green can’t bring himself to cut loose to quite the extent of the Italian genre exponents that decided to ride on Coppola’s sizeable coattails. It’s a smooth but unspectacular ride, right from the King Lear-esque Mafia powwow that opens proceedings and dutifully lays out the situation and all the key players.
The Don is Dead certainly hits all the marks, and even attempts to throw some narrative curveballs as the focus shifts suddenly between characters. Yet, the overriding sense is one of familiarity, and in some aspects it feels like a missed opportunity. The atypical setting of Las Vegas is not utilised to its potential at all, with an almost defiant lack of pizazz indicative of the film as a whole. Also, a great cast packed with charisma easily holds the attention, with Forrest given the greatest dramatic arc as Tony Fargo, yet each falls into a recognisable bracket. Don Angelo is Brando‘s Don Vito Corleone right down to a fate more mundane than an assassin’s bullet, Frank is a facsimile of James Caan‘s Sonny, and the calculating Tony is directly analogous to Pacino‘s Michael.
While a decent example of the kind of gritty thriller that came to exemplify ’70s American filmmaking, The Don is Dead simply lacks the individuality of a Coppola or a Scorsese picture, or even a Friedkin, Lumet, or Pakula. There are no personal preoccupations or obsessions ticking beneath the surface or demons scratching their way through the screen. There is nothing more than a pugnacious, sawn-off brand of masculinity that tarnishes all men and reduces the female characters to mothers, whores, or Lady Macbeth schemers. Hardly unusual for a genre offering from this period, but particularly glaring given the slight hollowness of the rest of the film. For all the talent at work, it’s ultimately forgettable, though plenty entertaining in the moment.
Available on Blu-ray from Mon 18 Jan 2021