The Sicilian Clan
KL Studio Classics
1969 / Color B&W / 2:35 widescreen / 122 min. (French, without exit music); 118 min (American) / Le clan des Siciliens / Street Date February 7, 2017 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring Jean Gabin, Alain Delon, Lino Ventura, Irina Demick, Amedeo Nazzari, Danielle Volle, Philippe Baronnet, Karen Blanguernon, Elisa Cegani, Yves Lefebvre, Leopoldo Trieste, Sydney Chaplin.
Cinematography: Henri Decaë
Production design: Jacques Saulnier
Original Music: Ennio Morricone
Written by: Henri Verneuil, José Giovanni, Pierre Pelegri from a novel by Auguste Le Breton
Produced by: Jacques-E. Strauss
Directed by Henri Verneuil
American crime fanatics wary of European imports now have access to a fully Region-A disc of a big-star, big budget French-Italian-American gangster film from 1969, Henri Verneuil’s exciting The Sicilian Clan. It was filmed in two separate versions, a multi-lingual European original and a less exciting, English language cut for America. A huge hit overseas, The Sicilian Clan didn’t make a ripple when given a spotty release here in 1970. It hasn’t been seen much here since, but I’ve been talking it up forever. For almost 25 years, the only way I could recall it was to play the soundtrack album featuring the eccentric music of Ennio Morricone. That’s why we bought so many soundtrack albums back before home video, as a way to re-live movies we couldn’t see.
I saw The Sicilian Clan twice when it was new. An Air Force Base theater showed the International version, in French, Italian and English with subtitles, to a fascinated crowd that applauded at least twice during the screening. When I rented the movie for the UCLA dorms the next year, Films Incorporated sent me the American version, in which everyone spoke in phony-sounding English and nothing seemed quite as exciting. Fox produced the English-language version because they knew that American audiences wouldn’t sit through subtitles. But the dubbing robbed the picture of any feeling of authenticity and naturalness.
A French disc came out four years ago from Fox-Europa, and happened to be encoded Region-free. Kino’s new release has both versions as well, on two separate discs. Some of the extras are included.
The story is taken from a novel by Auguste Le Breton, the writer of the classic crime story Rififi chez les hommes. Notorious thief and cop killer Roger Sartet (Alain Delon) is sprung from a prison truck right in Paris by the Manalese Gang, a highly-organized group of brothers following the orders of the family patriarch Vittorio Manalese (Jean Gabin). The Manaleses own a pinball machine company, but Vittorio indulges in profitable crimes to allow him to buy land back in Sicily, so he can return to a glorious retirement. Roger’s cellmate in prison, a security systems expert, has given him the alarm layout for an exhibition of fine jewelry. Interested in a deal for a new heist, Vittorio flies to Rome to check it out for himself, with his New York Mafia buddy Tony Nicosia (Amadeo Nazzari of The Nights of Cabiria). Working overtime to recapture Sartet, the dogged Inspector Le Goff (Lino Ventura) leans hard on Roger’s sister Monique (Danielle Volle), passport forgers and other underworld contacts. Sartet risks a night with a prostitute. But sex causes even more trouble when he responds to the overtures of Jeanne (Irina Demick), the French wife of one of the Manalese sons. What with the Sicilian code of honor, they had better not be caught.
The Sicilian Clan attracted a massive audience in Europe with its star cast: three legends of French thrillers. Jean Gabin was a revered institution, a veteran of some of the greatest pictures by Jean Renoir and Julien Duvivier. Alain Delon’s career was barely a decade old, yet he was the country’s hottest male sex symbol, topping even Jean-Paul Belmondo. Not known internationally, Lino Ventura represented the best in French crime and ‘serie noire’ thrillers, having starred in terrific shows like Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows, Claude Sautet’s Classe tous risques and Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le deuxième souffle. Gabin was the grand old man of the three — Ventura’s first role was in a Gabin picture, Jacques Becker’s Touchez pas au grisbi.
Made by the locally popular but uneven Henri Verneuil (Greed in the Sun), The Sicilian Clan is slick, expensive and perhaps a little too conventional. The film’s ambition was to crack the American market. At one point in the excellent documentary included on the disc, the producer says that Verneuil stressed giving the film a snappy ‘American pace’. He delivers impressive thriller set pieces and dramatic confrontations, but his film retains the tempo of a less-rushed French movie.
The three stars exhibit different styles of Gallic cool. Jean Gabin stays in his pinball factory, with its apartments above the work areas. He’s the center of all Manalese activity, with his obedient sons on task at all times. The family eats together and watches TV together. As the only outsider, Jeanne can barely take the rigid family routine — it’s like living in the 19th century. Alain Delon’s criminal Sartet faces down the police as he did in his Jean-Pierre Melville pictures, calmly listening to his rap sheet and quietly sticking to his denials. Sartet does have a soft spot for his sister Monique, who suffers under Inspector Le Goff’s constant surveillance. Lino Ventura’s relentless detective is a completely stock character who runs a tight outfit and rarely smiles. The gag of having Le Goff trying to quit smoking is one of the film’s few clichés. Ventura’s presence overcomes all obstacles — he’s an immediately likeable pro.
The movie is lavish by the standards of French genre filmmaking of the time, with many beautifully constructed sets. Jacques Saulnier’s art direction does go a bit far with the color coordination in a scene where every accent including Irina Demick’s tight outfit, seems to be bright orange. The action ranges from hotels to airports to a large prison and a convincing police headquarters. In the best staged action scene, the cops invade a cheap hotel, getting as close as one door away from their quarry Sartet, who is still in his underwear. It’s like the two-gun situation in Don Siegel’s Madigan, except that it resolves in an impressive, hair-raisingly credible stunt.
Icing on the cake comes in the form of Ennio Morricone’s slick music score by, which alternates between a mournful main theme and an exciting action riff for transitional cues. As with his western scores of the time, Morricone makes use of odd noises, in this case ‘boing’ sounds. The most unusual scoring choice is a dynamic power moment for a seduction on a beach. Delon’s crook Sartet has caught a large eel and kills it by pounding it against a rock. The brutal display is observed by Jeanne, who has chosen to sunbathe nude only a few yards away, an open invitation for sex. Considering the Old World honor system these Sicilians subscribe to, Jeanne is making a very big mistake.
The Sicilian Clan’s escapes and violent confrontations are covered in a real-time detail that’s no longer in fashion. Today’s action montage style either piles on layers of incident and jeopardy (to cartoon excess) or dispenses with suspense effects to rush forward to the next scene. The film eventually builds to a major crime that’s spelled out in full detail – the hijacking-robbery of a jet plane carrying a fabulous treasure from Paris to New York. In 1970 the audacious ‘super-crime’ seemed utterly fantastic, and its surprise conclusion beyond credibility. Not any more — our innocence has been overtaken by history in a way that might make some audiences uncomfortable. For those who have seen the movie, this thought thread continues in a SPOILER discussion at the end of the review.
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of The Sicilian Clan is a great encoding of a fun show. Kino configures the movies on separate Blu-ray discs. Labeled the U.S.Cut, the first version is 118 minutes in length. It’s considered the main item, which I think is a big mistake. The second French version (also labeled confusingly as the International Cut) is a couple of minutes shorter than that given on the French disc from four years ago. The only thing missing is an exit music cue that originally played out over black.
The transfer is bright and sharp, and identical to that on the earlier French disc. On the French version only, the main title sequence is slightly windowboxed. With its impressive Parisian locations, this looks great on a big screen. The special effects used in the hijack sequence are variable, but not bad for 1969: a decommissioned jet seems to have been hired to film the hijack scenes. The filmmakers may have needed to mock up fake jet engines for it, because they don’t look like any I’ve seen.
What makes the two versions different? They are really two different movies, edited the same but using entirely different film takes. Americans that have seen the film on cable TV (miserably pan-scanned, mind you) are basically looking at the 2nd-best takes throughout, with dialogue scenes where actors like Gabin must work phonetically, with little sense of English-language speech pacing. Even more importantly, in the French version, which language is being spoken when has a function in the story. For instance, a Canadian confederate (Sydney Chaplin) speaks French and English, but not Italian. The Manaleses talk about him behind his back, even when he’s in the same room. This international aspect is lost in the mechanical dialogue of the English version. To me, it loses the realism of a Euro-police thriller.
Kino has carried over Fox-Europa’s quality extras. A four-minute intro to the film is given by director-writer Fred Cavayé. Very welcome is a handsomely produced, informative making-of docu called La Legende du Clan (64 min). We hear about the stars and the director’s difficulties with the American studio and Darryl Zanuck from the producer, the assistant director, the designer and the son of director Henri Verneuil, who passed away in 2002. Yes, it’s true — the Fox/Zanuck deal required the film to star Irina Demick. She was Zanuck’s paramour of the 1960s and a memorable presence in The Longest Day and especially Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines, where she plays seven separate roles.
New to this edition is a lively audio commentary hosted by Nathaniel Thompson of the esteemed website Mondo Digital. He’s joined by filmmaker Howard S. Berger, who has an inexhaustible supply of information and anecdotes about the movie. Berger’s enthusiasm raises the pitch a bit high here and there, but it’s a very good commentary for this show.
I remember some of the Fox publicity hype promoting this movie. The book The Godfather had just become a big seller, but the flacks were pushing The Sicilian Clan as ‘the real thing.’ The website Tipping My Fedora has a link to a guardian news piece from 1969 that added to the publicity buzz for The Sicilian Clan: Alain Delon detained by police in the notorious Markovic murder. Another odd tidbit: actor Sydney Chaplin is the same Sydney Chaplin who starred in his father’s Limelight, had a major role in Land of the Pharaohs, and after other successes on Broadway originated the musical play Funny Girl with Barbra Streisand. What a strange career.
Briefly stated, the Manaleses’ big crime (SPOILER — SPOILER) in The Sicilian Clan is the hijacking of a commercial airliner en route to New York City, to steal its special cargo of jewels. The first hijack to Cuba had occurred in 1962. By 1969 there political hijackings were common, including a major episode engineered by Israeli Chief of Staff Moshe Dayan and a small plane hijacked by refugees fleeing Communist Budapest.
Airplane hijackings were never very amusing. Even when The Sicilian Clan was in the theaters, a shoot-out occurred on a domestic flight. The malign adventures of D.B. Cooper (mythologized) and Carlos (feared and loathed) would follow. The Sicilian Clan shows the hijackers able to take over the plane just by walking on board with concealed weapons and strolling forward to the cockpit, which has no secure door.
What made The Sicilian Clan so shocking in 1969 is that gangsters committing a crime for profit think nothing of risking a major aerial disaster, jeopardizing a hundred lives and perhaps many more on the ground. At the last moment, the Manalese’s replacement pilot steers the plane away from New York’s La Guardia Airport, and puts it down on a New Jersey Freeway not yet open to the public. A caravan of mob cars awaits to spirit away the hijackers and their loot. In the first screening I saw of the movie, the reveal of the escape plan elicited spontaneous applause from the audience, as if it were a fantasy set piece in a James Bond movie. The difference is that this air heist seems entirely believable, a terrible but brilliantly conceived and executed super-crime.
The show may be uncomfortable for viewers sensitive to the 9/11 issue. On the New York approach, even with the aerial views geographically off, it is chilling to see the plane divert radically from La Guardia and fly low over Manhattan, with armed men in charge. The passengers and air traffic controllers have no idea where it is being taken. When Le Goff finally learns what has happened, he is appropriately speechless.
Frankly, watching the awful news coverage back in 2001, I immediately thought of The Sicilian Clan. One shot of the airliner flying between the skyscrapers of downtown Manhattan is flat-out disturbing. 9/11 forever blurred the distinction between pulp thriller fiction and historical reality. It resembles something from a violent comic book or spy thriller, something concocted by a super-criminal, a Fu Manchu, Dr. Mabuse or Emilio Largo. Nothing is unthinkable anymore.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Sicilian Clan
Supplements: New commentary with Howard S. Berger and Nathaniel Thompson, longform making-of docu, introduction by Fred Cavayé, animated still montage, two theatrical trailers
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 22, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson