The French caper film burst onto the scene in the mid-1950s with the double-barreled blast of Jules Dassin’s Rififi and Jean-Pierre Melville’s Bob le Flambeur. These films melded the doomed fatalism of film noir with documentary-like attention to the mechanics of how a heist is actually perpetrated. Based on a novel by Rififi scribe August Le Breton, Henri Verneuil’s The Sicilian Clan falls squarely in this tradition with its hardboiled tale of cynical jewel thief Roger Sartet (Alain Delon). On the lam from Chief Inspector Le Goff (Lino Ventura), Sartet conspires with mafia don Vittorio Manalese (Jean Gabin) to hijack an airliner whose cargo includes the contents of a traveling diamond exhibition. Throughout, though, it’s hard to escape the feeling—stimulated by the film’s own ad campaign—that the real draw for Verneuil in The Sicilian Clan, even more than the pulpy storyline, was the chance to bring together for the first time the three legendary leads.
Verneuil may lack the acerbic existential edge that Dassin and Melville imparted to their films, but he nevertheless proves to be an adept craftsman with an enviable eye for evocative framing and camera movement. He also knows how to assemble a crack crew, bringing together for The Sicilian Clan veteran DP Henri Decaë and celebrated composer Ennio Morricone. And Verneuil’s technical prowess really shines through in the film’s major set pieces: Sartet’s opening escape from a police van, the tense standoff that ensues when Le Goff traps Sartet in a hooker’s hotel room, and the climactic hijacking sequence. The latter is filmed using a number of simple but effective in-camera effects intended to disguise the fact that the prop plane and the Manhattan skyline it traverses were never even on the same continent.
Though it never achieves the self-referential critical mass of, say, Breathless, the film takes a knowing approach to its material, actively playing on the well-honed personae of its three leads, and tweaking audience expectations with its frequent plot twists. There are also some clever, if oblique, references to the nature of commercial filmmaking, as when the pilot of the hijacked plane asks the gangsters, “Is this political, or are you only in it for the money?” Later, Sartet hides out in a garish Times Square crash-pad that’s emblazoned with every conceivable type of advertisement. Strictly speaking, these visual elements are entirely supernumerary; they seem to exist merely to gloss an attitude that accentuates the bottom-line over all else.
The Sicilian Clan is one of the first modern-era mafia movies, even if its insights into the dynamics of La Cosa Nostra are only subtly telegraphed by the highhanded way Vittorio Manalese treats daughter-in-law Jeanne (Irina Demick). An early scene centered around a meal effectively establishes the domestic pecking order: Vittorio serves himself, then his grandson, then passes the pasta off to the rest of the family. Vittorio takes time out to castigate Jeanne for wearing a fashionable miniskirt. It may be very lightly sketched in, but this scene clearly paves the way for Coppola’s far more operatic handling of similar material in The Godfather. In The Sicilian Clan’s downbeat finale, despite expectations that the calculating Sartet has actually put one over on the mob, Vittorio pays back both Sartet and Jeanne for their adulterous affair. Ultimately, there’s no escape for any of the characters from the film’s harsh, patriarchal codes of justice, not even for Manalese himself.
Kino offers two versions of the film on separate discs: a 2K restoration of the 121-minute international cut and a 4K restoration of the 118-minute U.S. cut. The film was shot simultaneously in French and English, and there's a bit more extended footage in the international version, which also incorporates an alternate take or two, thus accounting for the slightly longer running time. The international cut looks comparatively brighter, bringing out more details of the funky late-'60s costume and set design. With its recurrent use of whistling and a twanging Jew's harp, Ennio Morricone's eclectic score often recalls his work on spaghetti westerns, but the propulsive guitar-riff cues for the big action set pieces wouldn't be out of place in his giallo scores either. Both Master Audio stereo mixes are reasonably robust.
The commentary track from Howard S. Berger and Nathaniel Thompson on the U.S. cut conveys a wealth of solid production information; their familiarity with the careers of writer-director Verneuil, the three stars, composer Ennio Morricone, and Daryl Zanuck protégé (read: mistress) Irina Demick is particularly impressive. Even if Berger and Thompson begin by describing Verneuil as precisely the sort of "director of quality cinema" at whom the proponents of the French New Wave directed their fiercest barbs, they clearly respect the intelligence and craftsmanship Verneuil brought to his films. The track makes interesting excursions into what you could get away with in the late 1960s under the newly instituted ratings system, and how Verneuil's approach to commercial filmmaking—and its demands on an audience—contrasts with today's blockbuster style. The French-language making-of documentary "Legend of the Clan" combines talking heads and archival audio recordings of cast and crew, as well as some nifty behind-the-scenes footage, covering every aspect of the film's conception, production, and reception in satisfying detail. Fred Cavaye's brief introduction to the international version mostly articulates his awe of Verneuil working with the three leads.
Kino presents Henri Verneuil's compelling caper film The Sicilian Clan in two newly restored versions, along with some top-notch extras.