Produced after his most indelible noirs (Night and the City, Rififi), 1959’s The Law—previously released in the U.S. in 1963 under the title Where the Hot Wind Blows!—finds Jules Dassin still in sharp form, even if his material doesn’t quite live up to his direction’s high standards. Dassin’s 15th feature sets an all-star cast in the Italian fishing town of Porto Manacore, which is ruled from on high by a stern criminal named Don Cesar (Pierre Brasseur) who surrounds himself with women and Greek antiquities. Don Cesar looms over the citizenry like a menacing father figure, his dominance so pervasive that the local men’s favorite pastime is a game predicated on hegemony called “The Law.” In this diversion, individuals selected as the “boss” and the “deputy” are given free reign to lord over others in whatever nasty or nice way they choose, thereby encapsulating the film’s belief that, in all relationships, there is a leader and a follower. Questions of authority stand at the root of the population’s every deed and word, as power and romantic struggles abound, be they related to the many illicit affairs carried out behind the backs of cuckolded spouses, the pressures of gender politics placed on women and men to conform to traditional roles, or the efforts of the police to thwart a raft of thieves and swindlers.
The Law’s most pressing plot points are two societal sea changes threatening to take place—the first involving new-guard crook Matteo Brigante (Yves Montand) attempting to displace old-guard Don Cesar as the area’s big shot, and the second having to do with the government’s encroaching sway over the independent region via agricultural engineer Enrico Tosso (Marcello Mastroianni) arriving to drain a swampland area (to cure malaria) that Don Cesar uses for hunting and, it’s also implied, dumping bodies. Dassin’s film overflows with conflicts of a political and amorous kind, and there’s a definite soap-operatic quality to the myriad roundelays crowding the screen, never more so than in a free-flowing nighttime festival sequence in which the director segues effortlessly from one clandestine happening to the next. Working from a screenplay based on Roger Vailland’s novel, Dassin creates coherence by pivoting his mini dramas around the issue of true supremacy, as well as Marietta (Gina Lollobrigida), the town beauty everyone desires and whose own secret illicit operation, which comes to a head when she robs a wealthy Swiss tourist, reveals sex and power as natural bedfellows.
Despite various portraits of small- and large-scale influence and control, The Law is a tad too glossy and frivolous to truly plumb its stories’ suggested depths. Still, the film does gain a measure of import simply from its numerous permutations on the same basic themes, even when said concerns are dealt with through florid melodrama (a suicide, a final confrontation between Don Cesar and Brigante) or glibness (with power ultimately residing, first and foremost, in the alluring smiles and cunning wiles of a gorgeous woman). Yet more than its intellectual topics of interest, Dassin’s intricately scripted tale is a showcase for his deft gift with the camera, on display from the opening moments in which elaborate, angular visual framing—including a shot of two people behind window shade slats that immediately, strikingly evokes their estrangement and imprisonment—encases the action in aesthetic splendor. And such loveliness isn’t hard to come by given the raft of attractive, talented people dominating the screen, with Mastroianni’s playboy playfulness, Montand’s suave cruelty, and Lollobrigida’s blend of insatiable carnality and fierce femininity lending star-wattage charm and heat to this breezy, jaunty lark.
The Law will play on March 18 and 19 as part of this year’s Rendez-Vous with French Cinema series. To purchase tickets, click here.