While he was never considered an auteur at any point in his career, director Richard Fleischer still carved out a successful and respectable career in Hollywood. The son of Max Fleischer – one time rival to Walt Disney in the animation world – Richard found his own way, starting out working for RKO Radio Pictures in their B movie unit (which included the taut noirs Armored Car Robbery and The Narrow Margin) before graduating to the big time with the successful adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) for Disney (quite ironic when you think about it, isn’t it?). He became a reliable gun for hire in the later part of his career, at one point having seen 16 of his films that he directed released into theaters from 1966 to 1977; coming in during this time was The Don is Dead, one of the first films to capitalize on the runaway success of The Godfather. Previously released on DVD by Universal, Kino has licensed the movie for its Blu-ray debut.
The Production: 3.5/5
In the Los Angeles organized crime world, the death of the patriarch of a crime family sets off an intense struggle for power. And it’s ignited by a seemingly innocent relationship between Don Angelo DiMorra (Anthony Quinn) and the gorgeous fiancée of Angelo’s lieutenant Frank Regalbuto (Robert Forster), who also happens to be the son of the Don whose territory the remaining families are fighting over. When Frank discovers this, it sends him into a jealous and self destructive rage that also sweeps up his closest associates the Fargo Brothers (Frederic Forrest & Al Lettieri) in the violent maelstrom. When the dust settles, who will be left to rule the underworld after the bullets stop flying and the blood is spilled, all over a misunderstanding?
As one of the first movies released in the wake of The Godfather’s success, The Don is Dead is a neat little thriller in its own right. Under Richard Fleischer’s direction, the movie moves along at a nice clip, allowing for both exposition as well as some brutal scenes of violence equal room to breathe. However, the most interesting wrinkle brought to this movie is the fact that an all out gang war in the organized crime world is started over an alleged love affair between a mob boss and the lover of one of his top lieutenants; I don’t recall seeing anything like that before or after this movie. Other than that, the movie does follow some rather traditional tropes; one can also see some parallels between one Fargo brother and Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone, especially in the second half of the movie. In bringing a unique twist to the formula, The Don is Dead manages to set itself apart in the gangster film genre while also hemming to the traits of the genre; in short, it’s absolutely worth a look for curiosity’s sake.
Top billed Anthony Quinn brings an air of dignity and a little bit of tragedy to Don Angelo; his later portrayals of crime bosses include one in Tony Scott’s Revenge (1990) and as Joe “The Boss” Masseria in Mobsters (1991). Robert Forster is an appropriately intense Frank, whose anger over his fiancée’s affair with Don Angelo serves as the catalyst for the bloody mob war; he had a very good career in movies and television – despite falling shot of stardom – which included an Oscar nomination for what’s likely his best performance in his film career in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown (1997). Frederic Forrest and Al Lettieri serve as the yin and yang to each other as – respectively – the more reserved Tony and the more bombastic Vince; while Lettieri’s career was tragically cut short due to a fatal heart attack in 1975 at the relatively young age of 47, Forrest would later earn an Oscar nod as Bette Midler’s love interest in The Rose (1979). Rounding out the cast here are Angel Tompkins as Frank’s beautiful fiancée, Charles Cioffi as a scheming mob lawyer trying to take advantage of the rift between Don Angelo and Frank for the benefit of himself and his wife, Louis Zorich as Don Angelo’s brother Mitch, Ina Balin as the wife of Vince Fargo, Abe Vigoda (Tessio from The Godfather and later Sgt. Fish on TV’s Barney Miller and Fish) as Don Talusso, Sid Haig in the film’s opening scenes as the Arab connection in an ill-fated heroin deal and Vic Tayback (just before his career defining role as Mel Sharples in Martin Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and the TV spinoff Alice) as an associate of Don Angelo.
3D Rating: NA
The film is presented in its original 1:85:1 aspect ratio for this release. There’s faithful representation of film grain, color palette and fine details present in the majority of the film, although some scenes are softer, especially in some close ups; there’s also a minimal presence of issues like scratches, dirt and dust present here. Although this looks like an older HD transfer, this release is still an improvement over the previous Universal DVD and likely the best the movie will ever look on home video.
The film’s original mono soundtrack is presented on a DTS-HD Master Audio track for this release. Dialogue, sound mix and Jerry Goldsmith’s score are all strong and clear while being faithfully represented here with minimal to no issues like crackling, hissing or distortion present here. This release likely represents the best the movie will ever sound on home video and is another improvement over the Universal DVD.
Special Features: 2.5/5
Commentary with film critic and historian Sergio Mims – Newly recorded for this release, Mims talks a little bit about the movie and the cast and crew; more details about the film’s production would have been nice.
Theatrical Trailer (1:44)
Bonus KLSC Trailers – Across 110th Street, The Destructors, The Passage & Mr. Majestyk
Although it flew under the radar during its initial release, The Don is Dead is still an interesting crime thriller that brings a unique twist unseen before and even after it came along. Kino continues to do a solid job here with a neat HD transfer and an insightful commentary track to complement it. Highly recommended and worth upgrading from the Universal DVD.
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