Release Date(s)1973 (March 9, 2021)
Studio(s)Universal Pictures (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: B-
- Video Grade: B
- Audio Grade: B-
- Extras Grade: B
Released a year after Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, The Don Is Dead deals with similar subject matter but without the finesse and sharp writing of that classic. Nonetheless, it offers some solid performances, a few unanticipated twists, and plenty of well staged action.
The death of a Las Vegas Mafia Don initiates a grab for power among rival operations. Aging mob boss Don Angelo (Anthony Quinn) judges that the son of the deceased Don, Frank Regalbuto (Robert Forster, Jackie Brown), is too young, brash, and inexperienced to head a crime family. Seeing a chance to stir up discord, Luigi Orlando (Charles Cioffi) masterminds an affair between the Don and Frank’s girlfriend, Ruby (Angel Tompkins), an aspiring singer. Frank’s violent jealousy sparks a power struggle between him and the Don that draws in the Fargo brothers, Tony (Frederic Forrest) and Vince (Al Lettieri).
One of the film’s earliest scenes sets the plot in motion. It’s a meeting of the family heads and their associates. Each of the participants puts forth a proposal about how to replace the deceased Don, but it is Don Angelo who is most eloquent as he proposes a plan that all find acceptable, if not exactly what they want.
As the film plays out, similarities to The Godfather become more clearly defined. Don Angelo’s wisdom echoes Marlon Brando’s Don Vito Corleone. Frank’s hotheadedness reminds us of James Caan’s Sonny. Tony, the intelligent operative who wants out of the gangster world, follows a dramatic arc similar to Al Pacino’s Michael. Abe Vigoda (Tessio in The Godfather) even pops up as a gangster underling.
Quinn has a commanding presence as Don Angelo and makes quite an impression with his monologue at the mob summit. Looking suave with his silver hair and tailored suit, he could pass for an influential businessman. Don Angelo has come up through the crime family and holds a revered place. With a self-assured yet never imperious manner, knowing the weight of his opinion, he proposes a compromise that his fellow crime bosses are sure to accept. Unfortunately, his character is relegated to the background as the film progresses and emphasis falls more on the younger characters, especially the hotheaded Frank and the reluctant Tony.
Frank resents being sidestepped for a position he feels he deserves and he’s easily manipulated to violence. His emotions trump clear thinking, which is his Achilles heel. Tony, far smarter than his muscle-bound brother, sees no future in crime and longs for a life in which he won’t have to constantly look over his shoulder.
Director Richard Fleischer (The Boston Strangler) gives the film a brisk pace and includes a number of exciting action sequences, adding tremendously to its production value. These involve fist fights, shoot-outs, explosions, and chases. Though the cast is large, relationships are clearly defined and performances are first-rate.
The primary drawback is that the film so closely resembles The Godfather. Though there are variations, the bones of the film are close to the Coppola film. Testosterone driven, The Don Is Dead treats women as objects solely for the pleasure of their men. None of the female characters, including Ruby, are fully developed and their total screen time is minimal. Though set in Las Vegas, The Don Is Dead doesn’t really exploit the location. Many key scenes were filmed on the Universal backlot, and look it. Violence and blood are plentiful and often seem gratuitous.
Featuring 1080p resolution, the film is presented on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber Studio Classics in the widescreen aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The picture is sharp, with details such as Tony’s checkered shirt, Don Angelo’s facial wrinkles, greenery on Don Angelo’s estate, and bricks on buildings particularly well delineated. The color palette is muted for the most part and tends toward darker hues, including the gangsters’ clothing, though there are few bright colors. Richard H. Kline’s cinematography is characterized by deep, atmospheric shadows, especially in the night scenes. A key scene in which Frank is led into a dark room features shadows formed by wooden slats. Don Angelo’s estate is bright and richly appointed, suggesting a luxurious lifestyle. Action set pieces are well staged and feature lots of blood. Interesting angles are used to peer under cars when Frank is cornered in a garage. Explosions feature brilliant splashes of yellow and red.
The soundtrack is English 2.0 Mono DTS-High Definition Master Audio. Subtitles in English SDH are available. Dialogue is somewhat muddy and not up to the standard of other recent Kino Lorber Blu-ray releases. Actors can be understood but the sound quality lacks sharpness. Gun shots, explosions, and car screeches are the dominant sound effects. Jerry Goldsmith’s score is serviceable but not one of his best.
Bonus materials include an audio commentary and a set of theatrical trailers.
Audio Commentary – Film historian and critic Sergio Mims refers to The Don Is Dead as part of the old-fashioned Hollywood studio system, “a professionally slick picture.” All the major studios had back lots. At the time the film was made, Hollywood was in a period of transition, with many studios selling off land to developers. He refers to Richard Fleischer—son of Betty Boop creator Max Fleischer—as an underrated director who hasn’t received the credit he deserves. His 70-plus, diverse films include The Vikings, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Soylent Green, Compulsion, and Barabbas. But Fleischer doesn’t have a particular visual style or favorite themes that appear from picture to picture. He is first and foremost interested in story, and adjusts his approach to the material accordingly. Costume designer Edith Head’s and composer Jerry Goldsmith’s contributions are noted. Don Angelo’s home was filmed at the Harold Lloyd estate, a location frequently used in movies, but most of the film was shot on sets or on the studio’s back lot. Brief career overviews of cast members are provided. The Don Is Dead explodes into a “cataclysm of violence,” with violence feeding on itself like an uncontrollable force. The film takes advantage of The Godfather craze and is one of many gangster pictures made in the wake of its success, but lacks its nuance. The gunshots heard in the film are distinctive Universal gunshots from its sound effects library. The way heroin is tested in the film is authentic. Though the nominal star is Anthony Quinn, the film is essentially an ensemble piece, with Quinn’s involvement decreasing as the story unfolds. There are no sympathetic characters and no one to root for, which may explain why the film was not a box office success. Mims incorrectly refers to the Tony Curtis film The Black Shield of Falworth as The Black Sword of Fonsworth. He concludes by making a case for the viewer to reassess the work of Richard Fleischer, who worked in different genres and turned out many entertaining films.
Trailers – Five theatrical trailers are included: The Don Is Dead, Across 110th Street, The Destructors, The Passage, and Mr. Majestyk.
Though it’s an OK action drama, The Don Is Dead lacks distinction and an individual director’s signature. Director Richard Fleischer has made compelling films before but here he is merely a competent journeyman. The film has the veneer of a dressed-up B picture with a name actor topping the cast to elevate its status.
- Dennis Seuling