Don Is Dead, The (Blu-ray Review)
Release Date(s)1973 (May 6, 2022)
Studio(s)Universal Pictures (Imprint/Via Vision)
- Film/Program Grade: B-
- Video Grade: B
- Audio Grade: B-
- Extras Grade: B
[Editor’s Note: This is a REGION-FREE Australian Blu-ray release. The majority of this review is by Dennis Seuling with additional contributions by Tim Salmons.]
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.
The Don Is Dead was shot by cinematographer Richard H. Kline on 35 mm film using Panavision R-200 and Panaflex cameras with spherical lenses, finished photochemically, and presented in the aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The Region-Free Blu-ray release by Imprint Films features the exact same master that was used for the stateside Blu-ray release by Kino Lorber Studio Classics. It’s an older master, but picture details such as Tony’s checkered shirt, Don Angelo’s facial wrinkles, greenery on Don Angelo’s estate, and bricks on buildings are 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 as well. 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 audio is presented in English 2.0 Mono LPCM (the Kino release features a DTS-HD Master Audio track) with optional subtitles in English SDH. The dialogue is somewhat muddy. 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.
The Blu-ray disc of The Don Is Dead sits in a clear amaray case featuring the Spanish theatrical poster artwork on the front and a still from the film on the inner sleeve. Everything is housed within a slipcover featuring the US theatrical poster artwork. Bonus materials include in the following:
- Audio Commentary by Glenn Erickson and Marc Edward Heuck
- Kim Newman on The Don Is Dead (HD – 21:42)
- Theatrical Trailers (Upscaled SD – 2 in all – 2:56)
The new audio commentary features film editor and writer Glenn Erickson and writer and producer Marc Edward Heuck. It’s a little rough around the edges as it likely needed a bit of editing to trim out a few mistakes along the way, and Heuck is in the driver’s seat most of the time, but it’s an otherwise informative track. The two men delve into the film’s cast and crew, as well as its production, and highlight differences between the book and the final film. In the featurette, Kim Newman discusses the career of director Richard Fleischer, paying particular attention to the variety of his work, before delving into The Don Is Dead. He discusses the gangster films released in the wake of The Godfather and author Marvin H. Albert’s novels before comparing aspects of the film to other works. Also included are the film’s teaser and theatrical trailers. Note that the audio commentary with film historian and critic Sergio Sims included on the Kino Lorber Blu-ray release is absent here.
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 and Tim Salmons
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