THE SICILIAN CLAN (Henri Verneuil, 1969)

I am sometimes accused of not sufficiently appreciating films made to entertain, although of course I think the exact opposite. Unlike those who rank entertainment above art or can’t even tell the difference between them, I appreciate the precise measure of merit that the former kind of film is entitled to claim. This frees me to enjoy these films, when they are done exceptionally well, to a degree that many filmgoers perhaps cannot match. When I see Henri Verneuil’s marvelous heist film The Sicilian Clan (Le Clan des Siciliens), I know the territory I’m in; the film is faux-Becker—Jacques Becker, that is—and faux-Melville—Jean-Pierre Melville, that is. It’s a cross between Becker’s Touchez pas au grisbi (1954) and Melville’s Le samurai (1967). The blend is thinned out; it offers few social or psychological or other kinds of insights but nonetheless (once it really gets started about halfway through) smoothly unwinds, generating immaculate suspense. The film is a corker.

As a boy in the 1950s, in fact, it wasn’t masterpieces by Bresson and Renoir that first drew me to French cinema. Some might be surprised to know that two of the first French films I thoroughly embraced were the grown man’s recollected boyhood comedy Papa, Mama, the Maid and I (1954), by Jean-Paul Le Chanois, and Georges Lampin’s Crime and Punishment (1956), a moody, romantic transplantation-update of the Dostoievski that didn’t even sound the depths of Pierre Chenal’s 1934 version, which had already stripped the novel of its psychological density and philosophical inquiry. I would see the Chenal film only much later, whereupon Harry Baur’s performance astounded me. Indeed, what I took to most about the Lampin version, apart from Claude Renoir’s soulful, misty black-and-white cinematography, were two of the three lead performances, one by a bewitching teenaged Marina Vlady, and the other, in the Porfiri role (now called Gallet), by Jean Gabin. Gabin, perhaps France’s greatest actor and certainly its most titanic and enduring male presence in films, is also (forty years after he launched his film career) the star of The Sicilian Clan.

I am not going to pretend there’s much to discuss about the film. It’s absolutely superficial—and, for the most part, irresistible. Gabin plays Vittorio Manalese, the patriarch of a mob family who arranges for the escape en route to prison of Roger Sartet, a young expert thief he has hired for a staggering jewel heist. The law, in the person of Inspector Le Goff, is determined to find Sartet, who is also a killer; the Sicilian clan has hidden him away, but Sartet, rebellious and footloose, doesn’t always stay hidden. Two girls love him: his sister and Jeanne, who happens to be married to one of the Manalese boys. The jewelry theft takes Sartet to New York, but when Vittorio finds out about his daughter-in-law’s dalliance with Sartet, family honor dictates double murder. The boy is lured back to Paris in the hope of catching up with his cut for the jewel heist. He is in for a tornado of bullets.

Is The Sicilian Clan, among the most suspenseful films ever made, about anything? Well, two themes suggest themselves to a degree. One, family honor trumps professional allegiance, that is to say, blood is thicker than money. (Vittorio, after he has murdered Sartet and Jeanne, leaves Sartet’s cut with the corpse, and there is nothing to suggest that the bills aren’t genuine.) This, of course, has nothing to do with love of family, because love of family would move Vittorio beyond pride, and what he finally accomplishes is the action of a man criminally bound within the cell of his own self-concern. On the other hand, he himself may have known, the film suggests, that he is prison-bound for his crimes, and likely, like his apprehended sons, to face the guillotine. Manalese’s inhumanity, then, gives him a kind of grandeur, a godliness. He is certainly a figure of awe for his doting little grandson, although we scarcely ever see him acting lovingly towards the child or doing with the child grandfatherly things. Manalese seems self-contained, a prisoner already of the mob life that he leads, and it’s possible that the film is thus ironically reflecting on the limits of seemingly boundless presumption and power. It’s possible.

The other theme that suggests itself is even more faint and elusive. Le Goff’s willingness to bend and even break the law in his indefatigable pursuit of Sartet reveals him to be as cold and inhuman as Manalese. He is cut from the same piece of cloth, and it almost doesn’t matter whether gangsterism has helped determine the behavior of the law or the viciousness of the law has helped determine the nature of the mob. Clearly, they are in some sense bound together, each helping to define each. Something else is clear, especially given the relative dignity with which Le Goff treats Manalese, who is much closer to his own age than young Sartet. Le Goff’s pursuit of Sartet is fueled at least in part by the boy’s relative youth; we may say, then, that Le Goff’s intense hatred of Sartet has something to do with Le Goff’s sense of having lost his own youth, as it were, the lion’s share of his life. By pursuing Sartet he is engaged in attempting to defeat time that is now pursuing him. Similarly, the arrest of his sons signals the exhaustion of time for Manalese.

I am not being here perversely academic, inventing themes for the sake of showing how clever I can be. There is no doubt that the two themes I note, and probably others, really exist in the film. But neither is sounded deeply; indeed, both ideas may have seeped in, undisturbed and diluted, from the novel by Auguste le Breton on which the film is based. (Le Breton also wrote the novel on which Jules Dassin’s 1955 Du Rififi chez les hommes is based, but in that superior instance he also contributed to the script.) Let me put it another way: the film doesn’t exist to explore these themes; the themes are sounded, but they aren’t the film’s reason for being. In a work of art, the artist would be applying the formal means to explore best the themes he or she wishes to pursue. Verneuil may sound a theme here or there, but his primary aim is to entertain.

Gabin is wonderful in a much colder variation of other gangsters he has played. (My favorite Gabin role for Verneuil, however, isn’t a gangster or a cold bastard: Albert Quentin, in the wonderful comedy A Monkey in Winter, 1962.) But nearly as good is Alain Delon as Roger Sartet, also a cold-blooded bastard without even charm apart from his good looks, but who—is it because of his youth and those looks?—generates a good deal of anxiety as to his outcome. This is Gabin’s film most of all, but someone tell me, for it mystifies me, why we should care at all about Delon’s heartless, vicious Sartet. Is it Delon’s thrilling personal magnetism that makes Sartet, who would likely be (in every way) much smaller in reality, somewhat larger than life? Le Goff is, as I have said, yet again cold and vicious; he will do anything to capture Sartet. It’s hinted at the end, however, that he relaxes his monomania in order to allow the execution of Sartet’s fate by other means than his own or the nation’s. Lino Ventura isn’t as persuasive as Gabin or Delon.

The heist itself is the film’s centerpiece, and I’ve never seen anything to match it in any other film. (It’s very complicated!) Verneuil, José Giovanni and Pierre Pelegri wrote the patchy script. Henri Decaë’s color cinematography, though, is excellent, and the music by Ennio Morricone constitutes one of his most atmospheric and compelling scores. Finally, the editor, Pierre Gillette, has done a crackerjack job—as indeed the editor must in a heist film.

The Sicilian Clan is a jewel of a film; it sparkles and drives the heart to beat faster. That’s entertainment.

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