It’s easy to say The Godfather changed the whole landscape of gangster films, but it’s only when you see a film like The Don Is Dead that you realise exactly what that means. Director Richard Fleischer made some excellent films but his style of filmmaking means he doesn’t leave his imprint like other genre directors do. When Don Regalbutto dies of a heart attack, the heir apparent Frank (Robert Forster) and his allies the Fargo Brothers (Frederic Forrest and Al Lettieri) find themselves fighting to keep control. Don Angelo DiMorra (Anthony Quinn) offers to take Frank under his wing, but they butt heads and soon all-out war breaks out.
Frederic Forrest gives the stand-out performance as the mild mannered gangster who wants out, but keeps getting pulled back in. Forrest is one of those actors who was prolific in the 70s and early 80s, but then dropped off the grid. He gave memorable turns in Apocalypse Now and The Missouri Breaks, but his most significant role in recent years remains the racist pawnbroker in Falling Down. In Fleischer’s film he utilises his youthful, cherubic face, which makes him seem innocent in early scenes, and unnerving once he embraces his ruthless nature. It’s a nuanced, mature performance and makes you wonder why he wasn’t a bigger name. Meanwhile Al Lettieri exudes warmth as his older, more street-smart brother, playing a very different role to that of the cool, self-assured Solozzo from The Godfather.
As the impulsive Frank, Robert Forster is almost unrecognisable from his later iconic role in Jackie Brown, and it’s clear he needed time to come into his own as an actor. He’s a little bit wooden until his final scene, where he manages to convey a great deal without words, giving us a brief glimpse of the multi-layered performances to come.
Anthony Quinn is also as distinguished as you would expect and lends his role the gravitas it requires, but sometimes feels like he’s phoning it in, playing the old school, principled gangster. Most impressive though is Charles Cioffi as the duplicitous middle man. He’s a believable, if not particularly flamboyant villain, and manages a difficult role, playing the measured, impassive voice of reason in the mafia meetings, then showing his more venal nature behind the scenes.
Fleischer was an old hand by this point, and knew how to wring as much suspense out of a scene as possible (see his excellent film noir, The Narrow Margin for proof of this) and there are several incredibly gripping, cinematic set-pieces that look great, not least of which is the ambush scene at the street market. However the film is so desperately trying to emulate The Godfather that it comes up short too often. The big climactic ending highlights the difference between the two. While The Godfather has all the executions happening simultaneously, contrasted with the baptism of Michael’s nephew, The Don Is Dead simply has the gangsters ordered to hit their targets at the same time, then we just see it happen. It’s all very basic, a bit flat, and feels cliched even for 1973.
The violence itself can’t help but seem tame by today’s standards. It’s not just the dodgy gore effects, but also the style. The scene where someone is beaten with baseball bats should be horrific: instead it feels incredibly tame, with none of the blows landing, and the scene cutting too soon. This happens a few times and it just saps the tension from the film.
The Don Is Dead was only released a year after The Godfather, yet feels very tired and staid by comparison. The performances and style are generally pretty accomplished, but the package as a whole is too old fashioned. While later films like Goodfellas show the hypocrisy of the “principled gangster”, The Don Is Dead only perpetuates this myth. If this had come out a few years earlier it might be held up as a classic; instead it feels like a throwback to a style of film that was already disappearing.