Anyone having pursued serious studies at a four year academic institution probably has a passing familiarity with a little card game called “Presidents and [let’s call it] ‘Non-Presidents.’” As vicious as it can get, American undergrads have nothing on Mediterranean gangsters. Indeed, one fishing village’s institutionalized drinking game serves as the local crime boss’s instrument of social control in Jules Dassin’s 1959 classic The Law, which fittingly plays the final day of this year’s Rendezvous with French Cinema on Sunday.
In a vividly evocative opening sequence, it is clear there is a lot of want in this small town. Unemployed men lounging in the square want a job (as long as it is not too much work) and just about everyone wants Marietta, Don Cesare’s fiery young maid. Though Marietta enjoys her reputation as the town disgrace, she really wants to land a husband. She has her eye fixed on Enrico Tosso, the idealistic agricultural engineer assigned to the district, but of course he does not have two hundred Liras to rub together. She also has to contend with the unwelcome attentions of Matteo Brigante, the more savage than suave racketeer whose power in the village rivals Don Cesare. It is he who rewards loyalty and punishes opposition through the game locals call “The Law.”
How good is the cast of The Law? No less than Marcello Mastroianni is easily overlooked as the earnest but clueless Tosso. There is no overlooking Gina Lollobrigida though as the passionate Marietta. At the height of her standing as an international sex symbol, she burns up the screen, particularly when facing down the reptilian Brigante, played with oily flare by Yves Montand. Rounding out the cast of international superstars is Greek actress and frequent Dassin collaborator (in Phaedra and Never on Sunday, among others) Melina Mercouri as Donna Lucrezia, the older married woman furtively involved with Brigante’s son.
With hot Mediterranean blood pounding every which way, The Law is a good clean lurid entertainment. Setting up scenes that crackle with wit, Dassin pulls viewers through at a breakneck pace. Particularly striking is the shadowy confrontation late in the picture between Montand and Mercouri that resembles dance choreography. In a way, it is like a scandal sheet adapted in the style of classical tragedy.
Filmed in gorgeous black-and-white by Otello Martelli, The Law definitely has a noir look to match its dark melodrama. Yet, for all the terrible things that happen or nearly happen in the film, it is always great fun. Truly, more contemporary film noirs should follow its example. It screens tomorrow (3/21) at the Walter Reade as this year’s French Rendezvous concludes.