2 Hrs., 1 Min.
hough a great many actors, directors, and screenwriters saw their careers permanently damaged after being victimized by the Hollywood blacklist of the late 1940s and '50s, a select few managed to make it out relatively unscathed. One of those unlikely victors was Jules Dassin, the wage-slave-style filmmaker who was blacklisted in 1950 for having affiliated with the Communist party for a short period in the ‘30s.
Upon his unwanted exile, there was no real reason to believe that Dassin would be able to easily recover. By the end of the ‘40s, Dassin was mostly
known for his uncompromising, albeit B-scale, work in the film noir genre. Though his products, which included Brute Force (1947), The Naked City (1948), and Thieves' Highway (1949), were generally well-received, he was hardly sought after, or invincible in the ways celebrity directors of the era were. Because his placement on the Hollywoodland food chain was so low, his being blacklisted should have ruined him.
For a time, it did. Between 1950 and 1954, Dassin struggled to find work. (He did get something of a break in 1952, though, when Bette Davis recruited him to direct her Broadway revue Two’s Company.) But then he took a risk. He moved to Europe, decided he was going to attempt to revive his career there, and was brought on to co-write and direct Rififi, a French heist film released in 1955.
Rififi, now considered one of the greatest movies ever made, wasn’t just a comeback — it was also a breakthrough. It won Dassin the Best Director award at the Cannes Film Festival, was a huge international success, and turned him into a major commodity in the European film industry. After facing certain professional ruin all those years ago, Dassin managed to grande jeté into genius territories. A satisfying retort if there ever was one.
Post-Rififi, Dassin would continue making excellent films that clarified that that film’s perfection wasn’t a fluke. Highlights include the 1960 romantic comedy Never on Sunday, which was acclaimed and an Oscar favorite, and 1964’s shimmering heist movie Topkapi, which expanded on the increasingly popular caper genre in the best of ways.
Often forgotten, though, is Dassin’s third European film, the star-studded, black-and-white melodrama The Law. Released in 1959 and headlined by the heavy hitters Gina Lollobrigida, Marcello Mastroianni, Melina Mercouri, Yves Montand, and others, The Law is not necessarily notable because of its quality or scope, but because of the way it ironically reflects the American cinema that rejected Dassin nearly a decade earlier.
Then, big-budgeted soap operas like Peyton Place (1957) and The Best of Everything (1959) — and, of course, the filmography of the great melodramatist Douglas Sirk — dependably captured the American public’s imagination. The Law, in many ways, feels like Dassin taking jabs at that particular genre. It is comparably a sensationalist drama similarly made up of a coterie of big names and histrionic plotlines. But Dassin, perhaps contemptuous of the way the industry for whom he used to work would so often glamorize trivial cinematic tragedies and stories of ruin, strips the melodrama of its allure.
In The Law, most of the characters are immoral and self-serving, and we know it. The black-and-white, rather desolate scenery allows for as much of an intellectual reaction as a visceral one. The performances, first-rate, are not artificial and presentational, but rather naturalist and bare.
The Law is an inverse of the sort of film Dassin would likely have been making in America had he not been blacklisted, and that makes it all the more entertaining. It conjoins the sensibilities propelled by newfound autonomy and the sensibilities of the accessible industry he worked under in the years previously. And it’s fascinating, though admittedly not entirely successful.
Based on a 1957 novel by Roger Vailland, The Law transports us to a miniscule fishing village where the sun incessantly beats down and the residents make a habit out of knowing one another’s private affairs. The town is essentially controlled by two men: the Don Corleane-esque Don Cesare (Pierre Brasseur), who has connections in even the most unlikely of places, and the scarred crook Brigante (Yves Montand), who puts many of Cesare’s plans into action.
This all-powerful dyad acts as the foundation off which much of the drama builds. Plenty is centered around one of Cesare’s servants, the decadent Mariette (Lollobrigida), who, over the course of the film, toys with the affections of Cesare himself, Brigante, and the good-hearted technocrat Enrico (Marcello Mastroianni). (Tension stems from Enrico being around in the first place, however: a new arrival in town, he has been tasked with ridding the local swamps of malaria, and his “make it new” ideals clash with the conservative ones of Cesare and Brigante.)
These romantic and political discordances are almost enough. But Dassin takes it upon himself to add a couple more drops of intrigue into this cinematic mixture. Perhaps for the sake of giving his real-life lover Mercouri something to do, he has her character, Lucrezia, embark on an affair with Brigante’s young, handsome son (Raf Mattioli), which is, predictably, headed toward tragedy.
The Law is so busy, and so obviously intent on keeping in touch with the way American melodramas of the time were so narratively labyrinthine, that it never completely meshes. There is simply too much going on, and the two-hour running time becomes more punishing the more each plot line puts off reaching its respective climax.
But it is convincing all the same. These characters are tenable, and the actors who enliven them are more than proficient at making even the most questionable of actions understandable. I especially like Lollobrigida and Mercouri here. Lollobrigida is hedonistic, but she’s eventually ruined by her constant pleasure-seeking; Mercouri at first seems in control and self-aware, but comes to realize that even this is not enough to save her from sure disaster. And these actresses convey these contradictions remarkably.
My conviction that The Law is a sound, if not always cohesive, film, though, was not necessarily the consensus in 1959: Take it from the filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, who, during his time as a film critic for Cahiers du cinéma, splashily declared that the movie didn’t so much as contain a single good shot. But I divergently think there are plenty — and that Dassin, even when not in Rififi mode, could make a film pretty captivating even if greatness wasn’t the name of the game. The Law is one example. B+