Color, 1977, 117 mins. 55 secs.
Directed by Pasquale Squitieri
Starring Giuliano Gemma, Claudia Cardinale, Stefano Satta Flores, Francisco Rabal, Rik Battaglia, Paul Müller
Radiance Films (Blu-ray) (US/UK RA/RB HD), VZ-Handelsgesellschaft (Blu-ray & DVD) (Germany R0 HD/PAL), Mustang Entertainment (DVD) (Italy R2 PAL) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
By the time it came out in 1977, this period Mafia drama from director Pasquale Squitieri (who tackled similar material that same decade with Camorra, Corleone, and Blood Brothers) had quite a bit of recent cinematic history to parse out with its tale of a lawman taking extreme measures to deal with local crime. Franco Nero had tackled Sicilian organized crime in films like 1968's The Day of the Owl, Al Pacino had spent an extended time in Sicily in 1972's The Godfather, American justice had been meted out with an iron fist in films like Walking Tall and the Dirty Harry films, and the poliziotteschi were successfully reflecting Italy's turbulent violent reality on the big screen. Though this film is considerably less violent than some of its fellow films from '77 (among them Beast with a Gun, The Heroin Busters, A Man Called Magnum, and The Cynic, the Rat and the Fist), you can feel many of the same anxieties at play here.
Onetime spaghetti western star Giuliano Gemma had already been fiddling around with his image a few times by the time he took the leading role here as Cesare Mori, the real-life prefect (essentially a magistrate) sent to Sicily in 1925 with unusually expansive powers (granted by Mussolini) to tackle the long-running stranglehold the Mafia holds over the populace and local businesses. Speaking softly and carrying a big shotgun, he tries to protect the locals (including Claudia Cardinale) while working with right-hand man Spano (Flores), though his tactics might ultimately get him in hot water with far more than just local mobsters.
Sporting graying hair, a mustache, and no trademark smile, Gemma is quite effective here in a sober, hard-hitting role that requires seething dedication more than pistol-slinging action. In keeping with Italian cinema tradition when it comes to Sicily, the look of the film here is very earthy and brown with an effective, score by Ennio Morricone complete with a folk song-style theme. The focus here is more on intrigue than action, with the fact that our protagonist has been dispatched by an ascending fascist government giving it an extra layer of complexity that pays off in the ironic final scene.
Very well received in Italy at the time, this one had a tougher time getting play in English-speaking territories but did get shopped around in an English-dubbed version called I Am the Law (a title retained for an unlicensed U.S. DVD from the now defunct Wild East Productions, paired up with Day of the Owl). It's actually been much easier to come across the soundtrack than the actual film for a long time, though DVDs were released in Italy and Germany with the latter also offering a Blu-ray edition (but only Italian and German-friendly). In 2023, Radiance Films finally gave this film the Blu-ray edition it deserves featuring a 2K restoration from the original negative with the Italian and English LPCM 1.0 mono tracks (with newly translated English subtitles for the Italian and SDH subtitles for the English). It looks and sounds excellent throughout with fine levels of detail, crucial to appreciating the atmospheric details throughout the film. The Italian track is preferable, but the English dub is well done and makes for a satisfying way of watching the film as well. The first of the three video extras is an archival 2009 interview with Squitieri and Gemma (34m49s) about the film's inception during a visit to America for a meeting with Dino De Laurentiis about directing First Blood(!), the process of getting Cardinale (Squitieri's wife) on board, attempts to cast Burt Lancaster, Gemma's approach to the film and his one big shootout scene, the state of Sicilian organized crime in the '20s and later on, and the impact of the film's release. Then you get a new interview with Squitieri biographer Domenico Monetti (40m15s) about the film's importance as one of the director's most successful films, its ties to his other Mafia stories, the adaptation of Arrigo Petacco's source book of the same title, the relationship between fascism and the Mafia, and the themes here that would run through later Squitieri films. Finally there's an enthusiastic new appreciation by filmmaker Alex Cox (11m20s), whose well-chronicled enthusiasm for spaghetti westerns makes him ideal to appraise Gemma's life and career (including the source of his signature cheekbone scar) as well as this film's place in his larger filmography from peplums to major dramas and thrillers. Also included is the original Italian trailer, while the package comes with an insert booklet featuring a new essay by Guido Bonsaver about the star, director, and true story, plus an original article about Mori's Mafia-busting tactics.
Reviewed on July 9, 2023.