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I was amused to see that in the opening menu of the French DVD for Le clan des Siciliens/The Sicilian Clan, we’re invited to click on ‘Lecture du film’, instead of ‘Main Film’ or merely ‘Film’, thus inviting us to read, or engage in a reading. Of course, viewing always involves making sense of things, but ‘a reading’ also implies that there are depths, interpretations that need to be unearthed, complexities that need to be unravelled.
I found it rather funny because all of the pleasures that Le clan des Siciliens offers are shallow ones, which is not to say that they are not worth experiencing, or that they are so shallow as to not constitute pleasure at all. Indeed the film offers many pleasures, all superficial, and each a joy, beginning with the stars: The publicity for Le clan des Siciliens advertised ‘Ensembles les trois grands du cinéma français’, ‘pour la première fois réunis à l’écran/ ‘French cinema’s three greats, together onscreen for the first time,’ a slogan which must have at least annoyed Yves Montand, Jean-Paul Belmondo and all the other French male stars who weren’t Jean Gabin, Alain Delon and Lino Ventura.
Le clan des Siciliens/The Sicilian Clan is very rewarding to look at as a genre piece; it is to a degree inspired by the jewellery heist genre, and the modish way of filming it, that made The Thomas Crown Affair (Norman Jewison, USA, 1968) such a big hit the year previously. It also contains the hijacking of of an airplane that would feature so prominently in the Airport films and help turn them into some of the biggest blockbuster hits of the 70s. The film also foreshadows the interest in the Mafia that would find such extraordinary expression in Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather films in the years to follow. And last but not least, in France it would revive popular interest in the ‘polar‘, the French crime thriller, an interest that has yet to wane.
The plot revolves around Roger Sartet (Alain Delon), a lifelong thief who Commissaire Le Goff (Lino Ventura) has finally brought to justice after many years. Sartet gets indicted but on his way to jail, he manages to escape the armoured and guarded vehicle transporting him there with the help of Vittorio Manalese (Jean Gabin), the head of a Sicilian clan with international connections operating from Paris. Manalese is just about to retire to his land in Sicily when Sartet comes to him with the perfect crime. Sex, double-crossings, money, jewels and the survival of the family itself will be at stake; all with Le Goff chasing Sartet’s tail and finding in the Manalese clan much more than even he bargained for. But though the plot is serviceable, it’s not what makes Le clan Sicilien such an exhilirating, if superficial watch. Here are some illustrations of the aspects of the film I loved most:
a) A mise-en-scène of various kinds of stardom, carefully deployed, and designed to be put to meaningful use, visually, narratively, and taking into account audience expectations to maximise the pleasures on offer.
b) Every shot is interesting to look at (far left), expressively lit (middle) and artfully composed (far right)
c) The shots, pretty, artful and beautifully lit as they are, are also composed to allow for plot and narration. Here, for example, director Verneuil and cinematographer Decaë — one of the very greatest — create a composition that allows for the whole Sicilian clan to be seen. You see the grandmother, off-screen but relflected in the mirror knitting in the upper left hand corner, his children and son-in-law at table discussing the heist, Gabin centre and the recipient of all light, engrossed in the tv, a source of light, that will spur his grandchild, seen coming through the door-way with his mother, to reveal something he saw that will transform the narrative, that will twist the preceding events into the tailspin that will follow to the end. Significantly, the only one in the room but not onscreen will be the source of the trouble that will follow, the cause of the decimation of this ‘happy family’. It’s the work of at least very highly-skilled craftsmen
d) The kind of film that makes you want to find out where one can buy the accessories
e) The security system is what’s being discussed, the grand jewellery, by some of the greatest design houses of the century — Chaumet, Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels and others — is what’s being shown
f) A hint of the perverse within the clan, at least homophile if not homosexual
g) a truly great score by Ennio Morricone. I’ve put extracts below with and without images so you can hear the sound itself, and how dialogue is then interwoven with it. But later also the sound accompanied by images so you can see how expressively put together it is. Who cares that Gabin is the least convincing Sicilian ever? He’s clearly head of the food chain in every other department, rightly head of the clan, and the flute and that ‘Boing Boing’ sound — so distinctive but one I can’t name the source of — will so memorably accompany, announce and dramatise his fate and that of the other protagonists.
Lino and Gabin filming the last scene with Verneuil
– what Verneuil and Decae manage to achieve with the help of Gabin, Ventura and the other filmmakers in terms of sound and image
Le clan des Siciliens was a blockbuster success, with 4.8 million spectators in France alone. The film probably benefitted from the publicity generated by Alain Delon being involved in the Marković affair, where Delon was questioned for the murder of his bodyguard, Stevan Marković. As you can see in the wiki page for it, it’s a scandal that implicated the highest levels of government, not only murder but also a soupçon of sex, and threats that nude pictures of the wife of the future president of the republic would be exposed. Alain Delon was often suspected of having connections with the Corsican mafia, and that extra-textual knowledge, along with the recent scandal, undoubtedly helped make Delon believable as a mafioso. He’s a pleasure to look at but it is Lino Ventura and Gabin (even with his accent) that give the performances worth watching. They, the set-pieces and the way the film looks and move are what made the film a blockbuster hit and continue to be the source of the many pleasures the film offers, shallow as they might be.
In Les mystères Delon Bernard Violet writes of how the hijack scene on the plain is considered a great moment in film history/ un grand moment du cinéma; and how Delon himself is described as ‘secret, élegant, doué, consciencieux, mûrissant’/ secretive, elegant, talented, conscientious, maturing’/; grave, inquiet, inquiétant, volontaire, beau’/ serious, troubled, troubling, willing, handsome’; ‘félin, secret, inquiet, lucide, désenchanté’/ feline, secretive, troubled, lucid, disenchanted’; séduisant, élégant, mystérieux, audacieux, maître de soi/ seductive, elegant, mysterious, audacious, master of himself’ 1. Not bad.
All qyotes from Bernard Violet, Les mystères Delon, Paris: Flammarion, 2000, pp. 288-289