The Law Review
For the 1959 film The Law [La Loi], director Jules Dassin was able to collect another stamp on his American passport by shooting on location in the deep south of Italy. Following his exile from Hollywood after being named (notably by fellow director Edward Dmytryk) as a Communist before Congress, Dassin, who'd already made Night and the City in London before becoming completely blacklisted, was unable to get a job even in Europe for five years until he managed to make the best French crime drama of the era with Rififi. (That plaudit now seems somewhat ironic considering it was done by an American and subsequently influenced innumerable other pictures, including his own Topkapi nearly a decade later.) In 1957, Dassin moved on to the Greek island of Crete where he directed an odd, bombastic but very sincere and moving picture known in English as He Who Must Die. It was on that film where he first had future wife Melina Mercouri in the cast. She'd appear in nearly all of his remaining features. Like The Law, He Who Must Die is a French language movie with little connection to France beyond matters of financing.
The basic story of The Law was adapted from a controversial novel published a couple of years earlier by Roger Vailland. Its title suggests matters of authority and the like but actually stems from a game inevitably involving alcohol. In the game, which features prominently in Dassin's movie, one participant serves as the boss and another is his deputy. The remaining players are then subject to what amounts to cruelty and humiliation at the hand of these other men. The prize seems to be permission to drink alcohol, particularly wine. The repercussions are many and often involve brutal displays of violence, to the point where many places in Italy became so concerned that they actually banned the playing of this game. Dassin's point in using it so prominently is to question the philosophy behind essentially denigrating individuals as a means of feeling power. Something that echoed across Dassin's filmography was the championing of the individual and the celebration of defying or at least questioning authority. Brute Force is a textbook example of this, and Thieves' Highway generally follows suit. You can even see this bleed through in Night and the City, my own choice as Dassin's best film and one of the very few epitomes of film noir.
It's intriguing that Dassin was, just a few short years after struggling to get any project before the camera, able to corral a cast that included Gina Lollobrigida (in especially bright lights), Yves Montand, Marcello Mastroianni, Pierre Brasseur and Melina Mercouri. All five are simply fantastic in the film, with each bringing their own unique perspective to soapy, almost melodramatic roles that nonetheless never fail to resonate. If the essay included with this DVD release is accurate, Lollobrigida was a glamorous late addition to the project, brought in to secure financing. Considering she has the largest role - and acquits herself nicely - that must have been trying for Dassin, though, ultimately, perhaps a further testament to his skill as a filmmaker rather than simply a director (and I believe he's a prime example of the former instead of merely the authoritative figure that the latter can describe). Lollobrigida's cleavage is in itself mesmerizing but her performance is also quite good. And it needs to be, considering how prominent her character Marietta is.
Even so, Dassin was a master at distilling plots into incongruous pieces of his films. You'll find them, of course, but they hold less importance than character development and the overall emphasis given to mise-en-scène. Those who love Dassin's work probably recognize the deeply individualistic and forceful nature of his direction. He was a titan of cinema in its purest form. Using The Law as an example, I'd suggest paying particular attention to how Dassin meshed an obvious influence of Neorealism with what amounts to a very pulpy story informed by clear tokens of ideology. If Lollobrigida was a late concession, Dassin still uses her perfectly as some sort of goddess amid the gargoyles. Marcello Mastroianni, playing an agronomist who barely fits into the larger plot, resists and resists until he can no longer bear to keep his distance from her. The powerful and dying Don Cesare (Pierre Brasseur, playing a character older than he was at the time and doing so without any straining of believability) keeps Marietta close by for her physical charms, and Yves Montand's despicable Matteo Brigante has similar interests.
Dassin bravely refuses to shy away from the power derived from Marietta's sensuality. As much as the film hinges on ideas of how malignant authority can be in individuals, The Law also acknowledges the role of sex and temptation among the societal elite. Montand's Brigante desires Marietta while his son, the lawyer Francesco, is in love with the judge's wife Lucrezia (Melina Mercouri). The various strands running through The Law might seem complicated or muddled but Dassin's sure hand typically guides the viewer into a sanctuary of respite when necessary. Cuts to scenes of fishing or the wonderfully tawdry sweat of the Earth that seems to emanate from the region are more than sufficient diversions against the rather disgusting scenes that take place among the lead characters. Dassin turns Montand into such a scoundrel here that it's easy to forget all of the more agreeable roles he played in his career. This Brigante creep potentially seems like the Montand screen presence of record. Likewise, whatever shortcomings Lollobrigida showed in other parts, she's perfect here after finding a worthy outlet for all of that obvious sexuality she possessed. Only Mastroianni, who's much too charismatic to be limited to the background of a film, struggles to find a balance. His performance is still fine; it just seems unnaturally restrained.
In contrast, Melina Mercouri is heartbreaking here as the wife of a judge she no longer respects or loves. Her role is shifted to the side but it's deeply affecting, I think, and more astute than several of the bigger and louder parts she played for Dassin. Mercouri's Lucrezia has developed an unexplained love for the much younger Francesco (Raf Mattioli). If not the heart of the film, this affair is at least one of its ventricles. Lucrezia is ready to give up everything for her suitor and we're never told exactly why. The fact that a vital strand like this gets pushed to the side seems to confirm how intriguing The Law can be. It's two hours of seedy exploration. Characters betray each other freely, under the instruction of a director who knew something about betrayal, and morality often seems to exist in the eye of the beholder. What I'm not sure enough viewers have realized yet is that Dassin kept it all inside his paw. The betrayal and the bravery and all of the ensuing implications emerged as fitful and skillful within his work. Just as Kazan's bizarro justifications found in On the Waterfront informed much of his work of the period, the quiet anger and indignation Dassin had in response were instrumental in establishing a concealed ideology that fed into his films. I strongly prefer the latter.
Dassin's The Law gets a lovingly produced (and region-free) DVD release from Oscilloscope Laboratories. For those unfamiliar with this label, it's spearheaded by Beastie Boy Adam Yauch and has previously given NTSC releases to prominent contemporary films like Wendy and Lucy and The Messenger. It's really nice to see Oscilloscope expand into older titles here and I do hope to see future projects of the sort from this label. Something that clearly sets Oscilloscope apart is its commitment to using 100% recycled paper in the packaging of the releases. That means no plastic. The result is a beautiful set that, it must be said, doesn't exactly make for the most friendly way to store the actual discs included. They slide into slots and risk scratches. The choice between a healthier environment and possible nicks on your discs seems clear. I cringe to think of most people's preference.
Video quality here is certainly strong. The black and white image displays a fairly strong amount of detail that nonetheless could obviously be improved upon with a Blu-ray release. That's the sometimes unfortunate truth to DVD-only releases. Contrast is more than acceptable, and black levels look relatively strong. Damage doesn't register as an issue, with only a few instances of speckles here and there, a hair visible in the frame at one point and a single tramline scratch popping up in the image. This is generally a fine rendering of the film. It can look a little smoothed over at times but that's not much of a complaint. The aspect ratio is 1.33:1 and the transfer is progressive.
Audio is a French Dolby Digital track divided between two channels. Dialogue is easily understood without issue. It's dubbed, with Gina Lollobrigida's dubbing herself in French. Both Marcello Mastroianni and Paolo Stoppa were dubbed by others. I heard nothing distracting such as hiss or crackle in the audio. Volume remains consistent throughout the picture. The track overall is an acceptable listen limited mainly by the unnaturalness of the dubbing. The newly translated English subtitles (by Lenny Borger) are white in color. They do seem a tad higher than necessary in the frame.
Oscilloscope should be commended for the effort in digging up an amazing collection of supplements to this release. That said, the commentary by David Fear is a perfect example of why listening to someone without any connection to a movie and whose insight is severely limited tends to be a waste of time. While Fear's contribution isn't dry, the irreverence mentioned in the menu's written introduction would be much easier to take if it was balanced against some consistent analysis or a more tolerable style of delivery. Too often, his comments are variations of "look how great this is" or spare and obvious bits of facts that are readily available over the internet. And he has a tendency to be repetitive. To use his vernacular, Fear's commentary is so not amazing.
Disc one also has a collection of trailers for several Oscilloscope releases. These include The Law, as well as Kisses, Terribly Happy, The Messenger and The Maid.
The second disc, a single-layered DVD, contains only a selection of relevant bonus features. Oscilloscope indeed seems to have taken a page out of the Criterion Collection notebook in its approach. An alternate ending is entitled "Mariette's Revenge" (5:21) and has an extra scene where Lollobrigida whips the other female servants with a belt. Next is a 1958 episode of the French television program Cinépanorama (13:23) which features interviews with Yves Montand, Jules Dassin and Melina Mercouri and Gina Lollobrigida. It's interesting here to see Dassin speaking French. From 1957, an interview (12:37) done for the French television program Lectures pour tous with author Roger Vailland focuses on the film's source material. Dassin's later film version, or even the prospect of a such an adaptation, isn't mentioned.
The disc's longest extra is a 2010 piece on the game of the film's title called L'ultima Osteria (40:45). It's a documentary look at several men in southern Italy who still frequently participate in sessions of the game. Though my interest never once waned while watching, it's a very sad and depressing encounter with people who have very little to get them through the day other than alcohol. The aspect ratio is anamorphic 2.35:1. An original theatrical trailer (3:00) concludes the supplements.
Also notable are two short written pieces printed onto the packaging rather than made available in an insert or booklet. One is a recent appreciation by Haden Guest that I quite enjoyed and the other is a vintage piece from 1958 by John Francis Lane that was even more fascinating.