The paradox of Jules Dassin’s career is as painful as it is familiar. As a wage slave for the Hollywood studios, he turned out an unbroken series of sharp, vivid, profoundly pessimistic films rooted in the rediscovered realism of the postwar years (e.g., Brute Force, 47, Thieves’ Highway, 49). As a free agent in Europe, driven abroad by the blacklist, he seemed at first to be picking up where he left off (Rififi, 55) but soon lost his way with glum, self-serious literary adaptations (He Who Must Die, 57; Phaedra, 62; 10:30 P.M. Summer, 66) that seldom expressed more than the filmmaker’s vaulting ambitions.
The Law, a French-Italian co-production released in Europe in 1959, might have tipped into either category. Based on a novel by Roger Vailland that won the Prix Goncourt in 1957, the film is a sweeping social allegory set in a fishing village on the coast of Puglia—a version of the primordial, elemental Italy familiar to filmgoers from Luchino Visconti’s La terra trema and Roberto Rossellini’s Stromboli. The small, sun-bleached town, is equipped with a quaint central square and a population of ballad-singing layabouts (one is played by Joe Dassin, the director’s son, who would go on to a career as a major pop star in France), still under the domination of a fiercely bearded feudal lord, Don Cesare (the veteran French star Pierre Brasseur). The imperious Cesare collects heroic Greek statuary and surrounds himself with servile women, and takes it for granted that he will be able to exercise his droit du seigneur over the town’s most desirable female, the voluptuous housemaid Marietta (Gina Lollobrigida).
But Don Cesare has two younger, more up-to-date rivals for Marietta’s favors: Brigante, an aspiring gangster (Yves Montand, with a pin-striped suit and a scar on his face), and Enrico (Marcello Mastroianni), a technocrat from the North charged with cleansing the local swamps of malaria. A tragic subplot is provided by Brigante’s son, a model-pretty young man (Raf Mattioli) caught up in a passionate affair with an elegant older woman, Donna Lucrezia (Melina Mercouri), who is married to the comically impotent local judge; the chief of police, Attilio (Vittorio Caprioli), who is cheating on his matronly wife with a rail-thin younger woman, Giuseppina (Lidia Alfonsi), provides a comic variation on the theme.
This complex play of power and submission is condensed into the image of a local drinking game, called “The Law,” in which a randomly selected padrone is allowed to humiliate his companions—until the tables are turned in the next round and he becomes a victim himself.
For Vailland, a Communist who had become disenchanted by Khrushchev’s revelations of Stalin’s crimes, the novel was a bitter fable about the impossibility of real social change, a theme that would seem right up Dassin’s ideological alley (he himself had left the Communist Party in 1939, following the Hitler-Stalin pact).
Instead, The Law becomes a sort of Mediterranean Peyton Place, full of campy star turns, melodramatic confrontations, and relentless moralism. (“If Billy Graham were a filmmaker,” wrote Jean-Luc Godard in his withering review in Cahiers du cinéma, “he would doubtless be called Jules Dassin.”) A filmmaker who seemed capable of encapsulating entire cities a few years earlier, with the New York of The Naked City (48) and the London of Night and the City (50), suddenly cannot create a cohesive, convincing portrait of a single provincial town. Even the pigeons in the town square are charged with a heavy metaphorical burden: “Hey pigeon, why do you stay?” Joe Dassin asks a particularly oppressed-looking bird. “Because sometimes people throw them crumbs,” comes the inevitable reply.
“The result, of course, is not one good shot in two hours of film,” Godard wrote, somewhat unjustly. There is at least one good shot near the beginning: an extended crane down the front of a building, pausing at each socially encoded level to reveal the sordid goings-on within. But then Dassin cuts to Lollobrigida’s barefoot Marietta, keening seductively while polishing a man’s boot with a lusty attentiveness that a few years later would have earned an R rating. Subtlety slips away at this point, never to return.
Oscilloscope Laboratories is reissuing The Law with the French-language soundtrack that Dassin apparently considered definitive. But an English-dubbed version was released in the States by Joseph L. Levine in 1960, under a title that says it all: Where the Hot Wind Blows.