The Don is Dead is a quickie studio film made to capitalise on the success of The Godfather. It was directed by Richard Fleischer, a great old-school, no-bullshit workman director who also made some of my favourite films, such as Soylent Green, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea and Compulsion. This movie came out after the aforementioned Soylent Green and the great ’70s cop flick The New Centurions (from which I have a poster in my bedroom, actually), so he was on a hot streak, but The Don is Dead is by far the least engaging Fleischer film that I’ve seen.
It’s very much trying to be The Godfather with a bit of The French Connection thrown in, as a heroin deal gone wrong is the catalyst for the plot. It’s got all the typical mob family war stuff you expect with this type of thing. The film has plot on top of plot on top of plot, and lacks any of the mood and atmosphere of The Godfather. It just never gels. it was written by Christopher Trumbo (Dalton’s son) with Michael Butler, who would go on to write The Gauntlet and Pale Rider for Clint Eastwood; source novelist Marvin Albert had a crack at the script as well.
It was competently shot by Fleischer (how could it not be?), with a solid Jerry Goldsmith score and even Edith Head costumes. It’s a Universal backlot film, and it shows—and not in a good way. It’s a great example to add to that list of not that great ’70s films you can roll out to disprove the notion that it was just masterpiece after masterpiece coming outduring the ’70s in Hollywood.
Although it just limps along, the performances are fine—but despite how good Anthony Quinn could be, he is no Marlon Brando. Robert Forster is puts in a good turn. It was the last studio film where Forster was one of the main draws, coming off the success of Medium Cool. He would end up doing low budget fare till Quentin Tarantino brought his career back in Jackie Brown, where he gives one of the best performances in cinematic history.
I’m sure Tarantino thinks The Don is Dead is better than The Godfather or some contrary nonsense… I know for a fact it’s been a fixture at the movie theatre he owns, The New Beverly. There are not one but two essays about this film on the New Bev website, and it has played as double bill with Medium Cool there.
Eureka’s release includes commentary by author Scott Harrison, the theatrical trailer and an essay on Fleischer’s crime films, which are for the most part are far superior to this one, The Boston Strangler is another good one, as is The New Centurions.