When I saw the film's poster for the first time, it was so impacting I thought for once that Gabin, Ventura and Delon were allies, all three members of the Sicilian clan. I was wrong but I defy anyone not to have these three legendary names pop up in their heads when they think of "The Sicilian Clan"
Alain Delon is Roger Sartet, a man sentenced to death after a failed armed robbery that cost the lives of two policemen. Lino Ventura is Le Goff, the Chief of Police who takes Sartet's case personally and can't admit the way he escaped under their nose. And Jean Gabin is Vittorio Manalese, the head of the 'Sicilian Clan', who wishes he could do a final job before retiring in Sicily. Delon is the dark, handsome and unsympathetic antihero; Ventura is the moral and solidly built law enforcer and Gabin the wise and experienced criminal patriarch, sharing with Le Goff a profound contempt for Sartet.
Henri Verneuil's 'The Sicilian Clan" is mostly renowned for having reassembled the Holy Trinity of French Cinema, maybe at the expenses of the other characters who seem underdeveloped in comparison. But it doesn't matter since the three leads fill the screen with a virile magnetism and although the "The Sicilian Clan" is adapted from a novel by Auguste Le Breton, who wrote "Bob Le Flambeur", the film borrows less from Melville's existential heist films than the Western Spaghetti genre. It's all about the magical trio that elevated the film to its legendary status, a sort of French "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly".
Befittingly, the film is scored by the Maestro Ennio Morricone who specialized in the late 60's and early 70's in the ultimate tough-guy films, from the Western to the gangster flick. The music also carries the mark of the Italian Morricone with the typical 'boing' sound and the haunting whistle, a sort of 'song of death' that foresees a tragic ending, coming from a final confrontation. Death itself is the omnipresent figure, the unsung character of the film, Sartet is a walking dead, with nothing to lose, Le Goff's determination is built on the death of his men and the Mannalese although criminals refuse to kill anyone in their job, but we know that every rule allows a few exceptions.
If the film can seem more superficial than Melville's gangster flicks, it remains nonetheless a reference of the caper sub-genre, with a perfectionist and methodical approach. The Mannaleses help Sartet escape from the cop, and the prize of his help, apart from a book of expensive stamp, is a plan drawn by an engineer he befriended in jail. The electronics expert set up the security system of a museum in Rome where a diamond exhibition is held. Mannalese trusts the engineer, but not Sartet, in one of the film's most memorable scenes, he advises him to keep his brains above the belt, he merely escaped from a second arrest when Le Goff found him in a hotel with a prostitute.
Mannalese meets a Mafioso fellow, played by a scene-stealing Amedeo Zenarri. Their visit to the museum validates the plan, but reveals some insightful surprises: a ticking watch can be detected, and the police can come one minute after the alarm. Then, in a delightful scene, they go to a toyshop, and try to conceive the plan out of a few plane and cars models. The only way to escape from security is to rob the diamonds inside the plane that will take them to New York and hi-jack it. "The Sicilian Clan" features one of the most suspenseful heist ever featured in film and incredibly well done for a French production.
Yet we're so accustomed to the genre to understand that the success of the robbery is secondary. But we follow it like Hitchcockian suspense: one of the best parts occurs when the wife of the diamond-transfer insurer, whom Sartet took the identity, comes to see her husband. At that time, both the viewers and the Mannaleses are caught by surprise, and it's difficult to anticipate the way the situation will be handled. And Mannalese proves to be the 'man of the situation' and the brains of the group. We foresee his human aptitude during his first confrontation with Le Goff, when he bluffs him enough not to raise any suspicion from the unflappable cop.
Gabin is simply astonishing; a few years before the image of the Mafia boss would forever be transfigured by the landmark performance of Marlon Brando in "The Godfather", Gabin plays in all nuance and subtlety a French 'Don'. His accent is remarkable considering how he's more associated with French popular culture, and there's never one scene that feels like caricature. Although the family background is not well developed, it is significant to the plot by making outcasts out of the two French: Sartet, and Jeanne, Irena Demick as Mannalese's sexy daughter-in-law.
He didn't touch a woman for two years, almost got himself arrested for an escapade with a prostitute, and she's fascinated by this man who, unlike her husbands, isn't reluctant to use his gun. The flaws, the mistakes to come, are predictable, but "The Sicilian Clan" is capable of surprising you even by exploiting archetypal situations. And in this cat-and-mouse thriller, one should only count on the other's flaw to lure him into his own trap. Le Goff expect one fatal mistake from Sartet, and so does Mannalese who still has to prove he's got some Sicilian blood pumping his veins, but Mannalese's sense of honor might lead him to another form of retirement.
But that's the tragic beauty of life when even experience can be outweighed by a question of principles, a sense of immanent justice, that would reconcile men as different as Le Goff and Mannalese.