The gangster genre is packed with undisputed all-time classics, from Francis Ford Coppola’s legendary Godfather films to Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas and Casino. But some films in the genre never stood the test of time, falling into obscurity over the years as their contemporaries continue to be lauded as cinematic masterpieces. One such example is Richard Fleischer’s The Don is Dead, released in 1973 – just one year after the first Godfather film.
Thanks to Eureka Entertainment, the film is finally receiving its UK home media debut on Blu-ray, as part of the label’s Eureka Classics range. Based on the novel of the same name by Marvin H. Albert, this gritty and explosively violent gangster saga boasts an all-star cast of infamous ‘tough guy’ actors including Anthony Quinn, Frederic Forrest, and the late Robert Forester. But despite the star calibre in the cast and Fleischer (Soylent Green) behind the lens, The Don is Dead struggles to stand out in a crowded genre and it is no surprise that this ‘Classics’ release might have many scratching their heads. Pulpy and amateurish, the film feels like a shabby television movie with cheap-looking backlot sets and a cheesy score from Jerry Goldsmith that feels ripped from an old Columbo episode.
The film feels like a desperate cash-in on the Godfather fever in the early 1970s, furiously tugging on the udders of the gangster-movie cow and hoping that another masterpiece shoots into the bucket. Released just 18 months after the Oscar-winning epic and featuring some familiar faces from the former film including Abe Vigoda and Al Lettieri, it is difficult not to draw comparisons – but The Godfather has more artistic integrity in its opening frame than The Don is Dead does in its entire 115-minute runtime. Every scene here feels rushed and without any creativity or craftsmanship, with even most of the acclaimed cast phoning in their performances, sleepwalking their way through the turgid screenplay.
The Don is Dead is surely not the only film of its era to desperately try and replicate The Godfather’s success, but thankfully most of the other attempts have been lost to cinematic obscurity. This release is nothing more than a curiosity; it is an embarrassing example of Universal desperately trying to emulate Coppola but falling tragically short. The Don is Dead is a total mess.
With all of that being said, there is absolutely no criticism of Eureka Entertainment’s usual high standard with the release itself. The film looks and sounds as great as it possibly can considering the source, while an audio commentary from author Scott Harrison offers some fascinating insight into the film and the era in which it was made. A collector’s booklet is also included, featuring an extensive essay on the crime films of director Fleischer by film writer/journalist Barry Forshaw. While it’s certainly debatable whether the film fits into the so-called Eureka Classics range it finds itself a part of, there’s no doubt that, as a Blu-ray, it’s a great release.
The Don is Dead is a painful misfire and a desperate attempt to emulate The Godfather, but another fantastic release from Eureka Entertainment makes it a bizarre curiosity for fans of the gangster genre.