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Noir Takes a Holiday: Close-Up on Jules Dassin's "The Law"

Exploring Jules Dassin’s burlesque noir, starring Gina Lollobrigida, Yves Montand, and Marcello Mastroianni, now playing in the US.
 Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. The Law is playing on MUBI in the US through January 21, 2016.

For those who like nice touches, keep your eye on the bird. In Jules Dassin's The Law (1959), it's the first character we meet, where, in a town square under the hot Mediterranean sun, a group of men are watching a pigeon. The men are out of work and squarely at the bottom of the socioeconomic totem pole. The pigeon is an idiot, one man says—why would anything that could fly choose to stay here? Because sometimes people throw it crumbs, a man answers. And if you had any doubts what this all symbolizes, another of the men hastily adds: just like us.
This is a film very much about hierarchy, and the forces or illusions that keep everyone in their place. The air is soon filled with the singing of the town beauty, Mariette (Gina Lollobrigida). She is the heroine, and the movie is her rather spirited quest for a rather 1959 version of independence, regardless of what laws she'll have to break to get it. Seemingly every man in town lusts for her, but for the men in the square, it's a fait accompli that she'll end up as the mistress of the local aristocrat, Don Cesare. Such is their respect for the pecking order, and that's before we even get to their diabolical drinking game.
The Law was first released in the US as Where the Hot Wind Blows, the sort of exoticized title that promised mid-century American arthouse audiences sins and sensations that they could only get from European movies. But the original title is far more fitting. "The Law" is the name of the drinking game favored by the men in town, and as Don Cesare ruefully and directly notes, it's reflective of their nature. And so, after hot wind, flirting, and the first signs of criminal intrigue, their game is revealed. In truth, it's not so much a game as a twisted behavioral experiment. Every round, a boss is chosen at random, and throughout that round, the boss gets to make the rules—which often involve humiliating, degrading, and emasculating his fellow players, who gamely grit their teeth and take it. Like the pigeon, it poses a question: why would anyone voluntarily take part in such a system? Because some day, it might be his turn to be the boss. As far as Marxian metaphors go, it's got a cynical sting to it. But of course, director Jules Dassin was no stranger to such ideas.
An American, not a Frenchman (as he is sometimes mistakenly remembered), Dassin was one of the more prominent directors on the Hollywood blacklist. He made his name after World War II with a series of noirs, including The Naked City (1948), Thieves' Highway (1949), and Night and the City (1950), which combined lean genre plots with neo-realist location shooting. After the rise of the House Un-American Activities Committee, Dassin was targeted for his involvement in the Communist Party in the 1930s. Unable to find work in Hollywood, he left for Europe; his first film there, the French heist classic Rififi (1955), is commonly thought to be his masterpiece.
It's worth noting this list of films and Dassin's political history when watching his downtrodden men play "The Law." His American films show a leftist tendency, common to noir, that was skeptical of both the pursuit of wealth and the idea that America's version of it equated a meritocracy. But it is also telling that those films, not-so-covertly left-wing, do not glorify what used to be called "the common man," the way that more optimistic Depression-era agitprop like Our Daily Bread (1934) or The Grapes of Wrath (1940) did. Indeed, many of the "common men" found in Thieves' Highway or Night and the City are corrupt and rapacious; they play the game, and are thus in need of some redemption themselves.
Dassin's post-Rififi work, The Law included, tends to be overshadowed by these earlier noirs, though his latter career found success in popular hits and Oscar winners like Never On Sunday (1960) and Topkapi (1964). If The Law gets lost in the mix, that may be because it's difficult to place, starting with its genre. Much about the film indicates a lighthearted comedy: the farcical structure in which everyone is in love with everyone else; the band of young scoundrels who break into merry song; the touches of broad physical humor in how the actors carry themselves; and the arc of a plucky heroine out to nab her dream husband on nobody's terms but her own. But lighthearted comedies tend to not feature a scene as psychologically fraught as when a man, recently humiliated, stumbles upon the chance to rape a beautiful woman, only she talks him down by appealing to his better nature. There is violence in The Law, like a switchblade across the cheek, that comes straight from the noir playbook. The local crime boss Matteo Brigante (Yves Montand) is both a figure of cruel menace and cartoon parody—he feels entitled to Mariette, and she seems to respond to his powerful confidence even as she despises him. Against Brigante, Mariette's more gracious suitor Enrico (Marcello Mastroianni), a rich scientist who invented a new species of goat, might have wandered over from a screwball romance. And the subplot involving Melina Mercouri as a dissatisfied wife with a young lover is pure tragic melodrama.
Yet it is this strange, digressive looseness that makes The Law such an appealing find, as though all these genres are cards in a deck that Dassin keeps shuffling. It's a strange "whatzit," a curio by definition, mixing and matching tones to offer moments of levity, violence, music, tragedy, and most of all, theater. For a director known for filming on the streets of New York or London or San Francisco, The Law finds him moving from rawness towards the pleasures of artifice. Shot on location or not, the town in The Law feels outside time or preserved in amber. One of the nicest touches is that when Mariette steals a cache of money to fund her escape (the dream of many noir anti-heroes), it comes not from a daring heist, but from picking the pockets of a rich tourist family, who see this place as an charming vacation spot instead of a Darwinian hell-pit like any other. This is the central split that informs the film's clash of tones: even golden idylls have underworlds, and even noir violence is just a short nudge away from burlesque. In a way, the biggest tension in the film is where its perspective will land, whether it will succumb to cynicism or the sunshine, or try to have both at once.
As a game of genres, the film plays thoughtfully. Dassin's straight noirs criticized a world of economic hierarchies. This, with romantic comedy in its DNA, sees hierarchy in gender terms as well, and the film's shrewdest statement comes in how male characters, after they've been beaten and put in their place by other men, turn and try to lord their status over women. The film's two climaxes—one comic, one tragic; one involving Lollobrigida, one involving Mercouri—deal in how the women respond. In the end, this hierarchy too has been overturned. The Old Money patriarchy of Don Cesare has faded into the past, and the New Money patriarchy of Brigante has been exposed as a cruelty and a fraud. What then? As Gina and Marcello drive off, the men in town proclaim that they'll play a new version of "The Law," one without bosses. It's an improbably happy ending, the biggest theatrical conceit of all.
And it is here, in the final shot, that the pigeon from the beginning reappears, with one last curious bit of business. While the men, now redeemed, are off making a try at their own utopia, the bird jumps from the ground up onto a bench—one level up, but here to stay. There's a cynical way to read this: a more optimistic director, or a less cryptic one, would have this very symbolic bird soar off into the sky, rather than just take one small step in that direction. Yet Dassin's decision to end the film on the pigeon, still in place as zither music swells, could also counter the pessimism we see at the beginning. There's no longer any need to leave, because the town might finally live up to its rustic paradise aesthetic. The village square may be preserved in time forever—the same steps, the same bench, the same church. But change the rules, and this world could be the perfect place to live.

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