Appellate Judge James A. Stewart hopes never to meet a singing street gang.
"People here play a very educational game. We call the game The Law!"
"The Law" is a drinking game played in Italian towns. As depicted in The Law (La Loi), it's a bit different, with a taskmaster throwing wine in players' faces and forcing them to drink as they pour, for example. Thus, people get embarrassed long before they get smashed.
The Law was directed by Jules Dassin, the blacklisted American who had just made a splash with the crime thriller Rififi. There's an element of crime here, but it's overshadowed by singing street youths, picture postcard Italian seaside scenery, and Gina Lollabrigida. The French/Italian movie takes place in Porto Manacore, a beach town. Although it's set in Italy, Oscilloscope's print is in French.
The movie is derived from La Loi, a 1957 novel by Roger Vaillard. The author is seen in a talk show segment in the extras, and I got the impression that his version of the story is more downbeat than what appears on screen—and it doesn't revolve around the character played by Lollabrigida.
Facts of the Case
Mariette (Gina Lollabrigida, The Hunchback of Notre Dame), who toils in the household of aged town boss Don Cesare, is attracted to an agronomist (Marcello Mastroianni, La Dolce Vita) who's new in town. Brigante (Yves Montand, IP5), a wannabe boss, is interested in Mariette himself. Brigante quickly shows who's boss by throwing wine in the agronomist's face during a game of "The Law." However, it's Mariette who's going to show Brigante who's boss—by stealing 500,000 lire from a Swiss tourist and planting the stolen wallet on Brigante.
Early on, a pigeon cooing in the square is urged to "Go on, pigeon. Fly. Fly. Fly!" The pigeon lands on a rooftop. The camera goes down a floor to show Lucretia, played by Melina Mercouri (Never on Sunday), through the wooden slats of a window. Even further down, it shows the bars of the local jail. Through this all, the angelic voice of a songbird—Mariette—is heard. It left me immediately with the feeling that someone would soon be trying to fly to freedom.
Gina Lollabrigida is sometimes playful, sometimes calculatingly wicked as Mariette, who serves as lookout for the local youths as they dismantle and steal the police motorbike and fights with a neighbor woman whose husband flirts with her. And yes, she's an eyeful in low-cut dresses that show plenty of bosom. Under the surface, though, she's a determined seductress as she charms the agronomist into her bedroom. That mixture of playful sexuality and determination is seen when Brigante starts kissing her roughly, on the lips and breasts. Mariette appears to like it—until she stabs Brigante in the face with his own knife, leaving a brand-like cross scar.
Yves Montand is convincing as Brigante, a steely tough who usually gets his way just by asking, with the implication of something nasty in store for those who defy him. When the scarred Brigante asks people what they see on his face, they know that the right answer is "Nothing." When he's pressuring, Brigante even sounds like he's taking the moral high road; this eventually leads to his fall. He does lose control, though, getting rock-throwing mad when the singing youths come up with a verse about his failure at winning Mariette.
Interestingly, the agronomist doesn't make that much of an impression, even though he's the one who won the heart of lovely Mariette. The movie seems more focused on the battle of wills between Mariette and Brigante. More impressive in small roles are Pierre Brasseur (The Gates of Paris) as Don Cesare and Melina Mercouri as the adulterous wife of a judge.
The DVD cover blurb makes much of the censorship the movie faced in 1959. Besides Brigante's rough kissing of Mariette, there's a scene in which the other women of Don Cesare's household tie Mariette to a table and whip her to convince her to take a housekeeping job with the agronomist. There's that, and a general suggestiveness to just about everything Mariette does. That suggestiveness, which couldn't possible be snipped out of the movie, probably was the main attraction for male viewers in the repressed '50s. It's still tantalizing; there's something to be said for suggestion.
Even as the love and hate play out on screen, Jules Dassin makes Porto Manacore a place you'd like to visit. There may never have been a singing gang of street youths, but the beach, the old buildings, and a street festival are shown to great advantage. Even in black-and-white, it's a place you'll see in Technicolor in your mind, and the picture is still sharp.
David Fear may be flip with his commentary, but he includes some interesting tidbits, including the movie's original U.S. title (Where the Hot Wind Blows) and details about Gina Lollabrigida's photojournalism career (she had one of the first interviews with Fidel Castro).
What's in the extras bag? There's an alternate ending that adds a scene with the women of Don Cesare's household. There's part of an episode from Cinépanorama in 1958. It goes on location to show Yves Montand talking about the game of The Law and Gina Lollabrigida talking about raising a kid in the media spotlight; Jules Dassin and Melina Mercouri are also featured. A segment of Lectures Pour Tous from 1957 features Roger Vailland, author of La Loi. A current documentary, L'Ultima Osteria, looks at the game that inspired the story, but emphasizes the lives of the Italians who still play it more than the game itself; it's interesting, but doesn't make you feel like you understand the game. There's also a French trailer which makes the film seem a little more serious than it turns out to be. It's an interesting package.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The charms of Gina Lollabrigida are a major part of this movie. If you're immune, you might also be immune to The Law.
David Fear's account of how The Law was made hints that Jules Dassin's hasty rewrite to make room for Gina Lollabrigida might have taken some of the force out of The Law. Heck, even the trailer suggests a more serious movie. Still, what made it to the screen holds your attention, and Lollabrigida's fiery playfulness works well with a strong sparring partner in Yves Montand.
Not guilty. Go on, viewer. Fly, fly, fly.
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