Convicted crook Roger Sautet (Alain Delon) escapes police custody with help from aging gangster Vittorio Malanese (Jean Gabin), head of the Malanese crime family. Together they plan and execute a daring airborne jewel heist, with tough cop Inspector Le Goff (Lino Ventura) hot on their trail. However, Sautet makes the mistake of having an affair with Jeanne (Irina Demick), sexy wife of Malanese’s eldest son.
After a failed bid for Hollywood success with the odd allegorical western Guns for San Sebastian (1968), French thriller specialist Henri Verneuil bounced back to critical and commercial form with this evergreen Euro crime classic. The Sicilian Clan was an all-star affair teaming suave superstar Alain Delon with France’s most respected thespian Jean Gabin and arguably the most iconic actor in European gangster films, Lino Ventura. Delon’s implication in a famous murder trial (of which he was exonerated) brought the film added publicity, especially when front page photographs showed the actor in handcuffs being escorted to court - a scene mirrored in the movie.
Along with The Brotherhood (1967), this was among the first films to deal openly with the mafia. Its central theme is as old as the genre itself, namely honour amongst thieves or rather lack thereof. Sicilian patriarch Malanese maintains a tight-knit family with sons Aldo and Sergio (Marc Porel), daughter Theresa (Karen Blanguernon), her husband Luigi (Philippe Baronnet) and their little son. It is his claustrophobic hold upon the family that proves their undoing, since his suspicion of outsiders extends to daughter-in-law Jeanne and thus drives her to rebel. Malanese’s suspicion may be justified given Jeanne is turned on by violence and latches onto Roger for vicarious thrills. When Malanese admits this impulsive outsider into their circle, he seals his family’s doom although for their part the lovers are undone by Jeanne’s mouthy little nephew. In that sense the family destroys those that do not conform to their standards although one could argue that Malanese is undone by his absurd need to uphold his family honour. The character of Roger Sautet plays on Delon’s iconic image established in Le Samurai (1967): undeniably charismatic, but capable of clinical brutality, although he is humanised by his love for his sister. Gabin and Delon were previously partnered in Verneuil’s Any Number Can Win (1963) and re-teamed for Two Men in the City (1975). They spark brilliantly together, circling each other like a couple of wary panthers while Ventura’s superbly sardonic police inspector bides his time.
The script, based on a novel by Auguste Le Breton (creator of the Rififi series), was co-written by José Giovanni, a onetime criminal-turned-novelist and celebrated filmmaker in his own right. It bears some of Giovanni’s trademark sympathy for the underdog and weaves a nice line in introspection as Roger muses he started killing because nobody took him seriously, even when he held a gun. However, the film is foremost a caper movie rather than a thematically ambitious family drama like The Godfather (1972). Incredibly slick for its day, Verneuil’s suspense set-pieces are razor sharp: Sautet’s opening escape from a police van and the airplane heist itself are mini masterpieces of near Hitchcockian tension. The film races along at a fair clip, its glossy production values aided by superb scope photography from Henri Decae and a snazzy score by Ennio Morricone. Bizarrely, the DVD comes with German, Hungarian and English audio options (with Delon dubbing his own voice in the latter), but not French.