The Day of the Owl Blu-ray Review
Blu-ray Release: August 15, 2023 (as part of the Cosa Nostra collection)
Audio: Italian and English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono
Subtitles: English, English SDH
Run Time: 108:40 (Italian Cut), 103:11 (English Cut)
Director: Damiano Damiani
Note: This Blu-ray is currently only available as part of Radiance Films’ Cosa Nostra: Franco Nero In Three Mafia Tales By Damiano Damiani three-disc collection along with The Case Is Closed, Forget It (Italian: L'istruttoria è chiusa: dimentichi, 1972) and How to Kill a Judge (Italian: Perché si uccide un magistrato, 1974).
While investigating the death of a construction worker, police captain Bellodi (Franco Nero) finds himself up against corrupt city officials, a suspicious witness (Claudia Cardinale), and a ruthless Mafia boss (Lee J. Cobb). (From Radiance’s official synopsis)
Comic book artist, screenwriter, and documentarian Damiano Damiani made his feature film debut in 1960 with the true crime drama Lipstick (Italian: Il rossetto), followed by a series of beloved character dramas and the dreamy Gothic romance The Witch (Italian: La strega in amore; aka: Strange Obsession, 1966). Soon after, Damiani’s complicated left-wing politics informed one of his greatest contribution to Italian cinema, Bullet for the General (Italian: El Chuncho, Quien Sabe?), which made its debut in January of 1967, fewer than two months before Sergio Sollima’s similarly-themed The Big Gundown (Italian: La Resa dei Conti) kicking off a string of westerns that used the Mexican Revolution as a framing device for modern political metaphors, known as Zapata westerns (named for Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata).
But Damiani’s career in westerns ended there. Crime stories were always in his blood, going back to the comics he made with the associated Group of Venice (Gruppo di Venezia), including Ace of Spades (Italian: Asso di Picche, 1945-49) about a Spirit-like vigilante fighting a criminal syndicate, the gangster serial Pat the Rock (Italian: Pat la Rocca, 1946), and the noir-themed Horgarth the Judge (Italian: Hogart il Giustiziere, publish date unknown, reprinted as Bogart the Judge in the ‘60s). And, of course, Lipstick was also a glimpse into the poliziotteschi future that awaited Damiani. The year after Bullet for the General, Damiani teamed with actor Franco Nero for The Day of the Owl (Italian: Il giorno della civetta; aka: Mafia, 1968). Day of the Owl led to three more politically-charged poliziotteschi pairings for Nero and Damiani – Confessions of a Police Captain (Italian: Confessione di un commissario di polizia al procuratore della repubblica, 1971), The Case is Closed, Forget It (Italian: L'istruttoria è chiusa: dimentichi, 1972), and How to Kill a Judge (Italian: Perché si uccide un magistrato, 1974).
Poliziotteschi arguably eclipsed spaghetti westerns in terms of market saturation and are largely remembered for their outrageously dangerous stunts, not-so-casual misogyny, fascist politics, ultraviolence, and sleaze factor. But there were plenty of prestige entries, too, which isn’t something you can really say for Italian westerns, because, Sergio Leone movies aside, those took decades to curry mainstream critical favor. Damiani’s films were designed as prestige titles, especially Day of the Owl, which eventually won the David di Donatello Awards for Best Production, Best Actress for Claudia Cardinale, Best Actor for Nero, and Best Direction for Damiani. Arguably, the only more prestigious poliziotteschi would be Elio Petri’s Oscar-winning Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (Italian: Indagine su un cittadino al di sopra di ogni sospetto, 1970).
Day of the Owl was also adapted from Leonardo Sciascia’s 1960 novel and loosely based on the 1947 assassination of communist trade unionist Accursio Miraglia. Obviously, there had been fiction about organized crime for years, but Day of the Owl (the book) was apparently released at a time when the general public still debated the existence of the Mafia (according to Sciascia himself, the book reinvigorated awareness). It also predated the post-Godfather mob bandwagon and might have primed the pump for the blockbuster success of Mario Puzo’s novel (1969) and Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation (1972) throughout Europe. A one-time school teacher and member of the Italian Communist Party who held local Palermo city council office, Sciascia had other novels adapted to film, including two more David di Donatello-winners, Gianni Amelio’s Open Doors (Italian: Porte aperte, 1990) and Francesco Rosi’s Illustrious Corpses (Italian: Cadaveri eccellenti, 1976), and Petri’s Palme d’Or-nominated We Still Kill the Old Way (Italian: A ciascuno il suo, 1967).
The political themes of Damiani’s crime films (and Bullet for the General), which are present in the novel and similar to Petri’s and Sollima’s, tended to pertain to the corrupt connections between wealthy career criminals and the authorities and politicians meant to oppose them, and how these political games make victims of the innocent people caught in the middle (represented here by Claudia Cardinale’s character, whose entire life is steamrolled by both sides of the conflict). He knew better than to beat his audience over the head with ideology, so Day of the Owl also works as a standard crime drama, though Damiani and co-writer Ugo Pirro’s adaptation is very dense and editor Nino Baragli doesn’t leave a lot of breathing room (aside from the brilliant, Leone-esque opening scene). It definitely requires more attention an Umberto Lenzi shoot-em-up, but it works. Still, it’s pretty hard to overlook the thematic intent. Damiani and Nero’s latter poliziotteschi grew even more informed by left-wing politics and helped to set them apart from the fascist power fantasies challenging them at the box office during the ‘70s and early ‘80s.
Nero had recently turned from working player to superstar following the release of Sergio Corbucci’s Django in 1966, and, the second he had a hit on his hands, he skipped town for a brief stint in Hollywood, leaving producers with plans for multiple Django follow-ups in the lurch. Spaghetti westerns maintained their popularity into the next decade, but, even after he returned to Italy, Nero wasn’t particularly interested in them, only making time for genre films by filmmakers he already respected, including a couple of other Corbucci films, The Mercenary (Italian: Il Mercenario; aka: A Professional Gun, 1968) and Compañeros (Italian: Vamos a Matar Compañeros), and Enzo G. Castellari’s postmodern shots at the genre, Cry, Onion! (Italian: Cipolla Colt, 1975) and Keoma (1976). Thanks in large part to Damiani’s movies, Nero’s poliziottescho popularity actually predated the genre’s big boost during the ‘70s, but it didn’t go into overdrive until the massive success of Castellari’s High Crime (Italian: La polizia incrimina la legge assolve, 1973) and Street Law (Italian: Il cittadino si ribella, 1974), where he played Dirty Harry and Paul Kersey-like characters (respectively).
Cinema Italiano: The Complete Guide from Classics to Cult by Howard Hughes (I.B. Tauris, 2011)
Italian Crime Filmography, 1968-1980 by Roberto Curti (McFarland & Company, 2013)
Day of the Owl was shortened and retitled Mafia for its North American theatrical run, but it doesn’t appear to have made much of an impact on home video or television. The only English and NTSC-friendly DVD didn’t come out until 2010 and it was via Wild East Productions, whose discs are only sold through their own website. Studio Canal produced a Blu-ray in 2019, but, again, there were no English subtitle or language options, so this is the first good chance a lot of folks have had to see the film. All three movies in Radiance Films’ Cosa Nostra collection have been restored in 2K from the original camera negatives. They’ve also included both the original Italian and English export cuts.
Much of cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli’s photography is shot either outdoors, under the blazing sun or inside using natural lighting. His control is admirable, but the almost entirely naturalistic approach poses minor problems for the 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer. Some of the whites are blown out, some of the blacks end up crushed in shadow, and background images can appear hazy. I believe this is all just part of the look, so I’m not counting it against the Blu-ray. Grain texture has a slight overly-uniform quality that makes me think scanning noise has gotten in the way a bit, but actual print damage isn’t a problem and there are only slight oversharpening effects.
Day of the Owl is presented with Italian and English dub options, though each language track is tied to a version of the film, so you can’t watch the Italian cut with English dialogue and vice versa. As per usual, this movie was shot without sound and dubbed in post, so there isn’t an official language dub. In this case, the Italian cut is the more complete version of the film, so I’d recommend sticking with that one. The Italian dub is constant and well-cast, but it’s hard to miss that American star Lee J. Cobb and Italian female lead Claudia Cardinale are speaking English on set. Nero claims in the interview on this disc that it was shot in English and I think he’s speaking English the few times he addresses Cobb directly, but the lip sync doesn’t really match to my eyes. The English language track is definitely more muffled, but has some advantages, such as Cobb dubbing his own performance. Giovanni Fusco’s score is sparingly used, but is eclectic and lively, adding pulpy flavor to the otherwise serious and borderline dry feel of the film.
Franco Nero on The Day of the Owl (17:21, HD) – A 2022 interview with Nero, including archive footage of Damiani and Leonardo Sciascia. The actor chats about Damiani’s career, his work as a painter and boxer, his rough directing style, how the two men met, and their collaborations together with emphasis on Day of the Owl and its cast & crew.
On the Subject Of… (26:34, SD) – This 2006 mini-doc features interviews with Nero, Pirro, and production manager Lucio Trentino, who discuss the film’s production, release, and legacy. I’m not sure where it comes from, because the timestamp doesn’t match the slightly longer featurette from Medusa’s Italian DVD. Perhaps it was made for television?
Claudia Cardinale interview (22:20, HD) – A 2017 interview recorded for the Belgian TV series Hep Taxi!, in which famous people get in a taxi and answer questions while they are driven around town. Subject matter skews personal, rather than professional, and covers her career at large (I had no idea she didn’t grow up speaking Italian!).
Identity Crime-Sis: An Italian Genre Finds Itself (20:04, HD) – Genre expert and writer/director of the poliziotteschi documentary Eurocrime! The Italian Cop and Gangster Films That Ruled the '70s (2012) Mike Malloy, who chats about the early history of Italian crime movies, focusing on the films of 1968 when the genre began changing from neo-realist dramas to action movies, including Carlo Lizzani’s ‘action variant’ Bandits in Milan (Italian: Banditi a Milano; aka: The Violent Four), Duccio Tessari’s ‘star-driven variant’ The Bastard (Italian: I bastardi), and Day of the Owl, which he calls the ‘highbrow variant.’
Casting Cobb: A Tale of Two Continents (32:36, in English) – In this video essay, editor/narrator Howard S. Berger explores Cobb’s film and stage career, screen persona, his troubles with the Hollywood Blacklist, how it led him to a second life in TV and making movies in Italy.
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.