Blu-ray Release: July 18, 2023
Audio: Italian and English LPCM 1.0 Mono
Subtitles: English, English SDH
Run Time: 117:55
Director: Pasquale Squitieri
In the year 1925, Cesare Mori – the Iron Prefect (Giuliano Gemma) – is dispatched to Sicily to stomp out a rise in organized crime. Mori’s uncompromising tactics produce brutal pushback from cornered Mafiosos.
Often remembered as the long-time Mr. Claudia Cardinale (though the two were never married), Pasquale Squitieri developed as a director making mediocre spaghetti westerns, then came into his own with a small, but unique crop of cop thrillers. These includ the relatively standard-issue Gang War in Naples (Italian: Camorra, 1972), The Climber (Italian: L'ambizioso, 1975), and Blood Brothers (I guappi, 1974), which was a sort of middle point between his straight poliziotteschi and the murkier genre signifiers of his award-winning eighth motion picture, The Iron Prefect (Italian: Il prefetto di ferro; aka: I Am the Law, 1977). The Iron Prefect is technically a poliziottescho, but uses historical drama conventions to disguise its pulpy, borderline trashy roots. While most Eurocrime antiheroes were inspired by Hollywood tough guys, like Dirty Harry, Death Wish’s (1974) Paul Kersey, and The French Connection’s (1971) Popeye Doyle (who was based on Eddie Egan), Cesare Mori was a real-world template for the no-nonsense, Italian-made, vigilante cop. He didn’t just speak in reactionary platitudes to bloodthirsty theater-goers, exhausted by skyrocketing crime rates – he was a two-fisted mafia-fighting machine and a genuine, proud fascist who worked with the Mussolini regime.
Even now, with 80 years of hindsight, he’s compared to Eliot Ness in the advertising blurb for this very Blu-ray, because popular culture likes to frame the lives of historical figures with their valiant accomplishments, not their most foul deeds. After all, Eliot Ness wasn’t a card-carrying fascist, but he did oversee the burning of a Cleveland shantytown and the height of the Great Depression. Squitieri and writer Ugo Pirro don’t whitewash the regime’s cruelty, their interest in Mori, or either’s ruthlessness, but they still paint Mori himself as seeing the attention as a means to an end. As such, The Iron Prefect’s greatest value to the genre is the way it anchors the authoritative appeal of the poliziotteschi during the Anni di Piombo (Years of Lead) in an older historical context, where law enforcement’s cruelty could be akin to villainy*. It’s a more complex and realistic approach that extends to the visuals. Squitieri was capable of indulging the over-the-top violence, comic book characterizations, and rough ‘n tumble camerawork seen in Umberto Lenzi and Fernando Di Leo’s poliziotteschi, but he sticks to a measured approach, designing a prestigious epic closer to The Godfather (1972) than Dirty Harry (1971) in its creative goals, style, and the scope of its story. It also takes place in the mid-’20s, so there’s no chance for a car chase anyway.
Giuliano Gemma is often typecast in cultural memory as a spaghetti western hero, specifically as a somber counterpoint to Clint Eastwood’s sardonic antiheroes. While it’s true that his performances tended to be stoic, his range was impressive, even across the same genre. He thrived on Ringo types, but also played a naive Pygmalion-like gunslinger in Tonino Valerii’s Day of Anger (Italian: I Giorni Dell'ira; aka: Gunlaw, 1967) and a hard-nosed lawman in Tonino Valerii’s The Price of Power (Italian: Il prezzo del potere, 1969). He also practiced his comedic chops in Duccio Tessari’s Kiss Kiss…Bang Bang (1966) and Sundance and the Kid (Italian: Vivi o, preferibilmente, morti, 1969), and is a fantastic regulative force in Dario Argento’s Tenebrae (aka: Unsane, 1982). The Iron Prefect doesn’t exactly cast Gemma against type, but it does offer him a unique chance to play an uncompromising bastard, the kind typically played by American character actors or Maurizio Merli in other films. Instead of chewing the scenery, Gemma eases into it, portraying Mori as a bitter force of nature primed to explode.
The bulk of Ugo Pirro’s other work was, ironically enough, pretty blatantly anti-fascist. He wrote a number of historical dramas for Carlo Lizzani, including The Hunchback of Rome (Italian: Il gobbo, 1960), about partisan Nazi fighter Giuseppe Albano, Wake Up and Kill (Italian: Svegliati e Uccidi, 1966), about gangster Luciano Lutring. Later he worked with Damiano Damiani on the politically-minded poliziottescho thriller, Day of the Owl (Italian: Il giorno della civetta, 1968; based on the 1961 novel), and with former Italian Communist Party member Elio Petri on left-wing satirical dramas Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (Italian: Indagine su un cittadino al di sopra di ogni sospetto, 1970) and The Working Class Goes to Heaven (Italian: La classe operaia va in paradiso, 1971).
* The most interesting aspect of the film’s approach to pre-WWII politics is the way the locals, fronted by Cardinale’s character, are trapped between the devil they know in the mafia and a new devil in Mori and his growing army. It reminded me that, during the war, the United States utilized gangster Lucky Luciano’s connections in the fight against Italy and Germany. I’d be curious to read/watch/listen to an account from both sides of the mafia vs. fascist conflict.
The Iron Prefect apparently had a US VHS release under the title I Am the Law and had a small batch DVD launch from Wild East Productions in 2010 as part of a double-feature with Day of the Owl (it’s now out of print). The first Blu-ray came from X-Rated Kult in Germany, but that disc had no English audio or subtitle options. Radiance’s disc is English-friendly and restored in 2K from the original camera negative. Tinto Brass’ preferred cinematographer Silvano Ippoliti emphasizes the natural beauty of the Sicilian countryside during daylight scenes and goes super dark and moody for a lot of the interior shots, I assume to evoke Gordon Willis’ Godfather photography. The 1.85:1, 1080p transfer is soft, there's notable chromatic aberration throughout, and the brightest shots can appear a little washed out, but I think these are mostly inherent in the original material and there are few notable compression or print damage artifacts. All in all, it’s a nice representation that could maybe do with a little more texture.
The Iron Prefect comes fitted with both English and Italian dubs in uncompressed LPCM mono sound. As per usual, the film was shot without sound, but, unlike a lot of genre releases, it was intended mostly for an Italian audience and made to win awards, so it’s not surprising that everyone is speaking Italian on set and some actors are dubbing themselves on the Italian track. The English track is a tad louder, revealing more environmental ambience, but also a bit rough at higher volumes. The dub cast is good, though (including Edward Mannix!), befitting a bigger budget release. Ennio Morricone’s score doesn’t have the rock ‘n roll or jazz-infused edges you’d typically hear from his spaghetti western and giallo compositions. He instead opts for a moodier vibe, spiked with traditional folk melodies and a few action cues straight out of the Untouchables soundtrack he wrote for Brian De Palma 10 years later. His work here includes a beautiful title song, “The Ballad of the Iron Prefect,” sung by Rosa Balistreri (who also plays guitar) with lyrics by Ignazio Buttitta.
Pasquale Squitieri and Giuliano Gemma (34:49, HD) – A mash-up of 2009 archival interviews with the director and star. Discussion points include a failed adaptation of David Morrell’s First Blood (Rowman & Littlefield, 1972), the historical figures and events portrayed in the film, casting (Gemma in particular), the cost and logistics of the production, and various artistic influences.
Squitieri biographer Domenico Monetti (40:15, HD) – An extensive look at the making of The Iron Prefect, from the original hiring of Burt Lancaster as the lead, before he fell ill to rebuilding the film around Gemma, the careers of other cast members, the history that inspired the story, other films about Sicilian bandits that informed Squitieri’s direction, and the tradition of bandits and other criminals as heroes.
Filmmaker Alex Cox (11:28, HD) – The director of Repo Man (1984), Sid and Nancy (1986), and Walker (1987), and author of 10,000 Ways to Die: A Director's Take on the Spaghetti Western (Kamera Books, 2009) looks back on Giuliano Gemma’s early life and career, which included major success in Japan, where a brand of Suzuki scooter was named after him. He also compares The Iron Prefect to other historical political thrillers, like Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist (Italian: Il conformista, 1970) and Francesco Rosi’s Lucky Luciano (1973), instead of the trashier, modern-set poliziotteschi.
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.