LA LOI is from an accaimed novel by Roger Vailland and Dassin's film was made in 1958 (one of the dvd extras is a documentary at the time with interviews with the stars on set). It powerfully captures life in this small town where the menfolk gather to pass the time in the square and of course discussing everyone else's affairs and lusting after the local bombshell Marietta - Gina Lollobrigida has a whale of a time here and is dazzlingly attractive as she erupts all over the place - being tied to a table and whipped by her mother, stealing a tourist's wallet, looking after the local most powerful man Don Cesare (Pierre Brasseur) and falling for new guy in town engineer Marcello Mastroianni. Yves Montand is also in top form (much more so than in his English speaking roles) as the local Mr Big, Matteo Brigante, who aspires to Don Cesare's power and he also wants to have Marietta - who turns the tables on him with his knife.... his son Francesco (Raf Mattioli) is pining for Lucrezia (Melina Mercouri) the unhappy wife of a local businessman - they have some marvellous scenes together and Melina is also a delight here.
It is the kind of film where one has no idea what is going to happen next - comedy or tragedy or more vignettes of small town life: the jealous police chief does not want his large wife to appear in public in a swimsuit but when she does she attracts all the male attention is just one one such moment. The men also play a cruel drinking game called The Law, where one of them is chosen as The Boss who is then able to insult and humiliate the others if he so chooses - Montand certainly does to Paola Stoppa. Finally events come to a climax as Francesco and Lucrezia try to leave town by bus and are stopped by his father, dying Don Cesare sorts out Marietta's problems and Montand's Brigante loses his power in a stunning climactic scene with Lucrezia, and Gina and Marcello are finally able to marry.
It is deliriously done and the kind of film one wants to watch all over again, which I did. Dassin orchestrates it all with a sure light hand from the men in the square and those doves, to that powerhouse cast in their '50s perfection. There is a mystery too: the attractive young Francesco is played by Raf Mattioli whom I had not seen before, a check on IMDB reveals that he died the next year 1960 aged 23 but no other information seems available - what on earth happened to him? - he had that perfect '59 look with the shirt tied in a knot. Dassin of course went on to that huge hit with Melina NEVER ON SUNDAY in 1960. This though is a marvellous long unseen movie with Gina, Marcello, Yves and Melina firing on all cylinders. It was called WHERE THE HOT WIND BLOWS in the USA, no doubt to lure in more customers than the arthouse crowd. Dassin's RIFIFI (the daddy of all heist movies) was also a major discovery a few years back (he even remade it as TOPKAPI in '64)!
It has reminded me of an afternoon I spent with Melina in 1968 at a protest rally in Trafalgar Square London to highlight poverty in Biafra [we thought we could make a difference then]. Melina was leading the march and was stunning in a long red dress with lots of gold chains, and I was 22 and at the top of the march with her as we walked along and spent time in the square. What a time that was.....