Like many Italian directors of his generation Damiano Damiani was a workhorse, directing films from documentaries and serious dramas to spaghetti westerns.While he continued genre-hopping throughout his career, in the late sixties Damiani hit his stride with a series of Mafia films starring Nero. It's the first of these, 1968's Il giorno della civetta - titled Mafia during its 1970 theatrical run in the United States, but since then generally known as The Day of the Owl - to which we now turn.
One morning in the Sicilian countryside, a contractor is ambushed by a hitman. The wounded man flees towards the nearest house, but is shot again and killed. The scene is witnessed by the owner of the house, a man called Nicolosi - who, by the time the contractor's body is discovered, has gone missing too. Police Captain Bellodi (Franco Nero), a hotshot Northerner, attempts to trace the murder back to the local Mafia boss, Don Mariano Arena (Lee J. Cobb), who he suspects had the contractor killed because he refused to participate in his racket of awarding construction contracts to his friends. But the investigation is hindered by the fact that none of the locals, not even police informer Parrinieddu (Serge Reggiani), is willing to testify against Don Mariano - least of all Rosa Nicolosi (Claudia Cardinale), whose husband is still missing and suspected murdered.
Regarding Cobb's Don Mariano, then: if you thought, quite naturally, that casting an American character actor as a Sicilian crimelord might cause some problems, you haven't seen either Cobb's work or the great Italian facility with overdubbing. His Mariano is ruthless and brutal without once getting his hands dirty. A man who makes his friends rich and is feared by the community, he has a veneer of Christian respectability that he knows doesn't need to be convincing. He's mesmerising to watch without even a hint of the fatherly charm that Marlon Brando brought to the role, and I rather like the prosaic reality of his operations: receiving public contracts and handling them cheaply to the cost of the community, in exactly the way the Camorra does with waste disposal.
As a procedural The Day of the Owl is shot in a far more down-to-earth style than much Italian genre cinema of its time, but Damiani is not above fancy direction, including a penchant for using fisheye lenses to focus on and distort the faces of Mafia elders. Among the film's signature scenes is the opening murder and a late showdown between Bellodi and Don Mariano, in which the former finally believes himself triumphant. The score by Giovanni Fusco (Hiroshima, mon amour) relies heavily on strings, going to the same well of Sicilian folk music that Nino Rota would mine so successfully for The Godfather. It's a rare romantic flourish in a film that, as is characteristic of the Mafia films from Italy vis-à-vis their American counterparts, is hard-nosed and nasty - but still jolly entertaining.