I’ll say it again, but Richard Conte is one of the unsung heroes of film noir. He could play ominous villains (Big Combo) or charismatic everymen caught in the pincers of fate (Call Northside 777). But the most important piece is that we buy him in either, whether he’s earnest or simply hard to take our eyes off of.
Digging around in his backstory, it’s telling that he was actually discovered by two fairly auspicious figures in the film and stage community: Elia Kazan and John Garfield. I wouldn’t have immediately drawn the line between them. To my knowledge, they rarely collaborated, and yet Conte does offer something robust and genuine in the majority of his roles. Like a Richard Widmark or a Robert Ryan, he doesn’t get enough acknowledgment, and the dark genre would feel slighter without him.
In The Brothers Rico, he and Dianne Foster are surprisingly frank, and they have a playful rapport between kisses, shaving kits, and showers. It’s all telling character work to set up a more rudimentary story.
It’s difficult to imagine any business more innocuous than running a laundry, but then again, that’s the point because Rico’s somehow connected with a different kind of business: something hot. Although he gave it up long ago with a past that is never fully disclosed, his two brothers are still knee-deep in it.
The film conjures up what can best be described as the fatalistic throes of doom coming back into his life. This growing pull somehow signals the undeniable undercurrents of noir. He gets a clandestine visit from a frightened Gino and learns his other brother Johnny is wanted in the underworld. He’s married a principled woman, and the mobsters are afraid she’ll make him talk. We see the worlds colliding, one engulfing the other, and eating it up.
Eddie’s own marriage is strained as is their dream of adopting a child. Because an old family friend, the kingpin Kublik (Larry Gates), calls on Eddie to search for his missing brother. He needs to straighten the boy out for his own protection. He’s sincere and they have a history. They’re like family. Thusly, Eddie is pulled back into the world.
It deals in terms of family, business, rivals, and all the codes we’ve become familiar with in movies forming the traditions of The Godfather and even an earlier Conte picture like House of Strangers. The family comes first and religion maintains such a crucial moral grip on people and how they make sense of guilt and retribution.
Eddie quickly becomes the seeker hero questioning folks, looking for leads, and going across country to track down Johnny. It’s a bit too convenient how the old world comes out of the woodwork to meet him bearing pretty girls in New York or boasting about gambling in Phoenix, but the point is made.
Finally, he finds his brother (James Daren) in an isolated town, far away from the prying eyes of the urban jungle and salacious gambling parlors. He’s contented himself with a simpler, purer life. Their meeting is inevitable, but it also comes to represent the divergent paths young Johnny wants to take.
It’s curious how Conte who is forever cast as the hero in another’s eyes becomes almost like a specter and executioner himself, representing everything he’s trying to negate. Kathryn Grant has even less to do than in Phenix City Story, but the way she tears across the set beside herself with anguish serves a tangible purpose.
In all his good faith, Eddie has signaled the end for his brother. And even as he finally shows up at his destination, things suddenly seem more tenuous. Although we know what Kubik is capable of, Conte almost makes us believe that some semblance of honor and integrity still exists in the world. And yet it grows more and more suspect.
When he finally reaches Johnny, it’s like the motor of the movie is gone. The story drags until it finds a new focal point. It recognizes the renewed tension in the moment: Eddie is made to talk with Johnny over the phone knowing full well what is going to happen. His little brother is forced to reckon with the welcoming committee that’s waiting for him. And then the picture can only go one place, with Conte on the run like his brothers before him.
The climax is the film at its most mediocre, overblown, and disposable. In a matter of seconds, it brushes off all of the strenuous work of the picture, settling on histrionics over a clearcut actionable ending. It doesn’t even give us the pleasure of one of Phil Karlson’s patented fistfights.
The resulting denouement is one of those overly twee numbers no doubt forced upon the production by the censors. Because as Mr. and Mrs. Rico, that couple we came to appreciate in the opening moments, finally show up at the orphanage to claim their child, there’s something uneasy about the whole scenario. It feels false and disingenuous given what we have experienced already.
Noir sentiments like these can never be so easily smoothed over. It’s almost sickening to think something so saccharine even deserves to be in the same picture. Particularly because it doesn’t seem to be earned. In the end, there are so many shortcuts and liberties taken and while the groundwork is in place, including character dynamics, and the like, Brothers Rico fails to have a viable payoff.
Regardless, there is much to recommend. I’m fond of both Richard Conte and Dianne Baker. They had varying degrees of career success, but have much to offer the movie. For Phil Karlson aficionados, it’s worth consideration.