Brothers Rico (1957)

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.

3.5/5 Stars.

Phenix City Story (1955)

“From the ashes of Phenix City has risen the symbol of democracy at work. The power of the ballot will always be the voice of the American People.”

The cut of the film I watched had a rather unique opening prologue complete with interviews by esteemed reporter Clete Roberts (You might remember him from MASH’s Interview episode), and he supplies an instant ethos and credibility to the proceedings.

Faux-newsreel segments have actually been dropped in lieu of actual documentary as he stands on the steps of one of the city’s civic buildings. He takes a moment to talk with a couple notable players including the journalist who broke the story — Ed Strickland — as well as a lifelong resident, Hugh Bentley, who had his home dynamited.

Of course, if we didn’t know any better and we didn’t know these men or see their faces, we might guess this was all for the cause of civil rights. That’s not actually the case. The Phenix City Story is a tale of the criminal syndicate that controlled the city, providing much of its commerce, but also employing rampant coercion tactics.

It’s evident from the first images of Phil Karlson’s actual film, there is an instant dichotomy being created and the two layers of the society. There is the world belonging to the simple, hard-working, God-fearing folks and then the swindlers, gamblers, and generally corrupt subset of society.

Karlson introduces the latter with a knowing visual panache backed by a bluesy dance number. The saucy come-hither floorshow is the epitome of 14th street, and it beckons all men like a greedy seductress looking to bury them. It’s Sin City U.S.A.

What becomes plainly apparent is how evil can come in all shapes and sizes. Rhett Tanner has a gift for southern hospitality. He knows how to schmooze with the locals, chat about the preacher’s Sunday sermons, and keep up appearances. He’s also a shrewd customer behind closed doors as he is the go-to man maintaining the city’s thriving undercurrent of vice. In fact, he’s set himself to be an impregnable despot. No one can topple him because he’s so integrated into society.

Albert Patterson (John McIntire), as portrayed in this storyline, is one of the men who is reluctant to get involved. He’s a lawyer and a good one — he’s one of the town’s best — but he’s also old and feels the fight is not his. He can live on his side of town in relative peace.

It’s his boy, John (Richard Kiley) who really shakes up the status quo. He is a war vet returning to Phenix with his young family after time away, and he’s disillusioned by what he found. He’s faced with the bitter irony of fighting fascism overseas only to see it have such a deathly grip on his childhood home. He’s prepared to fight to give the town back to the good folks around him.

Kiley’s part is actually conveniently whitewashed to make him a more sympathetic hero. In real life, John Patterson ran on a segregationist ticket — although it might have been more pragmatic than anything — he also didn’t have the best track record as a family man.

But in an effort to probe this topic more, James Edwards is one of the characters we must gravitate towards. Edwards certainly never reached star status, and he’s rarely remembered outside of the classic film circles, but through a series of war films, it’s as if he was given an opportunity to exert himself and represent black characters with dignity.

Phenix City Story is one of the few films where he’s not in uniform, and Zeke is not a revolutionary part; he’s only a humble janitorial type, but he has a strong moral conscience. The fact that he, his wife, and his daughter (who becomes a tragic victim) are the only black characters, is also a salient reality of the film’s world.

The movie feels like a microcosm of the whole society, both what is shown and what is not. My historical geography leaves something to be desired, but I think of 1957 and Orville Faubus, or the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing in Birmingham in 1963, and the brutality of Selma after that. My mind starts going places. If this is how they treat other whites in a movie, imagine how it is with blacks. To its credit, the movie resolves to show some of this.

Pound for pound, it doesn’t feel like the Sunday school truth it’s trying to project itself to be, but in the world and qualities of life — especially the exteriors — we do get a real eye into society circa 1955. This is the aspect of many classic films that’s the most enlightening even if the actually perceived mimesis of the film itself is still beholden to the tenets of Hollywood drama. Thankfully, for all its forays into docudrama, it still holds onto Karlson’s always reliable sense of bruised and bloodied physicality.  It wouldn’t be one of his pictures without it. But of course, even this has real import.

The ensuing climax feels like a foregone conclusion. People feel a tug or a pull to do something and take a stand. Bystanders can no longer watch. They must act to turn the pervasive tides of oppression. One of them is the young woman Ellie Rhodes (Kathryn Grant before she met Bing Crosby), who saw her boyfriend ruthlessly disposed of. Finally, Albert Patterson resolves to fight as well, and he takes it to the top, running as attorney general. Both of them stick their necks out and pay the consequence. However, these weren’t rash decisions. They knew full well what they were getting into. They counted the costs and pushed forward anyway.

If we are to scan the contemporary movie landscape, something like The Captive City is a comparable movie. Whereas the actual visual plane is more pronounced in individual shots of the earlier movie, Phenix City has the advantage of its world, and if it’s not entirely more expansive, then it certainly feels more evocative. In the dark shrouds of night, we feel the sinister threat hanging over the city’s population.

The Captive City also calls on gangsters who feel like callbacks to the 1930s. The tone verges on social horror. Karlson’s picture is probably even more perturbing because it alights on something that feels fresh and honest in how it pertains to current events in 1955. There’s no escaping reality in this case. We’re still struggling against them over 65 years later. Suddenly, that corny rhetoric at the movie’s opening remains prescient. “The power of the ballot will always be the voice of the American people.”

3.5/5 Stars