Friday, January 28, 2011


If I've noticed any recurring themes in the films I've seen directed by Phil Karlson, it's an almost paranoid terror at the omnipotence of organized crime. Flourishing in the Fifties, he seems to use crime syndicates and organizations as stand-ins for the reputedly repressive "organization man" lifestyle increasingly decried during the supposedly conformist decade. Karlson's films aren't films noirs as much as they're horror stories about the brutality of power, seedier or sleazier versions of the Orwellian boot stomping your face. They were probably redeemed in the eyes of their original audiences by cathartic comebacks by the oppressed who prove able, against the odds, of sometimes literally beating the system. The Phenix City Story was Karlson's epic expression of these themes, but they echo more intimately in smaller-scaled stories of individuals trapped in seemingly hopeless situations, like the framed fighter John Payne in 99 River Street or the duped mob accountant played by Richard Conte in The Brothers Rico, dutifully delivering his sibling to death.

Conte, a crime-film fixture from the Forties through the Seventies, is Eddie Rico, aspiring to civilian life as a laundry owner in Florida. He has two brothers, both deeper into the mob than he ever was. As he learns when brother Gino arrives in town, they were hired to kill a man, but things have gotten hot since youngest brother Johnny's new brother-in-law got wind of things and threatened to rat everyone out. Gino wants out of the country as quick as possible but doesn't know where Johnny is. The "organization" wants to know badly. Fronted by old family friend Sid Kubik, they tell Eddie that they want to help his brothers leave the country, too, until things cool down. But it's clear to us long before it's clear to Eddie that the organization really wants to kill Gino and Johnny rather than take any chance that these heretofore loyal men might squeal. Sid reminds Eddie of his longstanding loyalty to the Ricos and prevails upon him to travel the country searching for Johnny, even if that louses up the plans of Eddie and his wife to finalize the adoption of a child. Throughout the film, Eddie thinks he's doing right by his family, but he's actually doing everything in his power to destroy it.

Richard Conte as Eddie Rico

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment has packaged The Brothers Rico as part of its Film Noir Classics II collection of Fifties crime movies. I'm not sure it belongs in the set. As Martin Scorsese notes in brief remarks about the film, it has little of the trademark expressionistic shadowplay, being instead lit "flat" like a contemporary TV program. Scorsese himself seems at a loss to account for this Fifties trend, but it seems obvious to me that the more artless style is a sort of reaction against the stylization of Forties noir, aiming for a broad-daylight sort of naturalism instead. Somehow this seems more appropriate to the era of the lurid paperback original (Rico itself adapts an American-set Georges Simenon story) and EC Comics than the glamorous chiaroscuro of the previous decade.

More of a disqualification is Rico's use of its hero. I'm inclined to agree with the definition of noir proposed by Otto Penzler in his and James Ellroy's Best American Noir of the Twentieth Century collection, which emphasizes protagonists' inability to restrain their impulses. A noir hero dooms himself by greed or lust, as a rule. But Eddie Rico causes disaster mostly because he's naive and just plain dumb. I wonder, however, if the screenplay makes him look dumber than Simenon's original. The problem with the movie is that we the viewers don't trust Sid Kubik for a second, yet Eddie trusts him implicitly through two-thirds of the picture. Larry Gates gives such a fake performance in his early scene with Conte that we hardly need the proof we get almost immediately that Sid has bad intentions for the Rico brothers. Eddie talks a lot about all that Sid has done for the family, but we needed either a better actor playing Sid or an extra scene or two showing rather than telling why Eddie would consider Sid a friend. Without that, we find it hard to sympathize with or root for someone who just looks stupid.

In this nicely staged scene, Karlson plants his hero in the background to make him look as small as he feels as the big men in the foreground nonchalantly discuss his brother's death.

Worse, once it seems that the only way Eddie can redeem himself is by avenging his brothers, despite an apparently unviolent nature, and at whatever cost to himself, Karlson and his writers go over the top to give a film that seems like it shouldn't have one a happy ending. They also reach past plausibility to give audiences their catharsis, sending a boss like Kubik somewhere he probably shouldn't be just so Eddie can take a shot at him. Then, just as it looks like Eddie will endure a redemptive death, the too-good-to-be-true coda has him and the wife finally picking out a kid to adopt. It may be unfair of me to feel that Eddie doesn't deserve this simply because he was stupid, but the ending just stinks of Hollywood contrivance, and the film would be more noirish without it.

Despite all this, Karlson manages to cultivate that sense of terror in the presence of an implacable system. The organization has spies everywhere. We don't even have to see them tailing Eddie; it's just a given that they'll have men waiting wherever he goes. There's an extended sequence during which Eddie tries to bargain or beg for Johnny's life with an impassive Western criminal who has complete power over the hotel Eddie stays in and the community beyond. For his part the criminal tries to reason with Eddie, urging him to accept the unalterable circumstances and reconcile himself to his brother's doom. Harry Bellaver plays the gangster with an understated sinister stoicism that invests his scenes with an emotional brutality that compensates for the relatively limited physical brutality of this film. Adding to that is the terrified yet indignant performance of James Darren as the youngest Rico. Karlson's film has a lot of the right atmosphere, and Conte does all he can with his thankless starring role, but the weakness of the role keeps The Brothers Rico out of the first ranks of Fifties crime films or Karlson's filmography.

Here's the original trailer, uploaded to YouTube by adlerangriffe.


Alex B. said...

Thanks a lot for this one.
Really appreciate any reviews of Simenon adaptations.
Haven't seen this one, but read the source book.
If I remember correctly, there were two brothers in the book, not three.
And no happy ending whatsoever - this is Simenon we're talking here, after all. There was also a Soviet TV film based on The Brothers Rico, very had to find these days.
Thanks once again for the detailed review.

Samuel Wilson said...

Alex, thanks for writing. I haven't read a lot of Simenon, but what I've read I've liked. Dirty Snow, if I remember the title right, really stands out. I know enough about the author to assume that the film's happy ending wasn't his idea. I'd be interested in seeing the Soviet version someday.