Divided Loyalties in The Brothers Rico (1957) by Guy Savage
“It was a set-up. They put a leash around my neck. They used me like a bloodhound to track down my brother.”
The Brothers Rico, a film from director Phil Karlson, explores the issue of divided loyalties through the actions of three Italian-American brothers who are connected to the Mafia. Three years after leaving his life as a mob bookie, Eddie Rico (Richard Conte) now owns a legitimate, successful laundry business in Florida. Eddie’s two younger brothers still work for the Organization, and Eddie believes that the Ricos have a position of privilege with mafia boss Sid Kubik. Years previously their mother caught a bullet intended for Kubik, and ever since then Kubik claims that he feels a special connection to the fatherless Rico boys. With infrequent contact with his family, Eddie thinks he’s left his Brooklyn roots far behind. His success is evidenced by his material possessions: a large beautiful home, a new convertible car, and a glamorous wife Alice (Dianne Foster) who probably has no conception of operating a vacuum.
The film opens with a depiction of marital bliss and middle-class affluence as the day begins at the Rico home. These scenes set the tone for Eddie’s life, but little does he know that all hell is about to break loose. The trouble starts with a phone call from Phil (Paul Dubov), a gangster who works for Kubik. Phil orders Eddie to find a job for someone he’s sending to Florida, and although Eddie voices a few weak protests, it’s clear from the conversation that Eddie should do as he’s told. The second thing to go wrong in Eddie’s day is a troubling letter from Mama Rico (Argentina Brunetti) who still operates her candy shop in Brooklyn. In the letter, Mama Rico confesses that she’s worried about her two other boys, Gino and Johnny. She hasn’t heard from either of them, and the last thing Gino said was that he was “going far away for a long time.” Alice begins to connect the call from Phil with the disappearances of Gino and Johnny, but Eddie makes light of the letter, and dismisses Alice’s fears with the comment that she sounds like a “peasant from the old country.”
When Eddie gets to work, Joe (William Phipps), the gangster he’s supposed to hide for the mob, has arrived, and he’s busy making himself at home in Eddie’s office. Joe’s sneering lack of respect for Eddie is barely held in check, and even though Eddie orders Joe off to work in the boiler room, Joe’s attitude is unsettling. Then Eddie leaves to go to the Flamingo Club but is waylaid by the sudden appearance of a very nervous Gino (Paul Picerni). Gino, who looks like he hasn’t slept in a week, tells Eddie that he “graduated into the money” by becoming a killer for the mob. While Eddie groans at the news, Gino drops a bomb by confessing that he “was the gun on the job” for the recent hit on crime world figure Carmine. With baby brother Johnny driving the get-away car, this makes the high profile Carmine killing a Rico family affair.
Gino tells Eddie that everything was quiet for several months after the murder, and then there were rumours of a possible witness to the Carmine killing who might be persuaded to give evidence in exchange for a sweet deal. Suddenly “there was a big rumble all over town” that a Grand Jury was being called to investigate Carmine’s murder. In the meantime, Johnny disappeared. Gino, whose jitteriness increases with each revelation, tells Eddie that suddenly everyone started asking him about Johnny. Gino admits that he started to get nervous when he was ordered to leave Brooklyn and go to St Louis, and instead of obeying orders, he went on the run. Gino spills his deepest fear: “I’ve got the creepy feeling they’ve got the big eye on me,” and that he no longer trusts Kubik. Gino wants help from Eddie to get out of the country, and he also asks Eddie to find Johnny before he’s murdered by the mob.
Up to this point, three people in Eddie’s life, his wife, his mother and his brother are trying to deliver warnings, but Eddie doesn’t want to hear them. Eddie chalks up Gino’s fears to the reactions of “an old woman.” Just as Eddie reassures his wife, he reassures Gino that no one would hurt a Rico--least of all Kubik. Eddie tells Gino to return to St Louis and to stop thinking about living a life on the lam.
Eddie returns to his office to yet another phone call from Phil. This time Eddie is summoned to Miami to talk to Kubik (Larry Gates). The meeting begins with “Uncle” Kubik, who looks sinister in spite of his yachting outfit, asking Eddie a few pleasantries about the laundry business. After softening Eddie up, Kubik asks for news of Eddie’s brothers, and given the recent conversation with Gino, this sounds alarm bells. Kubik, however, seems to know a lot more about the missing Rico brothers than Eddie does, and this is reflected on Eddie’s face when he’s told that Johnny has a new wife. Kubik then tells Eddie that through a “pipeline into the DA’s office” he has information that someone wants to sing about the Carmine killing in exchange for immunity. Kubik tells Eddie that although the Organization trusts Johnny, it’s suspected that he’s under the influence of his new wife to go straight. According to Kubik, “that wife of his must be off her rocker to talk him into crazy ideas like that.”
At this point, Eddie swallows the line that Kubik just wants to “help” Johnny, and he agrees to find his youngest brother and get him out of the country….
The Brothers Rico is based on one of Simenon’s romans durs (hard novels), and the tale is a great deal darker and more complex than the simplified version offered in this 1957 film. Watching the film a few times will yield clues as to where the screenplay tampered with the novel. In one scene for example, Eddie leaves for the Flamingo Club, but never gets there. Why would the owner of a laundry business go to the Flamingo Club in the middle of the day? Then take a close look at Rico’s laundry business. It takes a lot of dirty clothes to supply the kind of dough Eddie has. What’s all this about Eddie getting out of the mob and being clean, yet he’s still dirty enough for Phil to have the expectation that Eddie will hide a hot killer from Kansas City, no questions asked. Does a wiseguy ever leave the mob? These jarring inconsistencies leave some unanswered questions about Eddie’s true source of wealth, and unfortunately the film plays it straight. Avoiding the moral complexities of the novel, Eddie is presented as a hard-working stiff who suffers from naiveté and the belief that mob-boss Kubik is the father the Rico boys never had.
Still the film does have some excellent points. The Brothers Rico consistently presents the male-dominated world of the Mafia Brotherhood. The Rico women are kept in the dark as much as possible--not only for their own good, but also because it’s easier for the men to operate with the illusion of family values intact. The implication is that Kubik, Eddie, Gino, and Johnny move in a world that the women in their lives cannot understand. While this implication is absent in the book, it’s an interpretation that consistently appears in the film, and consequently the three main female players Alice, Norah, and Mama Rico are presented as hopelessly undermined or overwhelmed by the Mafia Brotherhood and a morality they cannot understand.
The women in the film also occupy the role of trouble-makers by attempting to intervene in Mafia business. Kubik insinuates that it’s Johnny’s wife Norah who’s responsible for his disloyalty and disappearance, and when Eddie tries to talk to Johnny (James Darren) about his disaffection from the mob, Norah (Kathryn Grant) intervenes until Eddie put her in her place. Similarly, Eddie’s wife Alice is a woman who harps on, somewhat incongruously, about adopting a baby and impressing the nuns while she’s dressed in a form-clinging dress that appears to be glued onto her hour glass figure. Eddie is dealing with the disappearance of his two brothers, a professional hit, and rumours of a Grand Jury. He’s the only Rico anyone can find, and yet in addition to juggling these concerns, Eddie also must placate his wife’s expectations to show up at the orphanage to make a good impression on the nuns. The third major female role in the film is Mama Rico. In the novel, she’s a tough old broad who survives in her crime-riddled neighbourhood for years by knowing when to keep her mouth shut. In the film, Mama Rico overdoes the Italian role in between clinging to a statue of the Madonna.
Eddie, Gino and Johnny have all sworn allegiance to the mob and taken the Code of Silence: Omerta. They may be brothers and have a familial bond, but their bond to the Mafia supercedes all blood ties. In one scene, Kubik waxes on about the importance of the family, and yet which family does he really mean--the family with blood ties or the Mafia Brotherhood? Of course, paying lip service to notions of brotherly responsibility also conveniently shields Kubik’s true intentions. He demands that Eddie sacrifice his appointment at the orphanage to go on the hunt for Johnny, and when the chips are down, Eddie does what he is told.
From the moment the film begins, it’s clear that Eddie is trapped. The only choice he has is whether or not to agree with the demands Kubik places upon him or whether to support his brothers in their attempts to hide. Kubik argues that they all want the same thing. Eddie tries to take the middle road by pretending that Gino and Johnny’s fears are unsubstantiated, and that good old Uncle Kubik is willing to turn an indulgent eye to the brothers who are running away from the Mob. From the moment Eddie Rico’s phone rings, he’s caught in a cage that extends from Florida, to New York, and eventually California. Every step of the way he’s followed, and in essence a false world is created for him. He may think he’s a free man making free choices, but he’s not, and while he becomes increasingly suspicious of various people in his world, he cannot break free of the cage that’s been so carefully constructed around him.
The film tacks on a large amount of material that is entirely absent from the novel, and these creative additions effectively turn Eddie into a late blooming heroic figure. Eddie’s cinematic moral outrage and the accompanying dramatic touches don’t quite ring true as they spring from a character who is fully immersed in mob life and mob expectations. Ultimately, Eddie’s naïve protestations have a hollow ring, but the film’s difficulties are largely overcome by the casting of seasoned actor, Richard Conte as Eddie. Conte manages to pull off Eddie’s nebulous moral decisions smoothly, and in the process Eddie is convincingly portrayed as a pawn who acts only when he’s stripped of the naïve belief in his protected and privileged relationship with the mob.