It will indeed be unfortunate if Richard Conte is remembered only for his turn as Don Barzini, the tight-lipped, camera-shy guest at Connie Corleone’s wedding in “The Godfather.” There are much better performances to recommend him to us.
In 1955 alone he turned in a pair of memorable performances as Mr. Brown, the egotistical and sadistic boss of “The Big Combo” and as Nick Magellan, the stoical, imported-from-Chicago hit-man in “New York Confidential.” Both roles played to Conte’s unique skills. Conte had already proven that he could do “egotistical” to perfection as Martin Rome, the killer-on-the-run in “Cry of the City.” In that film he played against Victor Mature’s stolid policeman Lt. Candella, mocking him at every turn. In “The Big Combo,” it was Cornell Wilde’s Lt. Diamond out to nail the seemingly impervious Brown who declares that Diamond’s problem is that he really wants to be Brown with his set-up, his power and his gorgeous blonde mistress, but he’ll never get there because he lacks “personality.” Conte drawls out the word like a condemnation from on high.
His Nick Magellan, on the other hand, is a quiet man who knows his place in the underworld hierarchy. As a second-generation gangster, he takes his job as New York boss Charlie Lupo’s enforcer with the utmost seriousness. Always respectful toward his superiors, if a bit distant from his equals, his flaw is that he proves as willing to kill for Lupo as he is to kill Lupo when the Commission demands it. What Nick fails to realize is that his loyalty is a one-way street and that the same Commission that has ordered Lupo’s death has ordered Nick’s as well. He may have a plane ticket to Chicago, but he’ll never get to use it.
Two years later in 1957 Conte played his last great gangster, Eddie Rico, retired Mob accountant in “The Brothers Rico.” Like Magellan, Eddie has grown up in the Mob and really sees big boss Sid Kubik as “Uncle Sid,” a man who would never harm the Ricos. When called out of his Miami “retirement” to help locate his two younger brothers, who have botched a job and are now in hiding, he doesn’t for the moment doubt Sid’s claim that no harm will come to them. By the time he realizes that “Uncle Sid” is really “an animal,” his brothers are dead and he must live with the realization that he led the killers to them. Georges Simenon’s source novel ends on this chilly note, but the powers-that-be at Columbia Pictures felt that a more reassuring ending was in order, so Eddie becomes one-man-against-the-mob, eludes a nationwide mob manhunt, guns the treacherous Kubik down and will live to testify in court against his former “family.”
Each of the three roles–the preening Brown, the tight-lipped Magellan and the increasingly desperate Eddie Rico–allowed us to see different iterations of “the underworld man.” Brown is the heartless monster. Magellan is the soulless machine and Rico is the guy who once chose the easy way to The Good Life and only now learns its true price. As good as his gray eminence Barzini is, these three roles are the truly memorable contributions made by Richard Conte to the genre of the crime film.