Updated: 7 days ago
In 1972, aged sixty-two, Richard Conte appeared in perhaps his most memorable role: Don Emilio Barzini in The Godfather. The veteran actor was perfectly cast as the evil-eyed, mysterious crime boss, functioning as a rival to the central Corleone family in Coppola’s famous epic. More than any other actor in The Godfather, Conte had made his name in the crime genre, becoming a recognizable symbol of the Hollywood gangster film throughout the post-war period. Shining in his performances as ruthless mobsters, wronged prisoners, vengeful family men, or even Hollywood producers, Conte became synonymous with Hollywood noir filmmaking.
The Godfather (1972) dir. Francis Ford Coppola
New Jersey-born Conte was twenty-nine when he made his film debut in Heaven with a Barbed Wire Fence (Cortez, 1939). Over the next half-decade, Conte gave solid performances in a number of war films and dramas. It was in 1945 that he finally found himself in the genre in which he would have the most of his success. Starring alongside Faye Marlowe, Conte played private detective Chris Conlon in Robert D. Webb’s noir The Spider.
It was in the late 1940s, however, that Richard Conte found his career taking off. The first of his successes came in the form of Henry Hathaway’s Call Northside 777 (1948). This performance gave him the license to walk the tightrope between good and evil in a way in which he would become adept.
Call Northside 777 (1948) dir. Henry Hathaway
His Frank Wiecek character is serving a life sentence, accused of murdering a police officer. He maintains his innocence and convinces P.J. McNeal (James Stewart) to use his position at the Chicago Times to get him released. Both Stewart’s character and the audience do not trust Wiecek initially. His aggressive demeanor makes him a target for prejudice. It is easy, in the first act, to dismiss him as another ‘innocent’ prisoner trying his luck. However, as the evidence builds up, and the witnesses become harder to trust, we eventually see Wiecek as a wildly desperate individual, determined to break free. He has spent eleven years imprisoned for a crime he did not commit, and its effect on him, and his family, is severe. The subtlety in Conte’s performance carries the viewer through a gradual reassessment of the character, from a murderer exploiting publicity to a wronged man looking for any way to clear his name.
Later in the same year, Richard Conte gave an equally complex performance in Robert Siodmak’s noir Cry of the City. This time, however, his Martin Rome character is a proven criminal. The film begins with him in a hospital room receiving treatment after a shootout, during which he killed a police officer. The film’s thematic center is the contrasting fortunes of Conte’s character, and detective Vittorio Candella (Victor Mature). The two had been childhood friends, and both came from an Italian-American area in New York City.
Cry of the City (1948) dir. Robert Siodmak
Despite various opportunities to escape from the life of crime, even legally, Rome refuses to cooperate with the authorities. His character seems to have an instinctive and unbreakable bond with the criminal underworld and a disdain for the law. The path of his life is mirrored by his younger brother Tony, whom Candella tries to mentor. However, Tony idolizes his older brother, and he, too, feels a naturally diametric opposition to the police. This performance gave Conte the chance to play an out-and-out villain for the first time. However, he is not just a one-dimensional evil mobster: his point-of-view as an inner-city youth is considered. He may not have made the correct decision by any moral measurement, but the film does give him the respect of assessing the practical and ideological reasons for which he made them.
1948 therefore represents the year in which Richard Conte really came into his own in the genre, portraying complex characters on both sides of the law. Throughout his career, Conte worked with a number of leading Hollywood noir directors, and in 1949 he added Joseph L. Mankiewicz (House of Strangers) and Jules Dassin (Thieves' Highway). These films share some similarities, as they both focus on family loyalties in a criminal context.
Thieves' Highway (1949) dir. Jules Dassin
In House of Strangers, Conte’s Max Monetti battles sibling rivalries and prison sentences, all the while staying loyal to his father, a corrupt banker played by Edward G. Robinson. In Thieves' Highway, Conte’s character (Nico Garcos) returns from serving in World War II to discover that his father has been left disabled due to an assault by Lee J. Cobb’s Mike Figlia. He seeks retribution for his father, becoming more and more involved in the criminal underworld in the process. These two films symbolize Conte’s ability to play roles that drew on his upbringing in an Italian-American family. Loyalty to one’s father is a key theme within these films, and Conte’s cultural understanding and experiences from his working-class, urban upbringing bring a real sense of truth to these depictions. His real father, Pasquale Conte, was a barber based in Jersey City.
By the fifties, Conte had established himself as a key figure within the noir genre. He had adapted to a number of roles, both as an insider and outsider of the criminal world in which the films were set. In 1951, Richard Conte played producer Larry O’Brien in William Castle’s Hollywood Story.
Made on a tight budget and released to a lukewarm critical reception, it is easy to dismiss the film as just a B-Movie noir. However, Conte makes the film worthy of reassessment, lifting a lackluster script into a believable performance. The film follows O’Brien as he buys an old silent movie studio in Hollywood. He hears a story about an old director who was killed twenty years earlier in his office. The producer finds inspiration in this tale and becomes obsessed with the idea of turning it into his first big motion picture. This trans-textual concept is underserved in the film, but Conte’s performance lives up to the premise. As his character finds himself in danger, he seeks even more desperately to find out the truth about the murder. As he researches the film, he realizes that there are sinister forces at play who are attempting to suppress information about the crime.
Hollywood Story (1951) dir. William Castle
Hollywood Story represents one of the first films that used Hollywood specifically as the arena for a noir. Los Angeles had been covered extensively on-screen, but the use of Hollywood in particular was a much more original concept. The film portrays Conte’s character as a wide-eyed creative looking for truth in the form of artistic expression. However, when the present begins to mirror the mysterious past, he is endangered by the forces of commercialism. This theme would continue to be popular within the noir and neo-noir genres. Similarities can be drawn between Conte’s character, and Tim Robbins’ character in The Player (1992), at least thematically. In fact, one set within The Player features a poster of Hollywood Story, suggesting the film had a conscious influence on Altman.
It was four years later, however, that Conte gave arguably his most pivotal performance. In a return to the role of a villainous mobster, he played a character simply known as ‘Mr. Brown’, in Joseph H. Lewis’ masterpiece The Big Combo. While earlier Conte gangsters had been sympathetic anti-heroes, Mr. Brown presents the actor at his most evil. The plot of Lewis’ noir follows Cornel Wilde, as Police Lt. Leonard Diamond, a man obsessed with the girlfriend (Susan Lowell, played by Jean Wallace) of Conte’s character. He begins a professional, and personal, campaign to bring him to justice.
The Big Combo (1955) dir. Joseph H. Lewis
While his previous performances had inspired empathy, The Big Combo showcases Conte’s ability to embody a purely villainous archetype. He is horrifying as the mob boss whose ruthlessness has left him untouchable. As the barriers of loyalty and security that surround his character break down, he becomes more vulnerable. As the law closes in on him, Mr. Brown comes out swinging in a violent shootout. For me, this film symbolises the height of Richard Conte’s noir career.
As the noir’s power within mainstream cinema began to diminish in the late fifties and early sixties, Conte was able to adapt to other genres and mediums. This mainly consisted of TV work, and supporting roles in films, such as Ocean’s Eleven (Milestone, 1960).
It did not take long for a filmmaker to notice his potential as a veteran actor in the crime genre. In one of the many examples of inspired casting in The Godfather, Francis Ford Coppola chose Conte to fill the role of Emilio, head of the Barzini crime family. The presence of Conte’s character can be felt from the very beginning of the film. He arrives at Connie Corleone’s wedding with an entourage; the audience is left with no doubt that he is an important man. His position as a secretive member is highlighted when the wedding photographer takes a picture of him. Barzini demands that the picture be destroyed, he is not a character who enjoys the limelight.
The Godfather (1972) dir. Francis Ford Coppola
As the plot against the Corleone family is uncovered, it becomes clear that initial enemies like Sollozzo, or Phillip Tattaglia, were just pawns in a game played by a much more powerful family. We eventually learn who this quiet, yet destructive crime force is- Barzini. His role in The Godfather is that of a sinister puppet master, using others to get at the Corleone family without lifting a finger himself. He has great power and influence, working as a perfect antagonist to the antiheroes of Coppola’s film.
The Godfather undoubtedly represents the commercial high point of Conte’s career. His excellent portrayal of an omnipotent mafia boss gave him a chance to carve out a new position within the evolving crime film genre. The Godfather’s success led to a resurgence in Italian mafia crime thrillers. A film centered around the traditions of the Sicilian crime family had proven to be an international success, and the Italian film industry was ready to take the opportunity this had given them.
Following his performance as Barzini, Richard Conte spent the last few years of his career starring in these Italian mafia films. The first of these, Il Boss (Di Leo, 1973), could almost be a remake of the Barzini story. Starring alongside Henry Silva, Conte plays Don Corrasco, a ruthless crime family leader whose only loyalty is to himself. Much like Barzini, Corrasco is always a few steps away from any dirty work, preferring to hide in the shadows and get others to carry out his demands. With police officers on his side, he feels untouchable in modern-day Sicily.
Il Boss (1973) dir. Fernando Di Leo
Most of the Dons have been forced to move North, one character explains, and this has led to chaos within the Sicilian crime world. Corrasco plans to take advantage of this, and use his connections in Palermo and New York to assert his dominance over his territory. The film deals with changing moral and social values within Sicily. Concepts such as student demonstration, social revolutions, and state corruption are discussed.
While The Godfather serves as an assessment of the way changing times affected organized crime families, Il Boss works as a demonstration of the contemporary issues they faced in the seventies. In the end, it is Corrasco’s failure to sideline personal vendettas for the good of his partners that leaves him isolated. At the start of the film, characters describe him as a Godlike power, to whom they must always remain loyal. However, he does not have the foresight to remain loyal to others, and ultimately leaves himself exposed, much like Barzini in The Godfather.
This performance by Conte was followed by a number of other roles in Italian Mafia thrillers. In fact, Il Boss was one of seven Italian films to feature Conte in 1973 alone. A year later, he would star in another film directed by Fernando Di Leo, a police corruption thriller titled Shoot First, Die Later. In 1975, Conte would go on to appear in another four Italian films, which would be the final films of his acting career.
The Big Combo (1955) dir. Joseph H. Lewis
Richard Conte left a remarkable legacy for an actor who made his film debut in his late twenties. The noir was perfect for his style, allowing him to demonstrate his range as a villain, a hero, or something in between. His performances in classics like Call Northside 777, Thieves' Highway, and The Big Combo have led to him being described as the "King of Noir." Having spent hours watching Richard Conte’s astonishing screen prescience, I find that title impossible to disagree with.