Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Richard Conte, King of Noir

Richard Conte
1910 - 1975


Nobility was born in Jersey City, New Jersey in 1910 when Richard Nicholas Peter Conte was born.  The one time truck driver and singing waiter studied at the famed Neighborhood Playhouse.  In 1939 Nicholas Conte made his Broadway debut in the short run Group Theater production My Heart's in the Highlands and made his film debut at Twentieth Century Fox in Heaven with a Barbed Wire Fence, by Dalton Trumbo, directed by Ricardo Cortez.  For the next few years the handsome and confident actor appeared in a number of popular war movies including Lewis Milestone's The Purple Heart and A Walk in the Sun, and Henry King's A Bell for Adano.  Richard Conte was trained in the Group Theater of the 1930s, a member of the Committee for the First Amendment in the 1950s and an honorary Rat Packer in the 1960s.  He was not defined by his group affiliations, but stood out as an individual.

It is the confidence with which Richard Conte imbued his roles in post-war crime dramas - many post-war crime dramas - that makes him the King of Noir.  It is not merely the number of titles that fall under the lauded style, but the quality and variety of the performances that gives Richard Conte the right to the crown.

 Richard Conte, Victor Mature

Cry of the City (1948)

Noir master Robert Siodmak directed Cry of the City.  Martin Rome (Conte) is a cop killer, a bad man.  He's also daring, charismatic and has a soft spot for his girl (Debra Paget).  Marty's mama loves him and his kid brother worships him.  The audience wants to like him, wants him to succeed and show us he's really a good guy at heart.  Lt. Candella (Victor Mature) knows Rome the way we, the audience, do not.  Candella grew up in the same circumstances, but chose the right side of the law.  Cry of the City is a movie full of sharp, sudden curves.  You start to think it will go one way and it takes you in unexpected directions to unexpected places.  Many people are against Martin Rome, but just as many want to help him and, as Lt. Candella says, "You forgot about them, did you?  No.  You didn't think about them at all."    
  

Richard Conte, Paul Valentine, Efrem Zimbalist Jr., Luther Adler

 House of Strangers (1949)

Joseph Mankieicz's directed the engrossing House of Strangers.  The strangers are the Monetti family ruled over by Papa Gino (Edward G. Robinson) who pits his four sons against each other as he holds onto the power of his banking business.  Only Max (Richard Conte) seems above it all.  He is independent with a wry sense of humour.  He stands back from the family while still loving them deeply.  Max builds a life away from the stifling influence of his father, yet when trouble comes it is Max's strong sense of loyalty that leads him to sacrifice his freedom for his father's sake and that sense of loyalty turns into an equally mighty need for vengeance.  Can Max remain true to himself in this House of Strangers?  


Richard Conte, Anne Baxter, Anne Sothern, Georges Reeves
 
The Blue Gardenia (1953)

Fritz Lang directed the murder mystery The Blue Gardenia.  It may not be the most difficult movie murder you've ever solved, but it has atmosphere, character to spare and a title song sung by Nat "King" Cole.  Three roommates (Ann Sothern, Jeff Donnell and Anne Baxter) band together when Baxter is accused of murdering a wolf in artist's clothing (Raymond Burr).  Reporter Casey Mayo (Richard Conte) is on the lookout for a good story and is also taken with the bright-eyed suspect.  Hey!  Richard Conte makes an excellent good guy.  Who knew?  He's tough enough and smart enough to play both the cops and the crooks, and charming enough to win the heart of any bright-eyed suspect.  Sigh.


Richard Conte, Cornel Wilde, Jay Adler

 The Big Combo (1955)

Joseph H. Lewis directed this film-noir classic concerning the obsessive Lt. Diamond (Cornel Wilde) and his pursuit of mob kingpin Mr. Brown (Richard Conte).   It is like a kick in the gut watching the sadistic Mr. Brown and the driven Lt. Diamond battling each other over the battered bodies and souls of all around them.  Conte's Mr. Brown is one of the great screen villains in his arrogance, disregard for others and joy he takes in violence.  Brown's philosophy is wrapped up in this exchange with the lieutenant:

"Diamond, the only trouble with you is, you'd like to be me. You'd like to have my organization, my influence, my fix. You can't. It's impossible. You think it's money, it's not. It's personality. You haven't got it, Lieutenant, you're a cop. Slow, steady, intelligent, with a bad temper, and a gun under your arm. And with a big yen for a girl you can't have. First is first, and second is nobody." 


 Mike Mazurki (at board), Richard Conte

New York Confidential (1955)

Russell Rouse wrote (with Clarence Greene) and directed New York Confidential which exposes the business of organized crime.  Richard Conte is Nick Magellan, a loyal company man who is the best at his job.  His job is hit man and his company is the syndicate.  Magellan's confidence comes from being good at his job.  This character shows none of the arrogance and sadism of Mr. Brown in The Big Combo made the same year.  Nick has a similar philosophy in that he has seen the world for what it is and a man should take what he can.  Nick is also single-minded when it comes to loyalty to the firm.  It is the number one guiding principle of his life.  However, Nick's views are shaken when he meets his boss' (Broderick Crawford) fiery daughter Kathy Lupo (Ann Bancroft).  Kathy wants nothing more than to escape from her mobster father and live a simple life on her own.  Her very desperation and yearning touch Nick.  He doesn't understand it, but he feels it and in the only disloyal to the firm act of his life actually tries to help Cathy. 


Paul Picerni, Richard Conte

The Brothers Rico (1957)

Another noir master, Phil Karlson, directed The Brothers Rico based on a Georges Simenon story.  Conte is Eddie Rico, former mob accountant who is brought back into the life when his brothers (Paul Picerni, James Darren) run afoul of the gang.  Conte wants to be a regular guy, but he can bring out the cunning tough guy to protect his family in what is a desperate struggle.  Some people are just too stubborn to give up no matter what the odds.


Other film-noir titles featuring equally impressive performances from Richard Conte include Somewhere in the Night, Call Northside 777, Thieves Highway, Whirlpool, The Sleeping City, Under the Gun, Hollywood Story, The Raging Tide, Highway Dragnet and The Big Tip Off.  Initially considered for the role of Don Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather, Conte instead played Don Barzini after Marlon Brando was given the title role.

Many actors and their fans can make a claim to royal titles in the land of film-noir.  Among the Dukes, Counts and Earls are the cynical Humphrey Bogart, the cool Robert Mitchum, the edgy Robert Ryan.  And let's not forget Viscount Dan Duryea.  However, there can only be one King, and the King of Noir is Richard Conte.


24 comments:

  1. Nice review of Conte noirs, CW. I'll always first think of him as mobster Brazini from The Godfather, but he sure had a nice noir resume.

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  2. Richard Conte really was terrific. I hadn't really thought of it until I read your post. Thanks!

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  3. Readerman, a lot of actors have that one role that is the first that comes to mind when their name comes up. I guess for the classic movie fan we'd call it the "role association game". For me the Conte role is Max in "House of Strangers".

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  4. Silverscreenings, maybe I've started the next trend in your life. Everywhere you look there will be nothing but Richard Conte movies all summer long! It's a good thing.

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  5. As I was reading through your selections I was writing down the ones that I wanted to look for, and by the time I got to the end, I had a nice long list of movies that I can look for at the library. Thanks for giving me so many to choose from.

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  6. What fun you'll have! I hope the library is a big help.

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  7. Someday I'll get to "House of Strangers". I especially like his work in that movie. In the best of circumstances it's hard to outshine Edward G. Robinson, but Conte is very interesting.

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  8. Ooh, I can hardly wait for that day when you get to "House of Strangers". There are scenes in that movie that get under my skin.

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  9. I love Richard Conte and love your post! I've been fortunate to see most of the films you mentioned -- I think my favorite is also HOUSE OF STRANGERS but he's also especially compelling, as you describe, in THE BIG COMBO. It was a great thrill to see that one on a big screen earlier this year. I'm especially looking forward to THE BROTHERS RICO which I haven't seen. Sounds very interesting!

    Thanks for this terrific tribute to Mr. Conte, who I think is sometimes a bit overlooked compared to other noir stars like Mitchum and Ryan.

    Best wishes,
    Laura

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  10. Truly interesting look at Conte's film noirs! My favorite of his films is CALL NORTHSIDE 777 (though I don't feel it's a film noir). I also remember an intriguing short film called EYE OF THE BEHOLDER which I saw in school a few times. I later learned it originated on a 1950s anthology TV series.

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  11. Laura, I think it would be amazing to see "The Big Combo" on the big screen. Love that John Alton. I saw "Thieves' Highway" at a theatre a couple of years ago. There really is a difference from your cozy TV screen to a theatre.

    I identify Richard Conte with noir more than perhaps the other famous names. All he needs is his face on a coffee mug - and we have the start of a cult!

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  12. Rick, interesting that you should say you don't feel "Call Northside 777" is a film noir. It wasn't until I started conversations online with other movie fans that I realized that my sense of what is noir is often times at odds with what others accept as vital to the canon. Perhaps it is because I consider film-noir a style, not a genre. In any case, I expect the rest of the world to come around to my way of thinking sooner or later. My husband is of the opinion I will have a long wait.

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  13. Richard Conte. Jeez. I haven't seen him in years. I do remember some of the films you mention, C.W. But they all exist in a kind of memory blur.

    I'm willing though to go along with your coronation of Conte. But I must say I always liked him best when he played a good guy. :)

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  14. Yvette, he could be such a charmer. I love Richard Conte in "Full of Life" with Judy Holliday. Such a sweet movie. Unlike his confident noir characters, the father-to-be was at the mercy of his wife and of his Papa.

    And, yes, it's best just to go along with me on these things. I can get pretty cranky after a steady diet of crime flicks. I think I better go watch some comedies!

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  15. CW,
    I've been wanting to get over here since you tweeted about your Conte post. (Always late to the party!)

    I love the films you've featured here and boy does Conte have an interesting resume. My favorite of his films would have to be Call Northside 777 though. (He and Stewart complicated one another well)

    Such a great tribute to Richard and it's given me a couple more of his films I need to add to my list. (I'm so behind the rest of you with film noir but I'm really trying to watch as many of the genre as I can) So these reviews are always a treat.
    Have a great weekend CW!
    Page

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  16. Page, you're never late - you just make a grand entrance.

    "Call Northside 777" is one of the movies that gets better with time. A real winner.

    I hope you manage to squeeze in a couple of those new-to-you titles soon and release your inner film-noir expert.

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  17. Now here's an honor bestowed whose time has come! Leave it to you to turn the spotlight in the right direction. Funny how that Conte guy is always popping up in films I love....

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  18. FlickChick, ain't it the truth? There's a movie you love and there's Richard Conte. It's the way of the universe.

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  19. Caftan Woman, Richard Conte has long been a favorite here at Team Bartilucci, from SOMEWHERE IN THE NIGHT to THE BLUE GARDENIA to the original OCEAN'S 11 to THE GODFATHER and more; Conte almost felt like a member of the family! (Heck, considering all the bookies and wise-guy types my dear late dad used to hang out with when I was a little tyke, for all I know Dad might've hung out with Richard Conte! :-)) I truly enjoyed your fond and fascinating salute to this fine actor and New Jersey native -- great post, CW!

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  20. I imagine your Dad in sharp suits and looking like he's always in the know. Cool! Just like Richard Conte.

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  21. Caftan Woman, you only THINK you're kidding about my late dad's Richard Conte-like qualities! Both my parents were as loving as they were larger-than-life, bless them! :-)

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  22. Loving and larger-than-life are qualities well represented in this generation, my friend.

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  23. I came here looking for William Wyler and found Richard Conte! (LOL) Conte was such a cool character and, if I may, one film that should be added here is Jules Dassin's excellent THIEVE'S HIGHWAY. I've seen all the film's mentioned except for NEW YORK CONFIDENTIAL which I will have to try and find. Great selection and a great job. Will check back later for Willie.

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  24. Willie will be here in a couple of hours. (Still cropping screen caps.)

    I had the great pleasure of seeing "Thieves' Highway" on the big screen a few years ago. It was a double bill of Dassin with "Night and the City". Boy, that was a fun day!

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