The Godfather would put a face on the Mafia in 1972; The Brotherhood attempted to detail the same elements four years earlier. This Kirk Douglas-starrer is an interesting early experiment to uncover the secret underworld of the Costa Nostra, but its poorly executed plot soils a movie that has a strong leading performance.
Frank Ginetta (Douglas) and his brother Vince (Alex Cord) are the sons of a former Mafia don. As both brothers struggle to assert their dominance and independence within the syndicate, they are placed at opposite ends of the spectrum leading to trouble when Vince is tasked with assassinating his brother.
The Brotherhood starts out with promise, particularly from Kirk Douglas (who I despise as a person, but not as an actor). Douglas as Frank Ginetta is an ebullient fellow with a sense of honor and loyalty. He’s a producer on the film, and is the name actor – next to Irene Papas – of the bunch. He gives a solid and engaging performance that could have been fantastic in The Godfather or a similar Mafia film of equal mettle. Unfortunately, the script must have been shot-up in its own mafia war because it makes little sense. For a 96 minute movie the time sails by because the plot is a slide show of various Mafia conventions (which would be mimicked in The Godfather); you see a dead man with a canary in his mouth contrasted with a jubilant wedding, there’s a moment where the dons get together to have someone taken out. With the plot stopping and starting a sense of chronology is totally lost.
We meet Frank and Vince as they’re reunited in Italy. For some as yet unexplained reason Frank is hiding out and there’s a belief that Vince has come to kill him. The opening scenes on location are beautiful, filmed with a respect that emphasizes freedom constrained and defined by the ruins of history. The location enhances and solidifies what you need to know about the movie; however, outside of these opening moments we don’t see them enough. Returning to the sense of time, after this set-up we cut to Vince’s wedding, knowing prior to this that Vince has been married for a while and has children. It takes too long to understand we’ve traveled back in time and the plot from here on out will be leading up to the opening scenes. It’s confusing because the transitions are abrupt and there’s no mention (via text or characters) that time has jumped backward and forward. Considering how quickly events move, this is necessary in order to remove the feeling that the script is running away with the movie, leaving the audience to catch up. Once Vince’s wife is mentioned as “heavily pregnant” you just have to sit back and sort events out.
I’ve mentioned Douglas’ performance as being remarkable in comparison to the plot, but special mention should also go to Irene Papas as Frank’s wife, Ida. Papas will always be in my heart as Queen Katherine from Anne of the Thousand Days, but here she plays a woman fearing for her husband’s safety. The women get the shortest shrift in this movie, relegated to nagging their husbands, but Papas has a sympathetic side to her that you understand. I was also happy to see Amity Island‘s Murray Hamilton as one of the heads of the Mafia. It’s a similar jerk villain character, but Hamilton is always a delight on-screen. The weakest link is Alex Cord as Vince. It’s said that the failure of this movie almost forced Paramount to turn down The Godfather; I wonder if they blamed Cord’s terrible performance. It’s always difficult to see a younger actor struggle to assert himself against an icon, but that happens here. Cord falls far short of turning in anything as good as Douglas’ performance, and at times I thought Cord was reading cue cards. His flat delivery, steely gaze, and clipped enunciation don’t make you a Kirk Douglas, nor does it make you a better actor. Cord has a weighty role here that he’s flattened by.
For being a story about the Mafia, The Brotherhood takes a formal, paint-by-numbers approach. The Mafia here has all the makings of a corporation; the men in business suits could just as easily work in insurance or Wall Street. Events move with little depth to them and I wanted the script to be at the same caliber as Douglas’ performance. The ending is heartbreaking because of how determined Douglas is within the role; he gives a performance while others just walk around speaking. The Brotherhood is worth watching for Douglas and Douglas alone, but it’s also worth watching against The Godfather just to see what came before. Warner Archive’s release of The Brotherhood has a good transfer but no bonus content.
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