The Brotherhood (1968)
“Honor. Loyalty. Betrayal.”
Director: Martin Ritt
Cast: Kirk Douglas, Alex Cord, Irene Papas
Synopsis: The son of a powerful Mafia don comes home from his army service in Vietnam and wants to lead his own life, but family tradition, intrigues and powerplays involving his older brother dictate otherwise
Given its Mafia-based story of inter-family and organisation strife, comparisons with Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972) are inevitable, and it’s surprising how many similarities the two movies share. Like The Godfather, The Brotherhood has a returning hero from WWII becoming involved (albeit willingly in this case) in the family business of organised crime, and the conflict that arises between one side that believes in the old ways and another that believes change is necessary in order to survive. Where the movies are dissimilar, however, is that The Brotherhood lacks the epic scope and operatic grandeur of The Godfather, and its characters are never close to becoming as compelling as the Corleone family members and their associates and enemies.
Kirk Douglas, who also produced, plays Frank Ginetti, leader of one of the five Mafia families in post WWII New York, although when we first meet him he is in Sicily, where he receives a visit from his younger brother, Vince (Alex Cord). Upon arriving at the airport, Vince is driven to a remote hillside and when he leaves the taxi the driver pulls a gun on him. However, when Frank sees that it is his kid brother he emerges from behind some stone ruins to greet him. It’s clear that, despite his good-natured ebullience, Frank is in fear for his life.
An abrupt — and somewhat confusing — flashback takes us to the wedding of Vince to Emma (Susan Strasberg), the daughter of Mafia Don Dominick Bertolo (Luther Adler). As with The Godfather, the movie uses the social gathering to introduce us to the key characters of the tale, including the heads of the other three families, and the ageing former heads who still command respect, and to whom Frank shows an uncommonly devout allegiance. During the celebrations, Vince informs Frank that he wishes to put his college education towards working for the family business. Frank is overjoyed, but it’s not long before the older brother’s resistance to change as the organisation looks to move into more legitimate areas of business — which he believes will result in closer government scrutiny — proves to be a bone of contention between them.
Every now and then the five heads of the families meet to discuss business, and these meetings become increasingly strained as Frank resolutely refuses to yield on the question of legitimisation. Bertolo becomes so frustrated that he visits Vince and asks him to intercede on the other heads’ behalf, but Vince’s attempts to persuade his brother simply causes a rift between them. And his failure to convince Frank forces the other heads to consider more drastic action to clear the way for their plans…
Kirk Douglas has such a large character that he tends to dominate any movie in which he appears, and that’s certainly the case with The Brotherhood. With his hair dyed black, and sporting a generous moustache, Douglas embraces the character of Frank Ginetti with an infectious enthusiasm that is reflected in the character’s spirited nature. Sadly, Alex Cord is blown away by the strength of Douglas’s character, and delivers an insipid and wholly unmemorable performance as his younger brother torn by family loyalty and allegiance to the Mafia. The way that the mob’s demands slowly drives these two brothers apart would have been portrayed with much more force and resonance had Cord been Douglas’s equal — or even something approaching half his equal — on the screen. As with The Godfather, the film’s women are given nothing to do other than to decorate the background and look appropriately concerned about the troubles of their menfolk. Despite this, Irene Papas still manages to deliver a well-balanced performance as Frank’s strong, devoted wife.
The Brotherhood will forever remain in the shadow of The Godfather, which is the way it should be. The Godfather is undoubtedly the better movie, but The Brotherhood isn’t without merit; it has a couple of extremely powerful confrontational scenes, and can at least boast of being the first movie to explore the nuts and bolts of the unyielding Mafia machine.
(Reviewed 16th September 2013)