Once upon a time, Paramount Pictures released a movie about an Italian-American organized crime family.
It was a self-styled epic that used the Mafia as a metaphor for both business and politics. The movie mixed scenes of violent death with family and community ceremonies. The main mafioso was played by a famous actor who was a big box office draw in the 1950s and another character, a war hero who was initially reluctant to get involved in the family business, was played by an up-and-coming young actor. The majority of the movie took place in New York but there were several scenes that were set in Sicily.
It may sound like The Godfather but actually, it was The Brotherhood, a film that flopped so badly that Paramount executives nearly passed on the chance to make a movie out of Mario Puzo’s bestselling novel. According to Peter Biskind’s The Godfather Companion, Francis Ford Coppola frequently cited The Brotherhood as being exactly the type of movie that he did not want to make while he was directing The Godfather.
Kirk Douglas, who both produced and starred, plays Frank Ginetta. Frank, an old-fashioned and honorable mobster, is hiding out in Sicily with his wife, Ida (Irene Pappas). Frank knows that a rival gangster, Jim Egan (Murray Hamilton), has put a price on his head. When Frank’s brother, Vinnie (Alex Cord), shows up in Palermo, Frank is overjoyed at first. But Ida reminds him, “They’re going to send someone.”
Most of the film is taken up with flashback to Frank and Vinnie’s old life in New York. When Vinnie returns from serving in the army, he marries Emma Bertolo (Susan Strasberg), the daughter of Don Bertolo (Luther Adler who, as a stage actor and director, served as an early mentor to the future Don Corleone, Marlon Brando). Frank grew up idolizing their Sicilian father and, at first, he is happy when Vinnie announces that he wants to enter the “family business.” But then Vinnie starts to side with non-Sicilian gangsters like Egan and Sol Levin (Alan Hewitt).
The scenes in Sicily work the best, with Frank unsure as to whether or not Vinnie has arrived to visit or to murder him. But the scenes in New York are such a mess that it took me a while to realize that they were even supposed to be flashbacks. It is hard to keep track of how much time has passed from scene to scene and Alex Cord and Kirk Douglas are two of the most unlikely brothers imaginable.
The main problem with The Brotherhood is that it is impossible to watch it without thinking about The Godfather. The Brotherhood has much in common with The Godfather but it has none of its authenticity and does not come close to matching its epic scale. Kirk Douglas tries his best and puts a lot of effort into talking with his hands but he is miscast from the moment he first appears. Robert Evans once said that he chose Coppola to direct The Godfather because he wanted to “smell the pasta.” The Brotherhood was directed by Martin Ritt and you never smell the pasta.
The Brotherhood is an interesting footnote in the history of The Godfather but ultimately, it’s an offer you can refuse.