Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Born on this Day: Richard Conte (1910 - 1975)

Richard Conte 
(March 24, 1910 - April 15, 1975)

I love Richard Conte. While, admittedly, he's not an actor I actively seek out, whenever I see his name in the opening credits I immediately get excited. True, he was never nominated for an Academy Award- but you could always count on him for a solid performance, regardless of the screenplay's overall quality. He was a workhouse- a reliable, dependable performer, with talent to boot!

Largely known for his work in film noirs, Conte was incredibly versatile and, unlike a lot of film noir regulars at the time, was never shoe-horned into a singular "type". He was capable of playing both the good guy (as seen in Thieves' Highway (1948) and Call Northside 777 (1948)) and the bad guy (as seen in The Big Combo (1955) and Somewhere in the Night (1946)). His handsome features and considerable acting range made him invaluable to 20th Century Fox, his home studio.

From 1945 to 1955, Conte made 17 film noirs and cemented his legacy as one of the genre's most prominent (and versatile) actors. From corrupt private investigator to cold-blooded killer to a wrongfully convicted death row inmate to petty crook and cop killer to a truck driver seeking revenge for his father's paraplegia to unscrupulous mobster etc. etc. etc. Richard Conte covered every square inch of the genre and remained entirely believable in every one of his performances. Because of his kind, soulful eyes and disarming smile (which seemed to be permanently plastered on his face), Conte was able to manipulate his audience with the greatest of ease, an ability he made especially good use of when portraying villainous characters.

Richard Conte with Hope Emerson in Robert Siodmak's Cry of the City (1948).

Richard Conte was born Nicholas Peter Conte in Jersey City, New Jersey on March 24th, 1910. The son of Italian-American immigrants, his mother (Julia) was a seamstress and his father (Pasquale) a barber. Not much has been written about Conte's early life, except that he was a consistently hard worker and spent his early 20's drifting from one job to another. In 1935, while performing as a singing waiter at a prominent resort in Connecticut, he captured the attention of Elia Kazan (who was 10 years shy of directing his first feature film, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn). With the aid of Kazan and actor John Garfield, Conte promptly moved to New York and recieved a scholarship to study at the illustrious Neighborhood Playhouse (whose notable alumni include Gregory Peck, Tony Randall, Eli Wallach, Farley Granger, Grace Kelly, Christopher Lloyd and Jeff Goldblum).

In 1939, Conte made his Broadway debut in Moon over Mulberry Street, a financial and critical failure (though critics did praise his individual performance). After Mulberry's prompt closing, Conte was highlighted in several other plays and, towards the end of the year, was hired by 20th Century Fox to co-star in their upcoming production Heaven with a Barbed Wire Fence (where he was billed as "Nicholas Conte"). While mostly forgotten today, Heaven with a Barbed Wire Fence was directed by actor Ricardo Cortez and also marked the feature film debut of Glenn Ford. While Ford was immediately scooped up by Columbia Pictures and signed to a long-term contract, Conte returned to Broadway, where he remained until 1942.

"Nicholas" Conte with Jean Rogers and Glenn Ford in Heaven with a Barbed Wire Fence (1939).

Upon his return to Broadway, the critical successes mounted and, once again, Hollywood came knocking. In 1942, Conte signed a long-term contract of his own with 20th Century Fox. His name was changed from Nicholas to Richard Conte and, over the next three years, 20th Century Fox molded him into a bonafide movie star, promoting him as "the next John Garfield" (an ironic title since it was Garfield who helped jumpstart Conte's career back in 1935).

He started out playing soldiers in WWII films (such as Guadalcanal Diary (1943), The Purple Heart (1944) and Captain Eddie (1945)) before transitioning to film noirs, starting with The Spider in 1945. Despite being a critical and commercial failure, The Spider saw Richard Conte receive top billing for the very first time and it defined his on-screen persona going forward. From that point on (until his contract with 20th Century Fox expired in the late 1940's), Conte was almost exclusively showcased in film noirs, the most notable of which being Call Northside 777 (1948), Thieves' Highway (1949) and Whirlpool (1949).

Richard Conte and Jack Oakie in Thieves' Highway (1949).

Richard Conte's performance in the Jules Dassin film Thieves' Highway (1949) is the defining performance of his career. While it is not the best film he ever made (it comes very close though), it is unquestionably his best performance. As the war-veteran turned truck driver Nick Garcos, Conte draws on his own experiences as a truck driver in the 1930's (one of the many jobs he trialed during his youth) to create a ruggedly sensitive, sympathetic and relatable character. Despite being surrounded by a stellar (and potentially scene-stealing) supporting cast in Lee J. Cobb, Jack Oakie and Valentina Cortese, it is Richard Conte who shines brightest. Lead by the superb direction of auteur Jules Dassin, Conte captures the audiences' attention and doesn't let go. You never once question that Richard Conte isn't Nick Garcos, such is the way he encapsulates the character. The relatively slow-paced screenplay calls for a powerful performance- without one, the audience may very well lapse into boredom. Luckily for Dassin, Conte was more than up for the challenge, executing his performance with supreme confidence and finesse.

Off-screen, in the late 1940's, Conte (despite being a staunch Republican) was a member of the Committee for the First Amendment; a group of actors, directors and screenwriters who passionately opposed the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and their inquiries into "The Hollywood Ten" (a group of screenwriters and directors who were blacklisted for refusing to answer questions in regards to their Communist affiliation). The HUAC were in charge of identifying Communist activity throughout the United States and, in 1947, began blacklisting certain Hollywood artists who they felt were spreading communist propaganda. In total, around 300 actors, screenwriters and directors found themselves boycotted by studios, while others (including Charlie Chaplin) fled overseas to escape the HUAC's reign over Hollywood. Perhaps the most famous case of blacklisting in Hollywood during that time was the actor John Garfield, who had been a friend of Richard Conte's. Garfield was brought to testify before the House of Un-American Activities Committee in 1951 and, despite denying any Communist affiliation, was blacklisted for refusing to "name names". Many who knew Garfield suggested that his fatal heart attack in 1952 (at the mere age of 39) was due to the extreme stress he suffered in the wake of his blacklisting (and subsequent unemployable status in Hollywood).

Four rows back, you can see Richard Conte marching with the members of the Committee for the First Amendment in Washington D.C. (October 1947). 

After leaving 20th Century Fox in the late 1940's, Richard Conte's career began to falter. While his overall output was relatively unchanged, the quality of his pictures declined substantially. Without the careful guidance and protection of a major movie studio, Conte was mostly relegated to B-pictures. From 1950 to 1954, Conte made a slew of forgettable films. The only notable contributions to his filmography during this time were The Sleeping City (1950)- his first film after leaving 20th Century Fox- and Fritz Lang's The Blue Gardenia (1953). It wasn't until 1955 that his career saw a (temporary) revival.

Richard Conte with Jean Wallace in The Big Combo (1955).

In 1955, Joseph Lewis cast Richard Conte as Mr. Brown in the exceptional film noir The Big Combo (one of the last notable additions to the genre before the transition to "neo-noir" in the 1970's). His performance in this film is a premiere showcase for his versatility and considerable talent (which remained unchanged in spite of his career setbacks). Later in the year, Conte starred opposite Susan Hayward in the Lillian Roth melodramatic biopic I'll Cry Tomorrow. In total, Conte released 7 films during the course of 1955 (the most released in a single year during his career). Despite this upturn in output and quality of roles, his career took a nose-dive in the years that followed due to the public's waning interest in film noirs. Subsequently, Conte transitioned into television, accepting the occasional film role when (and if) it came his way.

(far left) Richard Conte with The Rat Pack in Ocean's Eleven (1960). Conte made 19 films from 1956 to 1970, the most notable of which were Ocean's Eleven and The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965). Conte also directed and starred in the 1968 film Operation Cross Eagles.

While it's true that his career never reached the heights it did during the 1940's and 50's, Richard Conte's most famous role actually came in the last years of his life. In 1972, Francis Ford Coppola cast Conte as Emilio Barzini, a rival to Marlon Brando's immortal Don Vito Corleone, in The Godfather. The Italian-American Conte had campaigned for the role of Corleone but was passed over in favor of Brando. His performance in The Godfather is strong- however, he is largely overshadowed by both Marlon Brando (in what is the greatest performance of his extraordinary career) and a young Al Pacino (in only his third film role).

Richard Conte on the set of The Godfather (1972).

In contrast to the "rough and ready" characters he so often portrayed on the big screen, in real-life Conte was a gentle, quiet man who immersed himself in several artistic pursuits. To give you some idea of his creative exploits, the epitaph on his tombstone lists his accomplishments as follows; "Writer. Actor. Painter. Poet. Composer".

"A man of many talents and graces, loved by a thousand unknown faces. But he loved best and is loved most by his lover- friend- mother- child- wife" by Shirlee Colleen, Richard's wife from 1973 to 1975.

Richard Conte died of a fatal heart attack on April 15th, 1975. He was 65 years old. In his over 30 year career, Conte made 108 films and left an indelible mark on the film industry, particularly through his contribution to the film noir genre.

Resources: Encyclopedia of Film Noir by Geoff Mayer, Brian McDonnell (2007), I Saw Stars in the 40's and 50's by Eddie Garrett (2005).


  1. Really great and interesting article! I like Conte but didn't know anything about him; his life is fascinating though and he seems a great guy. Reminds me I have to watch Thieves' Highway, I've wanted to for ages but never got round to it

    1. You definitely should, it's such a wonderful film and his performance is superb. It's really a film of two halves. The first half is quite slow as you get to know the characters and the unfolding situation- to be honest, I wasn't sure I was going to like it after the first 30 minutes- but then, by the end, you are riveted to your core (or at least I was).

      Richard Conte really was an intriguing man and I wish more was written about him! I'd love to know why he was singing waiter lol. He never sang in the movies- did he have a great set of pipes? Or was it just another job? I read somewhere that it was his commitment to his performance that struck Kazan's fancy (which intimates it wasn't his vocal abilities lol).

      Thanks so much for reading xx