Saturday, September 15, 2007

Brotherly Love.

For some reason I've always been fascinated by stories of legacy and patrimony. Perhaps it's because I come from a relatively small family that has spread itself all over the country. There's something appealing about the idea of a father with multiple sons, and the potential of combined strength and loyalty when they all work toward the same goals. When I was a boy I used to think that one day my brother, my two cousins, and I would all go into business together. We'd each contribute according to our own particular strengths, and provide checks on each others' weaknesses. I figured there would be a special element of fidelity in our working relationship. We wouldn't have to spend a lot of time looking over our shoulders, anticipating a betrayal. Blood is thicker than water, and all that.

Perhaps that's why I've always been intrigued by tales of the mafia. It's supposed to be a large extended family, wherein each member has every one else's back. Certainly that's not the way it usually plays out. Some get eliminated and others develop shifting alliances within the family. The Godfather series is a perfect example of that. Maybe it's just not possible anymore in our complex age. Yet we still hold onto the idea of dynasties, and stare in wonder and fascination. Take a look at politics. There was a mystique about the Kennedys. A strong patriarch had dreams for his sons. Each in turn was cut down by tragedy, and the sole remaining hope has transformed into a caricature of the original legend. Who's to say that the prospect is not doomed to failure from the outset? Even when it occurs, the results are mixed. Just look at our president and his siblings.

So why does the filial bond become so fragile? Are brothers not often most competitive with each other? Classic literature gives us the iconic manifestation of the complex relationship between brothers. One need look no farther than Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov. Or if that is too foreign for your tastes, pick up just about any Faulkner novel. Ultimately it seems that great promise exists simply to illuminate the hard lessons of reality. How did it work for our great-grandparents generation? The hardscrabble families in the past produced multiple children with the expectation of losing a couple along the way. Is it merely a matter of numbers?

Last night I watched Joseph L Mankiewicz's House of Strangers (1949). Edward G. Robinson stars as a first generation Italian banker, lording over a brood of male heirs. Working his way up from a humble barbershop business, he manages to establish himself as a captain of finance. This should be the classic rags-to-riches story of success. But finding material wealth doesn't translate into domestic happiness. In his single-minded campaign to build a personal empire, Gino Monetti has managed to alienate his family. His eldest son resents the favoritism shown to a middle child. Meanwhile Gino considers another weak and the youngest stupid. To give him the benefit of the doubt, one might say that he is only trying to guide his sons in the best way he knows how. But when he runs afoul of the federal government, his progeny turn against him. That is, all but Max (played by Richard Conte). Max is a bit of a dirt-ball in his law practice, but he's got Gino's back. This sets up a situation whereby his father pits him against his brothers in a contest for control of the bank.

There's also a love interest weaving through the plot, but I didn't find that aspect of the film especially intriguing. One comes to expect that in any noir film- there is always a woman nearby gumming up the works. What makes The House of Strangers special is Mankiewicz's able efforts in making most of his characters sympathetic. Surely Gino Monetti wouldn't win any awards for his parenting. However it would take a very callous viewer not to understand his actions, or feel for his plight. When his kids exploit his misfortune for their own advantage, it's not difficult to figure out the reasons why they would do so. And as the confrontation between the siblings builds, the only thing we are uncertain about is the ultimate outcome. This is as it should be. There is a truth underlying The House of Strangers that we might not want to recognize, yet we ignore it at our own peril. Blood may be thicker than water... but it also makes a nastier mess when spilled.

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