Film Studies: Look to the power behind the throne...

David Thomson
Sunday 26 February 2006 01:00 GMT

In the three Godfather films, he hardly has a line that is more than a couple of words. But in The Godfather Part II, he is not just high in the credits, he is one of the most powerful and suggestive characters, sitting or standing in the shadows, close enough to Al Pacino's Michael to be there if anyone threatened anything, and alert enough to hear any fatal whisper, any death sentence from Michael.

In fact, at the climax of The Godfather Part II, Bright's Neri had nothing at all to say. He simply stands across the room, and observes Michael giving a savage, ambiguous kiss to his brother, Fredo. In the past, Fredo has betrayed Michael with Hyman Roth. Michael sees no alternative to vengeance, but he agrees to hold back while their mother is still alive.

Fredo hardly knows this, yet he spins out empty days at the Tahoe house, waiting on Michael's pleasure. The burning kiss should warn him, but the sentimental idiot thinks that it marks real forgiveness from his brother.

We may think, or hope, the same. But then Michael, still hugging Fredo, looks across the room and gives the merest nod to Neri. There is then a shot of Richard Bright's character accepting the moment and the order that is the very essence of The Godfather pictures. The thug is hurt, pained even, but there's no doubt that he will obey orders, and his impassive face is filled with respect for power. Hardly anyone remembers Bright's name, and the role is far too small for even a supporting actor award. Never mind, Richard Bright is a great actor and he takes his moment faultlessly.

Bright has at least two other resonant moments with the Corleones. There is that scene where Michael calls in Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) largely to humiliate the old consigliere, and to show him how much he knows about his drifting away from the cause. Bright says not a word, but he sits there, like a cat sipping its cream, relishing the transition of power. And then, of course, there is that final fishing trip on the wintry Lake Tahoe, with Fredo in front and Neri behind in the rowing boat. Next, we hear the bump of the shot.

Richard Bright had been around for decades, ever since his debut in Odds Against Tomorrow: he was in Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America; he is the brief owner of a lucky case of money in The Getaway; he was in The Panic in Needle Park; and he was one of the Kid's gang in Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. He was married to Rutanya Alda, who was one of the whores in Pat Garrett and who was a female equivalent of Bright. It's a wonder how they survived in those small parts in films that belonged to other people. In recent years, they both did television, and Bright did some theatre (often with Al Pacino, who seems to have had the wit to keep Bright around, as a lucky omen or a sure sense of scene-making). So long as scenes from The Godfather pictures are shown as a study in excellence, people will know the look of Bright even if they've forgotten the name and the rather implausible story of a wayward bus.

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