Thursday, January 14, 2010
Released in 1930, Little Ceasar was adapted from a novel of the same name by William R.Burnett. This enabled Warner Brothers to use Burnett's thinly disguised version of Al Capone (Al Capone was alive at the time, so some disguise was required.) Edgar G. Robinson's Rico, a ruthless gangster who wants big things and won't take no for an answer. As the title suggests, he's all ambition, wanting complete control of the city's crime organization. Robinson's Rico is from the first minute, intense, brutal and insatiable.
All of the conventions so prevalent in future gangster films were firmly established here; the snappy patter, the secret slang, (molls, cannons,) the catchy nicknames for each member of the crew, (Big Boy, Pete Montana, Little Ceasar) even the "heist gone wrong." Squealing tires and storms of gunshots were played to full effect here, to make full use of the very new addition of sound to the movies. "Talkies" were still a new phenomenon at the time. And then there's Edgar G.Robinson. His portrayal is so strong that even if you haven't seen the film, you've seen a parody, imitation or tribute to it in the years since then.
Of course to really appreciate its effect, you have to consider the times that produced Rico Bandello. Still feeling the effects of the depression and the prohibition, real gangsters like John Dillinger and Al Capone captivated the American public by taking the American Dream by force. Despite their brutality and disregard for the law, these characters were sympathetic "Robin Hood" type figures to the disaffected public, giving them a chance to cheer for these self-styled entreprenuers who wouldn't accept the fact that success was out of reach, even if they had to change the avenue to reach it.
Of course, in the 30's gangster's couldn't win in the movies and "Crime doesn't pay." had to be observed. It's pretty clear what's coming from the opening biblical quote "He who lives by the sword will die by the sword." It's interesting the effects that censorship has on the film. We see a heist being planned, but little of the actual heist, for fear of teaching people how to commit crimes. We see people falling from gunfire but we don't see Rico shooting at the same time, as that would have been too shocking. This gives the gangsters a more businesslike appearance, which is a parellel that I'm sure didn't escape the viewing public. LeRoy takes full advantage of Robinson's fierceness to make the criminal element clear.
Rico starts out as nearly a force of nature. He walks right up to what he wants and takes it. It's not enough for Rico to take over his bosses' slot. He has to gloat every time, with his sneering "You can dish it out, but you can't take it. You're through!" It's never enough for Rico, for each boss he knocks out of place, he sets his sights on the next one.
Douglas Fairbanks is Rico's friend Joe, who starts out with Rico, but really wants to be a dancer. Joe ends up falling in love with Olga Stasoff (Glenda Farrell), a fellow dancer, and gradually trying to get out of the criminal life. Of course this also leads to another future staple in the gangster film "You can't quit the family." Rico feels personally betrayed by Joe's diminishing involvement, threatening to kill Olga and even deciding to kill Joe. This leads to the big turn for Rico. While appearing as an unstoppable engine of ambition (he doesn't drink, he isn't into women, he's fearless) up until this point, he can't bring himself to kill Joe. LeRoy uses a long close up on Robinson's face approaching Joe with a gun and realizing he can't do it. You can see the vulnerability creep into his Rico's eyes, and once his big flaw is exposed, it has to be downhill for Rico.
Aside from his enemy gangsters, Rico's nemesis is Sgt. Flaherty (Thomas E. Jackson) who shows up in each stage of Rico's development to remind Rico that he's watching and waiting for him to fall. LeRoy deals with imposed limitations well, and omitting the details of Rico's criminal acts, allows him to focus on Rico's character and move the story along briskly. He promises Rico's coming end by focusing on time, starting out with Rico at the beginning setting a clock back, to shots later in his career that linger on his pocketwatch. But it's Robinson performance that's used to tie it all together and make it work. From his body language, to his ever present cigar, to his nasty sneer, this is a performance you won't forget.
As hard as he pushes to get to the top, he falls just as hard. Towards of the film Rico looks wretched, waking up in a flophouse, in shabby clothes, his face a total mess. And even now, Sgt. Flaherty appears, taunting Rico in the newspapers, that "he can dish it out but can't take it." Of course Rico's pride can't handle that and it sends him off to his last stop.
LeRoy's Little Ceasar is a must see, the performance that justly made Edgar Robinson a star, and the starting point on the road that led to film-noir, The Godfather, Dirty Harry and every anti-hero since.