Spoiler Warning

Always assume Spoilers and possible profanity in context. These are often adult themed movies.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Little Ceasar

Mervyn LeRoy's Little Ceasar is more than a movie, it's the proper birth of the anti-hero in film. There were other pictures about gangsters before, but it took this one to get the "gangster movie" started, serving as a blueprint for the coming genre to pull from.
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.


lena said...

I am not that big a fan of that kind of movies, but I really like the reviews you make, very interesting and professional. You actually make me all curious about the movie :)

INDBrent said...

Hi Lena,

Not to worry. I fully appreciate that "Criminal Movies" are not everyone's cup of tea.

Personally I'm not into romantic comedies that much (as a rule, although there are plenty of good ones out there.)

Thanks for the kind words, I really appreciate you reading. I do try to make these accessible for anyone, because even if it's not your kind of movie, some of these films give us a lot of food for thought.

It's not all about the movies. Movies just reflect what we're thinking about.Personally I think that these are the heroes we make because they're reachable. God- like heroes don't ring true anymore, as we know too much about how the world works.

In "Little Ceasar" for example, we weren't given a likable character to cheer for, but we were given a character that could suceed (however briefly) even though the whole world was stacked against him, something the audience surely needed at the time.

Thanks again!

Unknown said...

Well, I am a huge fan of gangster movies. I enjoy the entertainment value of these pics and the social commentary they can offer when done right. This is definitely one of them. Robinsons performance is so powerful, it sent chills down my spine the first time I saw it. The only gangster flick I liked more from the era was Angels with Dirty Faces (maybe the Roaring 20's).

I also wanted to add that the real life gangsters who were tagged with "Robin Hood's of their time" earned that title. Al Capone was known for feeding half of Chicago during the great depression. It was in their interest to do, though. After all, would you tell on a criminal who was feeding you on a regular basis?

Anyways, I enjoy this blog. Keep 'em coming!

INDBrent said...

Hi Gregory,

Thanks for the input! Yeah Robinson really was terrific here. He was actually very similiar in physical type to Al Capone too.
I think sometimes who the bad guy is really depends on who's doing the labelling. If the system won't feed you and Capone will, who's really the bad guy to you? (Of course he may still be a maniac, but nobody's perfect.) "Angels with Dirty Faces" is definitely up there for me as well, as well and "Public Enemy" too, but "Little Ceasar" was a big first and with Robinson, it was revolutionary.
Good point on the "Robin Hood" angle. Thanks for checking it out!

Mesina said...

Oh I so love criminal movies and ganster movies in particluar. I haven't seen this one, but will certainly look out for it. I love your back history on the films too, they make it so much more interesting!

INDBrent said...

Hi Mesina,

Glad you enjoyed it! If you like gangster movies, this is definitely a must see.

TirzahLaughs said...

My comment disappeared. Mmm. Sad. Movies of this time period are great. There is everything from the anti-hero to the robber with a heart of gold.

Robinson has always had a cruel face. I believe as a watcher that he could shoot a guy in the back. I don't know if i could believe him a family priest. Is that good character acting or is just good acting?


INDBrent said...

Hi Tirz,

..or shoot a guy going to confession on the steps of the church! I know what you mean, he does seem to have the gangster type down cold, but he does have a great range too. His part in Double Indemnity for example, a little hard edged, but a likeable guy. Have you ever seen "Scarlett Street?" he plays this neurotic, disturbed obsessive, that's painful to watch. But yeah I'd consider him a good character actor too.

TirzahLaughs said...

Never saw Scarlet Street. I don't think he's like Depp who disappears in his role until he is just character.

I've always thought of Robinson as a talented guy but one who plays a certain type of guy. He's brilliant in his range but only in his range.

INDBrent said...

Hi Tirz,

Fair enough. I'd agree that this is typically true for Robinson. But, I would encourage you to watch Scarlett Street, you may consider it a one-off role, but the performance is tremendous and about as far from Little Ceasar as it gets.

TirzahLaughs said...

I don't know where I'd get a copy but I'll try.

I wish I had a range...lol. I'd love to act.

INDBrent said...

Hi Tirz,

It's on youtube: If the link doesn't work, try searching "scarlett Street" It should come right up.

I've wondered about acting before, but in the end I'd rather just watch good actors!

Lana A said...

Edward G. gives a fine performance in this wonderful film. He is always fun to watch as the bad guy but I can't help but wonder if he was so typecast, he didn't get all the chances he deserved. He really is a fine actor. And Scarlet Street, a wonderful noir, shows he does have greater range.

Thanks, Brent, for your insightful analysis as always. I wish I had your acumen. All I can do on my movie blogis gush.

INDBrent said...

Hi Lana,
That's the drawback of such a great performance, everyone thinks of the actor as the role he played. At least he had a few chances to very it a bit. At least he didn't play Superman.

Thanks for the kind words, but I must say I really enjoy your blog. You always pick interesting films and I really enjoy that you look at them on a personal level and what they mean to you. Some movies deserve to be gushed about!

Ken said...

Love your reviews, and would be very interested to hear the flip side... is there a criminal/gangster movie (or movies) that you just can't stand?

With all the ones you've seen, you must have watched at least one and thought to yourself "well, there's two hours I'll never get back."

If you had to name three clunkers, what would they be?

INDBrent said...

Hey Ken,
Great suggestion. I've been focusing on movies that I want people to see because I love to talk about them.
I'd be open to doing movies I can't stand if there's a desire to read it. Here's three off the top of my head:
"Revolver" As I mentioned for a symbol to work it has to work as what it is. It didn't work as either a gangster movie, or a dumbed down version of egoism/kabbalist theory
"Smoking Aces" Perhaps enough style, but the plot was stale.
"The Whole Nine Yards" It meant well and should have worked, but couldn't make me care.
There's many more but I try to delete them from the memory bank quickly.
Anyone else want to hear about the "clunkers once in a while?