This evening I watched LITTLE CAESAR, the second film on my list of 10 Classics to see in 2013.
In the past I've tended to shy away from pre-Code gangster movies such as LITTLE CAESAR or THE PUBLIC ENEMY (1931), gravitating instead to the FBI films of the post-Code era, such as "G" MEN (1935) or the lesser known PUBLIC ENEMY'S WIFE (1936).
I included LITTLE CAESAR on my list of films to see this year as I've become such a fan of pre-Codes; I thought it would fill in a gap in my "movie education" to see the film which made Edward G. Robinson a star, not to mention one of the films which began the gangster genre. When one of the characters is shot and exclaims "I'm done for," I wondered if it could be the first time that now-cliched line was uttered in a film?!
As the movie begins, Rico (Robinson) and his pal Joe (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.), having just knocked off a gas station, are eating in a diner. Rico reads about a bigtime mobster in the newspaper and decides that he and Joe will go East, where the action is.
Joe's dream is to be a dancer, and once in the city he tries to break away from crime, establishing a successful nightclub routine with Olga (Glenda Farrell), who also becomes his girlfriend. Rico, on the other hand, is on a fast track up through the mob ranks, ultimately becoming a top man. Then he's got nowhere to go but down again...
Rico, as brought to life by the dynamic Robinson, is certainly an interesting character: He's a total loner, with no friends other than Joe or, later, the admiring syncophant Otero (George E. Stone). Rico is all about money, guns, and the power both provide. He's cunning -- as demonstrated by the diner scene at the outset where he turns the clock back, establishing an alibi -- but his ego is such it apparently never occurs to him that he will ultimately be just as vulnerable as the other men he shoves out of his way on his rise to the top. Rico likes to taunt other men that they can dish it out but can't take it -- yet he ultimately can't really "take it" himself. Rico also has a demented, ruthlessly amoral streak which provides him with a thrill pointlessly offing Crime Commissioner McClure (Landers Stevens); he just has one weak moment near the end which proves to be his undoing.
I'm a big admirer of Douglas Fairbanks Jr., but it struck me that he hadn't yet become the assured, lively performer of just a few years later, when he just about stole THE PRISONER OF ZENDA (1937). As I mulled it over further, however, I got to thinking that while his acting definitely had a bit of an exaggerated style here -- perhaps rooted in silent movies -- perhaps the lack of confidence I perceived in his performance was simply good acting. Joe begins in the shadow of the more dominant Rico and struggles to be his own man and get free of the mob. Ultimately, Joe is a rather weak pawn between Rico and Olga, with it being Olga who has the courage to risk their lives by calling the police.
The black and white cinematography by Tony Gaudio is often quite striking, particularly in the banquet scene where Rico is honored. Looking down the row of mobsters lined up along the table, one can almost see into the future and the many gangster movies which would emulate LITTLE CAESAR's style.
The ending, with a shootout taking place in front of a billboard heralding Joe and Olga's theatrical success, is poetic -- good is rewarded, evil wiped out -- but perhaps just a mite too convenient. Reading the billboard almost distracts from the action.
I've enjoyed Robinson more as a cagey good guy, in films such as DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944) or THE STRANGER (1946), but ultimately I enjoyed seeing LITTLE CAESAR and appreciated many aspects of the film. Though I don't think the gangster film will ever be my favorite genre, I liked it enough that I will probably also try to catch James Cagney in THE PUBLIC ENEMY (1931).
LITTLE CAESAR was directed by Mervyn LeRoy. The screenplay, credited to Francis Edwards Faragoh, had several uncredited contributors, according to IMDb; it was based on a novel by W.R. Burnett. Several other Burnett novels were turned into films, and Burnett himself also had a long career as a screenwriter. It runs 79 minutes.
LITTLE CAESAR is available for purchase as a single-title DVD; the DVD is available for rental from either Netflix or ClassicFlix. The DVD is also available as part of two different boxed sets, Warner Gangsters Collection Vol. 1 or TCM's Greatest Gangster Films: Prohibition Era set. Extras include a commentary by Professor Rick Jewell of the University of Southern California, an expert on gangster films.
It was released on VHS back in 1997.
LITTLE CAESAR can also be rented to stream from Amazon Instant Video for $2.99.
LITTLE CAESAR will next be shown on Turner Classic Movies on May 21st, 2013. The trailer is on the TCM website.
Finally, a reminder for any bloggers interested in writing about LITTLE CAESAR this month: You're invited to send me the link to your post, either via the comments or email, and I'll include the link at the end of this post, as well as Tweet each time the post is updated with a new link. I'd love to hear more reactions, opinions, and insights on the granddaddy of gangster films!
Update: Kristina shares her thoughts on LITTLE CAESAR in a terrific post at Speakeasy; her review had me nodding in agreement, as I think I saw the film much as she does. Like Kristina, I was a bit uncertain about Fairbanks' performance, and I also admired the shot of Tony gunned down on the church steps, which was one of the film's most striking images. Kristina also contributes the intriguing info that director LeRoy wanted Clark Gable to play Joe, but Jack Warner and Darryl Zanuck didn't go for Gable because of his ears. It's quite interesting to contemplate what Gable might have brought to the role.
Update: At Out of the Past, Raquel shares her impressions of the film along with some good screen caps of key scenes. As Raquel illustrates, the film has great sets and fashion. And I love early talkies that still use title cards, it was an interesting transitional era in films. Great point that OCEAN'S 11 (1960) emulates LITTLE CAESAR with its New Year's Eve heist! So glad you joined me in watching LITTLE CAESAR this month, Raquel.