Thursday, March 26, 2009

Little Caesar: the Original Gangsta

Warner Bros. // 1931 // 78 Minutes // Not Rated

By Steve Evans

“Mother of mercy! Is this the end of Rico?” ~ Eddie Robinson, oozing marinara sauce.

You’ll never think of pizza again when this classic noir is mentioned. Edward G. Robinson defined the gangster genre and became a star in this trend-setting 1931 gem from Warner Bros.

A bit of plot…
Petty hoodlum Cesare Enrico Bandello (Robinson) vows to take over a Chicago mob by killing anyone in his path. With attitude and aggression that belies his small stature, “Rico” defies his mafia bosses, murders the Chicago crime commissioner during a New Year's Eve ball, and double-crosses any associate foolish enough to question his grab for power.

Rico barks and snarls his way to the top, snapping off invective with the staccato clip of a Tommy gun.

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. costars as Joe Massara, Rico’s longtime associate who is trying desperately to go straight. Rico’s relentless climb to the top threatens to drag Joe down, but when Little Caesar makes a play for Joe’s mistress as well, all bets are off and the bullets begin to fly.

Despite sharing his famous father’s name, Fairbanks Jr. commands minimal screen time and displays little of the charisma he would bring to later projects like Gunga Din (1939). We learn on the commentary track that Clark Gable was originally considered for the part of Joe. Though it seems unlikely that an established star like Gable would have wanted such a small role, the benefit of hindsight suggests he might have stolen the film—taking the focus off Robinson's menacing, mesmerizing performance.

Historical Context and Significance
Adapted from a novel by W.R. Burnett, the innovative screenplay by Francis Edwards Faragoh unfolds from the perspective of the gangsters who populate the plot. Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo would take a similar approach 40 years later in their script for The Godfather. Notice the frame (above, right) and you will discover that one of the assassinations during the famous Baptism massacre that climaxes Coppola’s masterpiece is an obvious homage to a virtually identical murder in Little Caesar.

In both films, the effect immerses viewers in the underworld, as we are forced to identify with the killers and thieves who inhabit this substratum of society. No civilians get caught in the gangsters’ crossfire. In the cinema world of the mafioso, only the bad guys eat lead. This must have been a vicarious thrill for Depression-era audiences stricken by poverty. For the price of a movie ticket, they could watch the diminutive Rico “Little Caesar” Bandello rob and kill in order to rise above his station, yet be safe in the knowledge that comeuppance would be waiting in the final reel. During the 1930s and well into the ‘40s, Warner Bros. specialized in these vicious social commentaries thinly disguised as pulp fiction. In a time of hopelessness and despair, the characters in Little Caesar define their self-worth in terms of wealth and influence — both fleeting in a world of duplicity and sudden death.

As Rico, Robinson’s acting remains a miracle of the cinema nearly 80 years later. The camera captures Rico’s observant nature as he gazes in envy at a mob leader’s jeweled cravat, diamond pinky ring, and stock of fine cigars. He visibly twitches at the sight of bundled cash piled high on a gangster’s desk. Rico salivates at the thought of wealth, but a lust for power is his real obsession.

The role launched Robinson into superstardom just as he was typecast for years as a pugnacious gangster and ornery little SOB. His performance as Rico has been imitated and parodied so often that it can be hard to understand what a breakthrough role this was for the Romanian-born Robinson. He raises the performance almost to the level of Greek tragedy, as Rico kills and connives inexorably to his destiny. Little Caesar may be Robinson’s best-known work, followed by no-nonsense insurance investigator Barton Keyes in Billy Wilder’s classic noir, Double Indemnity. A quiet collector of art, Robinson always seemed bemused in interviews that his fortune came from playing vicious thugs in the movies.

Setting becomes another character in Little Caesar, as we gain entrance to places with florid names like The Bronze Peacock and The Palermo Club, where back-room schemes take life and a man’s fate might literally be sealed in cement.

So pervasive was the impact of this violent movie that the federal Racketeering Influenced Corrupt Organizations Act of 1970 — or RICO — probably owes its acronym to Robinson’s character. Who says the fed doesn’t have a sense of humor?

What’s on the DVD, Steve?
I’ll tell ya. Warner Bros. includes a generous package of extras on this disc, which is part of the studio’s gangster collection available as individual titles or in boxed sets. Goodies include “Warner Night at the Movies 1930,” hosted by film critic Leonard Maltin, featuring a trailer for Five Star Final starring Robinson, a newsreel, a short film starring a young Spencer Tracy, a cartoon, and the feature attraction. Each program can be played in succession or individually. Warner Bros. includes the original theatrical trailer for Little Caesar, as well as a curious foreword that accompanied the 1954 re-release. Rounding out the extra features, University of Southern California film historian Richard Jewell supplies an insightful commentary track, and a 16-minute feature chronicles the cinematic evolution of the antihero.

Caveat lector…
Like most films of its day, Little Caesar reflects the awkward transition from the era of silent film to the new age of talkies. While director Mervyn LeRoy (Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, Mr. Roberts) shows a remarkable facility for voiceover and layered dialogue, the technical limitations of early sound recording required the camera to be bolted down during dialogue-intensive scenes. Cinematically, the results are often static, though compensated by Robinson’s electrifying performance. LeRoy also relies on intertitles like the old silent films to confer information quickly and convey the passage of time.

Little Caesar would have also benefitted from a musical score to offset lengthy silent passages. Audio is presented in the original mono.

The film transfer suffers for lack of adequate restoration, as nearly 80 years of accumulated scratches mar the print for much of its 78-minute running time. Still, Warner Bros. is commended for keeping the film alive and commercially available in an affordable edition. A multimillion-dollar restoration might push the retail price of the DVD beyond the interest of some collectors.

A gangster classic, Little Caesar became a virtual blueprint for the genre. The film’s influence and Robinson’s star-making performance transcend time, becoming manifest in pictures as different in tone and texture as The Godfather, Miller's Crossing, Goodfellas, and Reservoir Dogs.

For sheer cockiness alone, Rico should be set free if only he could get up and walk away. Warner Bros. receives praise for releasing a decent, if not spectacular, print of a classic film with a handsome package of extras. Little Caesar remains an essential bookend in the film collection of any gangster-movie fan or serious student of the cinema.

Copyright © 2009 by Steve Evans // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

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