Lone Wolf Sullivan is a writer, songwriter, and studio musician.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Little Caesar (1931) * * *

For the re-release of LITTLE CAESAR and THE PUBLIC ENEMY (1931) in 1954 an identical prologue was added before the opening credits, advising that gangsters are a menace that the public must confront.

A martial fanfare plays over the credits, superimposed on a book with the title of the film. This was the first of Warner Brothers' social consciousness films about crime, and begins with a title card on a piece of parchment with a quote taken from St. Matthew in the Bible. The message sets the film's moral tone and forecasts its eventual outcome:

...for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword. Matthew: 26-52

After the titles and opening credits, the film begins at a gas station robbery committed by two men. One man drives a vehicle to the gas station at night. When the proprietor approaches, the other man shoves him back inside and turns out the lights. There are gunshots, after which the second man runs back to the car and they depart. Later, at an all-night diner, the same car is seen parked outside. Inside, one of the men sits at the counter while the other carefully winds the clock back a few minutes, in an effort to provide them with an alibi for the robbery. The man at the counter is Joe Massara (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.), the vehicle's driver, and the man who resets the clock is the gunman, Caesar Enrico "Rico" Bandello (Edward G. Robinson). Reading the newspaper as they eat their food, Rico notices an article about top gangster "Diamond" Pete Montana (Ralph Ince), who was recently feted by his peers. Rico and Joe discuss the idea of moving east to Chicago. Discussing their plans, Rico wants to gain the power and notoriety of gangsters like "Diamond" Pete. Joe only wishes to exit the gangster lifestyle and go back to being a professional dancer, which he had done prior to meeting Rico--an idea which Rico finds contemptible.

Rico: Yeah, money's all right, but it ain't everything. Yeah, I'll be somebody. Look hard at a bunch of guys and know that they'll do anything you tell 'em. Have your own way or nothin'. Be somebody. I could do all the things that fella does, and more, only I never got my chance. Why, what's there to be afraid of? And when I get in a tight spot, I shoot my way out of it. Why sure. Shoot first and argue afterwards. You know, this game ain't for guys that's soft!
Joe: You'll get there, Rico, you'll show 'em.
Rico: Joe? This was our last stand in this burg. We're pullin' out.
Joe: Where are we goin'?
Rico: East! (He gestures toward the newspaper story) Where things break big!

After arriving in Chicago, Joe becomes a professional dancer after meeting and falling in love with Olga Stassoff (Glenda Farrell), who works at a nightclub that is partly owned by Little Arnie Lorch (Maurice Black)--a rival of Rico's new boss Sam Vettori (Stanley Fields), who gives Rico the nickname that becomes the title of the film. Vettori and Rico clash almost immediately. Rico feels that Vettori is not too bright, and also is defensive of Joe, who Vettori thinks is too soft for crime. Vettori resents Rico's intelligence and ambition, feeling that his position as the boss is threatened. Matters are not helped much when Rico first tries to step out of place during a meeting between Lorch, Vettori, and "Diamond" Pete, who is the overboss of the other two. Pete warns the two bosses about a man named McClure, who is the head of the new crime commission and apparently cannot be bribed. Later, during a New Years' Eve robbery of the nightclub where Joe and Olga work, McClure is gunned down by Rico when he unintentionally interrupts the robbery. This also strains relations between Joe and Rico, because Joe resents that Rico forced him to act as a lookout for the robbery due to his job at the nightclub.

Vettori: A million guys in this town, and you have to knock off the crime commissioner!
Rico: You won't be sorry for lettin' me in, Mr. Vettori. I'll shoot square with ya. I'll do anything you say. I ain't afraid of nothin'...There's nothin' soft about me. Nothin' yella. I don't quit.
Vettori: All right, you stick around, but remember, I'm the boss and I give all the orders. And when we split, we split my way, and no squawks, you get me?

Vettori is apoplectic when he hears of McClure's murder, but Rico, emboldened by his actions, verbally chastises Vettori. After a visit from police Sargeant Tom Flaherty (Thomas E. Jackson), who is looking for clues in the murder of McClure, Rico seizes control of the gang completely. After refusing to split the money from the robbery the way Vettori wants to, Rico tells his boss that he can "dish it out" but not take it. Vettori's position is further weakened when his own men turn their backs on him. Defeated, Vettori silently acquiesces to Rico's control of the gang.

Joe: Once in the gang, you know the rest.
Olga: I don't want to know. Only maybe, maybe it could be different this time, if we try.
Joe: I've never seen a guy that could get away with it yet.

However, all is not well for Rico. The driver of Rico's getaway car named Antonio "Tony" Passa (William Collier Jr.) froze during the robbery and later crashes the car instead of disposing of it. At his mother's home, he is seen suffering immensely from feelings of guilt, and decides to confess to a priest. He is stopped by Otero (George E. Stone) on the way, and after refusing his share of the robbery money, he informs Otero of his plans. Otero frantically rushes to inform Rico, who then proceeds to find Passa and shoot him on the steps of the church. He is given a lavish funeral by Rico and the other mobsters.

Rico becomes a very powerful gangster, and is eventually feted at a banquet. Even though it is the era of Prohibition and illegal liquor sales are booming, Rico is an abstainer. Joe continues to see Olga and distance himself from Rico's life of crime. After hearing Lorch and associates discuss a planned hit on Rico, he informs Otero. They are too late to stop the hit which is bungled because the gunmen are poor shots and only graze Rico's arm. Rico then confronts Lorch, storming Lorch's gambling house with his men and offering him a choice: leave town under his own power, or leave in a coffin. Flaherty and others read in a society column article that Lorch has left for Detroit.

Sgt. Flaherty: So somebody finally put one in you.
Rico: Yeah, but they just grazed me though.
Sgt. Flaherty: The old man will be glad to hear it. He takes such an interest in you.
Rico: You tell him the cops couldn't get me no other way, so they hired a couple of gunmen.
Sgt. Flaherty: If I wasn't on the force I'd have done the job cheap.
Rico: Did you ever stop to think what you'd look like with a lily in your hand?
Sgt. Flaherty: No, I never did.

Eventually Rico is invited up to see the man known only as the "Big Boy" (Sidney Blackmer), who would apparently be the film's equivalent to the Italian Mafia's capo di tutti capi. After a humorous scene where Otero, who has become Rico's right-hand man, assists an uncomfortable Rico with putting on a tuxedo, Rico is informed by the "Big Boy" that they wish him to take "Diamond" Pete's place. Rico does so, then contacts his old friend Joe. Although they have not spoken in a long time, Rico presumes that Joe is still interested in working for him again more directly. When Joe refuses to return to Rico's gang because of his love for Olga, Rico becomes outraged, telling Joe that if he returns to Olga, he is signing the death warrant for both of them. Rico answers a phone call, and when he returns Joe is gone.

Joe is in a panic and tells Olga what Rico has said and tries to get her to leave town with him. But Olga has had enough and tries to convince Joe to contact Sgt. Flaherty and turn state's evidence on Rico. Olga calls Flaherty, but Rico and Otero arrive before the police do. Joe then challenges Rico to kill him. Rico approaches Joe, preparing to shoot him at point blank range. However, Rico finds he cannot kill his old friend in cold blood. At that moment, Sgt. Flaherty and the police arrive, and during a struggle Joe is shot and wounded. Rico and Otero make their way down the fire escape and into an alley. Otero is killed and Rico is forced to become a fugitive. Unable to return to his apartment and retrieve his money, he is forced to stay at Ma Magdalena's, a grocery store he has established as a safe house. He is blackmailed by Ma (Lucille La Verne) when she refuses to give him more than $150 out of the $10,000 he had stashed there.

Time passes and Rico is next seen in a flophouse, having reached his lowest point. He is no longer the suave and confident character he once was, and has even taken up drinking. When listening to some of the other men read a newspaper article about Vettori about to be hanged and an interview with Sgt. Flaherty, Rico becomes incensed and calls Flaherty, bragging that he will once again rise to the top of the underworld. Flaherty has the call traced and catches up with Rico as he is staggering down the street. In a shootout in front of a billbard, Rico is mortally wounded by Sgt. Flaherty. As he dies he utters what has since become a classic quote, "Mother of mercy, is this the end of Rico?"

In a tragic twist of irony, the very billboard where Rico dies is advertising a new act by Joe and Olga, who have since risen to fame as a song and dance team.

One of the best and most famous of the early classic gangster films is LITTLE CAESAR, often called the grandfather of the modern crime film. It's the story of the rise and fall of Rico, a small time gunman who claws his way to the top of the mob and then tumbles from his throne. His downfall is caused by his best friend who became a nightclub performer and wants to leave the mob behind. With its portrayal of an underworld character who rebelliously challenges traditional values, it is a taut, fast-moving and vivid film that set the genre's standards and launched the gangster movie. One of the first gangster film of the talkies era and made during the Pre-Code era, it is generally considered the prototype of future gangster films. Robinson's performance as the brutal and ambitious gangster known as Little Caesar is timeless and close to perfect.

LITTLE CAESAR reflects the technically primitive nature of early film making, with a straight-forward, blunt narrative composed of a series of tableaux, yet its hard-hitting gritty realism grips audiences. There are few close ups and only three times in the movie do we see close shots of Edward G. Robinson--including the famous last scene. Most shots are full body shots taken from a distance "stage style" as we hear his snarling voice barking out orders and sometimes looking a bit wooden. However, it is still an entertaining movie and definitely worth watching.

Unlike many other gangster films, the film does not feature graphic bloodshed, depict violence on-screen, or sensationalize street language. But its tone is somber and tough. Its low-budget sets and cheap, sleazy atmosphere add to the film's impact. The movie's rich black-and-white cinematography was provided by Tony Gaudio. W. R. Burnett, the author of the novel on which the film's screenplay is based, was also co-scriptwriter of SCARFACE (1932). In Burnett's novel the line reads "Mother of God, is this the end of Rico?", and a take was filmed with Robinson saying it verbatim. However, the studio felt that the line would be blasphemous coming from a murderous villain, so the alternate take was used instead.

It's a great movie that defies criticism, but it feels as old as it is. Action takes place around concealed microphones, musical scoring is virtually nonexistent, and some of the melodramatic elements--like the scene with the doting Italian mother--seem to belong in the Victorian age. Rico's character was based mostly on ruthless gangster Al Capone, and also resembles Brooklyn underworld gangster Buggsy Goldstein. Rico is not likable and was never meant to be. The character of "Diamond" Pete Montana was modeled on Big Jim Colosimo--"King of the Pimps" and "Father of the Chicago Mob. "Big Boy" kingpin was based on corrupt politician and Chicago mayor Big Bill Thompson.

The cast also includes: Armand Kaliz (De Voss), Nicholas Bela (Ritz Colonna), Ernie Adams (Cashier), Elmer Ballard, Ferike Boros (Mrs. Passa), Kernan Cripps (Detective), George Daly (Machine-gunner), Adolph Faylauer (New Year's Celebrant), Ben Hendricks Jr. (Kid Bean), Al Hill (Rico's Butler), Gladys Lloyd (McClure Guest), Noel Madison (Killer Peppi), Tom McGuire (Detective on Phone), Louis Natheaux (Hood), Henry Sedley (Scabby), Gay Sheridan (Nightclub Extra), Larry Steers (McClure Guest), Landers Stevens (Crime Commissioner Alvin McClure), and Robert Walker (Lorch Henchman). David Mendoza composed the original music. Francis Edward Faragoh, Robert Lord, Robert N. Lee, and Darryl F. Zanuck wrote the screenplay based on W.R. Burnett's 1929 novel of the same title. Mervyn LeRoy directed.

In 2000 LITTLE CAESAR was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". In June 2008, the American Film Institute revealed its "Ten top Ten"--the best ten films in ten "classic" American film genres--after polling over 1,500 people from the creative community. LITTLE CAESAR was listed as the ninth best in the gangster film genre.

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