40×40: Little Caesar (1931)

Directed by Mervyn LeRoy.

“Mother of mercy, is this the end of Rico?”

Why Did I Get This?

This was another disc which Late Reviewer contributor and all-round good egg John Featherstone posted to me a couple of years ago when he upgraded to Blu-Ray – part of his ongoing attempt to raise my awareness of movies from the 1930s. I remember watching it and not being terribly bothered about it either way, if I’m honest – he also sent me The Public Enemy, which I think I preferred.

I think that was more down to me not really having that much experience of films from the era so I’m keen to revisit Little Caesar and see if and how my opinion has changed after indulging in many more 1930s movies for this silly little site.

The Late Review

As always, the Late Review will go into detail about the film from start to finish, so if you’re looking to avoid potential spoilers, scroll down to the next heading.

Little Caesar tells the story of the meteoric rise through the Chicago underworld of short-tempered thug Caesar Enrico Bandello (Edward G Robinson), and his eventual and brutal fall.

While I’ve really taken with gusto to some pre-Code films of late (see here, here, here and especially here for a few recent examples), I’d actually forgotten that Little Caesar was also a pre-Code movie. I’d just assumed it fell into that period where every other movie was a gangster movie, and probably really associated the censorship debate more with horror than mob flicks despite knowing full well that they were a target. Silly of me, really.

Saying that though, it was always my understanding that the Hays Code meant the villains had to get their comeuppance by the end of the movie and that crime couldn’t be seen to pay – so in a way, Little Caesar feels like it really ticks those boxes. Of course, there’s a death by Tommy gun in this which I believe the Code prohibited, so maybe I’m wrong.

Watching again, I think what really put me off the first time was Robinson’s voice – 90-odd years on, and his vocal characteristics have become so ingrained in cinema and pop culture, that hearing him start or end threats to mob bosses with “see”, in that weird nasal delivery is weirdly amusing. Everyone from the penguins of Madagascar to The Simpsons’ Chief Wiggum to every stereotypical gangster in a sketch, skit, Looney Tunes cartoon or bad comedy sitcom sounds like Robinson, and while it really just highlights how influential this performance was, in a way it taints the viewing of the film.

Setting aside the problems a modern audience might have hearing the voice though, and it’s a terrific performance by Robinson as Rico – he’s not the biggest guy in the room physically, but you believe his temper could rise at any second and when it does, you wouldn’t want to be anywhere near him. By all accounts, this tough guy persona was just that – something for the cameras – but he’s got the same sort of unpredictable, bottled-up fury that Joe Pesci brought to Goodfellas and Casino, and it’s easy to believe he’d be quick to anger and quicker to shoot.

That being said though, his rise to the top of the Chicago underworld is quick and surprisingly bloodless – he murders one lackey who’s considering confessing to his priest (in what must surely be the first cinematic drive-by shooting, on the steps of a cathedral, no less), but his removal of the bosses directly above or in opposition to him are done through threatening words.

Not to say Rico’s averse to gunning someone down, of course – I was surprised that the film opens with a gas station robbery in which the attendant is (presumably), shot, and during the brilliantly-staged robbery of a nightclub on New Year’s Eve, Rico kills the police commissioner as he leaves the party.

I thought the robbery was really nicely done – soundtracked solely by the sounds of New Year’s festivities and edited with a string of fades, it’s slick as hell, right up until the commissioner enters the scene and it all goes tits up.

Inadvertently finding himself party to the heist is Rico’s former partner in crime turned nightclub dancer, Joe Massara (Douglas Fairbanks Jr), who wants to be an honest man but keeps finding himself pulled into Rico’s schemes.

Rico’s relationship with Joe is a curious one – it’s clear they both respect each other, but would prefer to be on opposite sides of the law. Joe is poor but happy with life as a dancer, and in love with his dance partner Olga (Glenda Farrell), while Rico is living it up in opulent apartments and scheming to take control of the whole city.

Rico’s materialistic viewpoint was also curious – he’s seen how successful criminals decorate, so he copies that. He’s heard how they welcome guests or offer drinks, so he does that too. A street tough magpie, acting like he believes the big boys do, with little of himself to offer but a short temper and moxie to spare.

Predictably, his downfall is as abrupt as his rise, and he spends his final days drinking booze from the bottle in a flophouse with Chicago’s other unfortunates (having previously been tee-total), before being machine-gunned to death by the police he taunted throughout his brief but violent career.

Verdict

Honestly, this was a lot better than I remember it being, suggesting that even a film you don’t particularly care for could be worth revisiting a couple of years down the line. (I won’t be taking my own advice on every occasion, mind).

Robinson is a magnetic watch, filled with fury, vanity and ambition. He pretty much steals the film, appropriately enough, and even if his voice has found itself something of a pastiche over the last nine decades, you believe him when he threatens you and he really cements himself as the grandaddy of all gangsters.

It really rattles along too, coming in at under 80 minutes, and while that means certain characters don’t really get that much to do or are painted in broad strokes, I don’t think that hurts the film in the slightest – consider it a blueprint for the bloated gangster epics we eventually ended up with.

Hard recommend.

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