Saturday 18 February 2012

Movie Review: Little Caesar (1931)

The story of the spectacular rise and hasty fall of a vicious criminal, Little Caesar was one of the most influential early gangster movies and retains considerable power today. It catapulted Edward G. Robinson into stardom and helped to establish the template for the the tough talking, ruthless screen villain.

Common criminals and friends Caesar "Rico" Bandello (Robinson) and Joe Massara (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) are on diverging career paths. Massara wants to give up the life of crime and become a dancer, while Rico is brutal, ambitious and wants be a major crime boss. They move to Chicago, where Massara settles down with dance partner Olga (Glenda Farrell) and starts to build a career in the performing world. Rico joins the the gang of Sam Vettori, and makes a name for himself by gunning down crime commissioner Alvin McClure, a shooting witnessed by Massara.

Rico's bravado and quick trigger finger launch him up the gang world ladder, and he draws the attention of the police and particularly Sergeant Flaherty. When Massara insists that he wants nothing more to do with a life of crime, Rico decides to kill him, afraid that Massara can link him to the McClure shooting. But Rico cannot bring himself to shoot his old friend, and this starts his downfall, which is even quicker and more comprehensive than his meteoric rise.

Arriving during the transitional era from silent to talking movies, Little Caesar retains a few full screen text boards to help move the action along. But it is otherwise a remarkably modern film, tautly scripted, sharply edited and well acted. Clocking in at just 79 minutes, director Mervyn LeRoy cuts out all distractions and keeps a tight focus on Rico. Edward G. Robinson quickly perfects the permanent sour scowl and sharp tongue that would define his screen persona, a man who will fearlessly obliterate any obstacle until destiny confronts him with an appropriately powerful opposing emotional force.

Few actors could have matched Robinson for intensity and magnetic screen presence, and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. is comparatively bland as Massara, a character who points the way to a better future built on redemption, while Rico is only interested in the shortcuts of life that can be afforded with the barrel of a gun. Glenda Farrell is markedly influential as Olga, and it is she who injects Massara with the backbone to stand up to Rico, a early model for assertive women movie characters.

"Mother of mercy, is this the end of Rico?" is the deservedly famous last line of Little Caesar. Rico's story was always going to end badly, but Little Caesar was one of the key starting points for the modern era of film-making.

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  1. What do you have against Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.? You called him "fluffy" and "functional" in your review of The Life of Jimmy Dolan? Now you're labeling him "comparatively bland." The novel writes Massara's character quite differently as a vain scumbag. Yes, Glenda Farrell's Olga is a powerful character. No argument. Poor Joe Massara never did have strength of character (as rewritten for the movies) and Fairbanks Jr.

  2. (Continued from above) accomplishes this movingly.  Olga says, "I want you, Joe."  Rico says, "I need you, Joe."  Joe himself struggles between the two, telling Olga that he needs someone like her, "awful bad, but is loyal enough to his friendship with Rico so that desperately tries to warn him of an impending hit job from a rival gang Finally he asks Rico to just leave him alone.  When Rico is on a call to the current mob boss, Joe flees to Olga but Rico and his sleazy sidekick worshipper, Otero go after him.  Bravely and even - shocking but well done - Joe shoves Olga aside and basically tells Rico to just kill him.  After looking at those eyes - and we get a closeup - he cannot do it.  "That's what I get for liking a guy too much..

    (Continued from above) accomplishes this movingly

    1. Thanks for the comment and good points! Maybe this was a case of Robinson dominating the screen, but agreed that this should not detract from the performances of others.


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