Okay, I just know I’m going to get lambasted for this one, but honestly, I have never found Mervyn LeRoy’s Little Caesar (1931) to be a classic; its one salvation undeniably Edward G. Robinson’s magnetic performance as the Macbeth-ish Mafioso extraordinaire loosely modeled on Al Capone. Little Caesar is one of the first movies that clearly identified the iconography of the gangster subgenre, soon to endure as a main staple in American movies throughout the 1930s and early ‘40s. Regrettably, it became something of a cliché later on. Even the title - Little Caesar instantly conjures to mind the fatalist image of that perpetually sullen and scowled lower class thug in his bowler, chomping on his cigar while dispatching enemies in a sort of ‘do unto other’s before they do unto you’ philosophy on life in general and crime in particular. Despite the fact that Edward G. Robinson was anything but the uncouth slob he so convincingly portrayed on screen, his iconography as a two-bit thug was instantly seared into the public consciousness with this movie. The actor was to profit handsomely from his performance. It really made his bones in Hollywood. But it also typecast Robinson for life as the diminutive smart-talking bully with a short man’s complex all too easily and readily parodied ever since.
Little Caesar is an early ‘talkie’ so I suppose I ought to forgive Mervyn LeRoy’s static direction. Despite the studio’s penchant for making ‘ripped from the headlines’ seedy little melodramas that moved like gangbusters, Little Caesar really doesn’t shimmy so much as it slinks at a snail’s pace and more often lumbers through a series of tableaus that on the whole unfurl like a filmed version of a stage play. W.R. Burnett, the author on whose work the Francis Edward Faragoh screenplay is loosely based, was not at all pleased with the finished film although he did cite Robinson as the standout who had sold this Hollywood bastardization with an indelible dedication far surpassing the movie’s other shortcomings. In point of fact, the character of Rico (Robinson) ‘alias Little Caesar’ is very much a thug in a three-piece who believes a gat in the hand and the not so subtle art of intimidation are all that is required to rise to the top of his chosen profession. After all, Rico has seen it done before. And cream does rise. Regrettably, so does vermin. Unfortunately, Rico is very much more the latter than the former.
The opening scene in Little Caesar is perfection – a hearse-like car pulling into an out of the way gas station in the middle of the night; two hit men killing the lights and then the owner before driving off in a cloud of dirt. We dissolve to a greasy spoon on the side of the highway where Rico and his partner Joe Massara (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) are seen ordering coffee and talking about the future. When the owner isn’t looking, Rico resets the clock on the wall to give him an alibi. But the clock has dual meaning – foreshadowing the fact that time is running out for the gangster element in general and for Rico in particular. The tragedy, of course, is that Rico doesn’t see the end coming. He lacks the foresight. He believes in the American dream but doesn’t see the point in struggling to attain it through legitimate channels. Joe tries to convince Rico that ‘the life’ they lead is no good but it’s no use. So Joe bows out.
We move to The Bronze Peacock – a swank nightclub where Joe has since become a spirited hoofer in the floor show, dancing opposite resident sexpot, Olga Stassoff (Glenda Farrell). The couple is popular with the patrons and desperately in love behind the scenes. But Rico isn’t about to let Joe go legit, particularly at this crucial moment in his own rise to power. For Rico’s boss, Sam Vettori (Stanley Fields) is weak – just a stooge managing the crumbs - and Rico wants the gravy…all of it. Easing Sam out with the complicity of the gang, Rico plans to hit rival kingpin, Arnie Lorch’s (Maurice Black) gambling house. Diamond Pete Montana (Ralph Ince) encourages Rico to cool things off – at least for a bit. After all, the new crime commissioner, Flaherty (Thomas Jackson) is just itching for a reason to lower the boom on the mob. Pete is an all-star of the underworld in Rico’s eyes; but Rico’s greed supersedes even this chain of command.
One of the gang members, Otero (George E. Stone) backs Rico; a curious alliance that at first takes the place of Joe but quickly escalates into sycophantic idol worship with homoerotic underpinnings. Rico’s plan of action is gutsy. He’ll hit the Bronze Peacock with everything he has, using Joe as his lookout. The heist is presented to us in very cryptic dissolves. We don’t see a lot – or anything for that matter – but a series of mean looking close ups of Rico and quick cuts of his crew running about the establishment. Only later, in a newspaper headline do we learn that Police Commissioner McClure (Landers Stevens) was gunned down outside the club, presumably by Rico – giving Flaherty all the reason he needs to pursue his own revenge/justice against the mob.
Flaherty’s first course of action is to crash Rico’s hideaway and chide everyone for thinking so well of themselves. He forewarns that it is only a matter of time before the police close them down. Rico laughs off this threat. But one of his crew, Tony Passa (William Collier Jr.) takes the warning to heart, confiding his fears to his mother (Ferike Boros) who encourages him to seek the advice of a priest. Tony and Otero pass each other on the street and in a moment of weakness Tony tells Otero that he is going to church to confess his sins. Panicked that Tony will blab all he knows – and apparently unaware that whatever is said in confession cannot be betrayed out of confidence – Otero warns Rico. The two arrive on the steps of the church and murder Tony before he can make it inside.
Tony’s funeral is turned into an ironic spectacle, with Rico sending the biggest wreath of flowers. Flaherty bides his time, keeping a watchful eye on Rico who has begun to exhibit signs of personal wealth well beyond his means by legitimate working standards. Rico is invited into the inner sanctum of Big Boy (Sidney Blackmer); an omnipotent puppet master pulling all of the strings in organized crime but never in such an obvious way as to get his own hands dirty. For Rico, Bib Boy represents the epitome of the lifestyle he so desperately wants for himself; a pipe dream that will be Rico’s undoing. For Rico has risen about as far within the organization as his social class will allow. He will never be Big Boy – not because he lacks the presence of mind but because he is utterly bankrupt of the essential suaveness required to pull off this perception of greatness.
The tragedy is, of course, that the city – a place where sex and glamor mingle with opportunity and wealth – is regrettably also a purgatory where the more easily swayed and egotistical readily lose their sense of self, their souls and even their lives in pursuit of these greedy little dreams. Worried that Joe will blab to the police given half the chance, and having survived a bungled hit put out on him by Lorch from the back of a milk truck in broad daylight, Rico charges into Joe and Olga’s apartment, intent on murdering the couple to keep them silent. Instead, Flaherty bursts in, killing Otero. Rico manages an escape down the back alley and takes refuge in a hidden room behind Ma Magdelena’s (Lucille La Verne) pharmacy. The weeks roll into months and Rico soon learns that Ma won’t give him access to the money he has placed in her trust for safe keeping.
Alone and on the lam without a penny to his name, Rico winds up in a flophouse – just another alcoholic bum destined to live out the rest of his years in squalor and filth. Angered by a pair of rummies who are quite unaware of who he is – or rather, used to be – Rico decides to engage Flaherty in a showdown. In the original script this scene was to have been played in the lobby of the precinct with Rico all but laughed off and thrown out by the duty roster sergeant after confessing who he is. In the film Rico merely calls Flaherty on the telephone for a dangerous game of cat and mouse that ends with Rico being gunned down behind a billboard advertising Joe and Olga’s latest success at the club.
Little Caesar is a remarkably subdued story about organized crime. Presumably to avoid undue scrutiny from the censorship board, all references to bootlegging were dropped from the final cut. Although Rico is painted very broadly as a self-destructing mob boss with a thirst for unspeakable violence we never see his exploits depicted on the screen. Everything is implied, and it is saying a great deal of Edward G. Robinson’s performance that he manages an even greater deal of menace with just a flick of his eyebrow or stern glower into the camera. The character of Joe Massara was first offered to Clark Gable by Mervyn LeRoy, whom studio boss Jack Warner and production chief Darryl F. Zanuck instantly rejected because they felt Gable’s ears were too big. Louis B. Mayer and MGM would make Gable an iconic star, much to Jack Warner’s chagrin. Douglas Fairbanks Jr. is a very fine actor, but he doesn’t get a lot of mileage out of Joe – his performance one dimensional and not very satisfying. The character is loosely based on George Raft – himself a Warner Bros. contract player who had begun as a hoodlum in real life before playing derivatives of himself on the big screen.
As mentioned earlier, the model for Rico was Al Capone, the self-professed kingpin of Chicago’s crime syndicate; a man feared by his enemies but considered an blight and utter disgrace by President Hoover who eventually had the FBI nail Capone on tax evasion charges rather than for the many murders he ordered throughout his reign of terror. It is to Edward G. Robinson’s credit however, that he doesn’t make an attempt to ape Capone, but rather maintains a uniquely elusive sense of brutishness throughout the film. And despite all that we now know about Edward G. Robinson – the courtly, polished art lover and well-read man of impeccable manners and temperament – it remains difficult, if not impossible, to entirely divorce our perceptions from this galvanic star turn; the venomous and utterly cruel towering figure of graceless self-destruction. The iconic line from the movie – endlessly revived in retrospectives – is Rico’s dying declaration after being gunned down by Flaherty; “Mother of mercy…is this the end of Rico.” The line was originally scripted as, “Mother of God…” However, fearing a backlash from the Catholic League of Decency it was changed at the last minute to this ‘less offensive’ alternative.
I can respect the iconography Little Caesar has established, forever thereafter coloring the approach taken by directors of subsequent gangster movies; the slick slang expounded by all, the emblematic tommy guns and hearse-shaped getaway cars, the crystalizing of virtually every convention except one (there is no gun moll in Little Caesar) long since indigenous to the backdrop of the gangster movie tradition. But somehow, at least in Little Caesar, most of these seem for not; the camera remaining interminably stationary for very long periods; the action taking place by moving characters around the set with characters photographed from head to foot. This entirely unsuccessful exercise becomes clunky at best. Edward G. Robinson saves the movie from being a complete disaster. In fact, he is the whole show.
But the other actors who flank him are wan ghosts with no staying power – interchangeable but unable to bask in Robinson’s afterglow without getting third degree burns. Mervyn LeRoy might have livened things up had he allowed his camera to become mobile. Instead, he seems intent on showing us the grunge of the underworld in long shot; we get a lot of high ceilings and cavernous spaces that dwarf the actors, making them very small and inconsequential by comparison. If this has been done deliberately, as subtext to suggest that the crime lord is hardly the towering figure he pretends to be, I can think of other more effective ways to get the point across in visual terms. No, in the final analysis, Little Caesar falls apart, its artistry dependent on Robinson’s presence alone to make the case for the film. Robinson does do this – occasionally with a magnetic brilliance few, if any, of his contemporaries could muster. But even he is dwarfed by the ineptitude surrounding him. I didn’t care for Little Caesar, as you might have guessed. Robinson is the bomb. Regrettably, so is the movie.
Warner Home Video has done a merely passable job remastering Little Caesar in 1080p. This is only single-layered and I strongly suspect Warner of using the same scanned elements they had on tap for their previously issued DVD, merely bumped up to a 1080p signal. However, the B&W image has endured some minor tinkering in the interim. Contrast seems more solid. Nicks, chips and a series of horizontal scratches that plagued the DVD are ever present and even more obvious on the Blu-ray. The image is still quite soft, but medium shots and close ups reveal a hint of fine texture and grain and overall more detail in skin and clothing. I can’t say for certain that the results would have been all that much more refined had we been given a dual-layered scan, although a higher bit rate would have undoubtedly tightened things up even further. The audio remains DTS mono, but sounds very strong for a film of this early sound vintage. Extras are all direct imports from the aforementioned DVD, including an audio commentary and short featurette, plus vintage newsreels, trailers and other junket materials presented as ‘Warner’s Night At The Movies’. If you’re a fan of this movie you’ll want the upgrade. There are noticeable differences.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)