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Little Caesar (1931)

by on 2012/03/25

“Have your own way or nothing. Be somebody.”

* * * *

This March we are tackling the film noir genre. We call it ‘Noirch.’

I don’t know what this says about the authors of but we never get tired of film noir. Romance and comedy themes have grown tiresome as the month wore on. But my esteemed co-reviewer Hacker Renders was once heard to say that he thought he could tackle film noir indefinitely.

I agree.

Perhaps it is because we like these dark, dysfunctional tales of people getting seriously screwed over. It feels …familiar.

The origins of these “black films” can be found in the early crime/gangster films of the 1930s. And the great grand-pappy of them all is Little Caesar.

I’ve had the privilege of watching Edward G. Robinson a whole lot of a lot this month. He was the sympathetic and slightly doddering Professor Richard Wanley in The Woman in the Window. He was the cocky, small-town gambler with a weakness for blondes, Nick the Barber, in Smart Money.

In Little Caesar, Robinson is Caesar Enrico “Rico” Bandello. Robinson’s character construction in this film is completely unique. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a fastidious, moralizing, teetotalling, arrogant, insecure, power-mad, gun-happy thug before. Rico is strange and sympathetic, pathological and pathetic, often at the same time.

His motivations are odd. Robinson’s affects an almost magpie-like quality when he cocks his head and stares longingly at a crime bosses’ diamond ring or lapel pin.  He doesn’t want  booze, money or women. Rico wants sparkly things.

In fact, this film in unapologetically eccentric in both its plot line and its characterizations. Quirky Rico is fast friends with the fancy man Joe Massara (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr). Joe’s dream is to quit the rackets to become a ballroom dancer.

Now just imagine that idea running the gauntlet of today’s modern-day production notes and focus group-driven system. “Let me get this straight … this goon’s best friend wants to be a dancer?”

Rico and Joe pull small-time con jobs, and then retire for coffee and spaghetti. Their cozy set up is disrupted by Rico’s designs on the big time. Rico allies himself with the hilarious gorilla of a crime boss, Sam Vettori (Stanley Fields) and Rico sets an ambitious target – to knock off a swanky nightclub at New Year’s.

Rico’s swagger and audaciousness  pays off, and he quickly rises through the ranks of a criminal empire. And the worse he gets, the more power-mad, the more you feel for Rico.

It is the strangest thing – to sympathize with a villain. This is a testament to the late, great Edward G. Robinson’s talent.

By the ending, I felt as I did when I watched Laurence Olivier’s Richard III – profound, heart-crushing pity for a complete and utter bastard.

Little Caesar is a drink from the wellspring of blackest film noir, and I enjoyed every drop.

* * * *

79 minutes

Rated PG for pure goon goodness and gun violence

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