DVD Review Of Little
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 6/3/12
Little Caesar is a good example of a film that is historically important but which has dated very poorly. The camera work, by cinematographer Tony Gaudio, is mediocre, the spare soundtrack, by Erno Rapee, is garbled, and the acting very wooden. Even Edward G. Robinson, who became a star in this role, is merely ok. What makes this all the more amazing is that, just a few months later, in 1931, Jimmy Cagney would burst on to the screen with The Public Enemy, a film that holds up cinematically- technically and aesthetically- far better. Directed by Mervyn LeRoy, and written by Francis Edward Faragoh and Robert N. Lee, adapted from a novel by W.R. Burnett, the 78 minute, black and white film, limps along, despite being nominated for a Best Adapted Screenplay Academy Award. So unsure of its narrative power is the film that, like its silent era cousins, it makes extensive use of intertitle cards to convey plot points quickly, and also obscure the narrative fact of its indeterminate chronology.
That’s because there is a general awkwardness to this film that many early talky pictures had, and the acting style is unconvincing. There are scenes which simply make little sense, diegetically or not, and clank along in stereotypes. Aside form The Public Enemy, and the Paul Muni vehicle, Scarface: The Shame Of A Nation, one might also compare it to German Director Fritz Lang’s film M, released the same year, which made a star of Peter Lorre, another rather un-movie star-like movie star. In that film, Lorre plays a pedophile child killer done in by a trial brought by local gangsters, enraged that his killings have brought the wrath of the cops down upon them. That film, like The Public Enemy, is far more realistic in its depictions of crime, criminals, and their motivations.
This film, by contrast, not only foregoes any motivations for its characters, but also ignores the time and place the tale takes place- i.e.- Prohibition. It opens with a gas station robbery that turns into murder, because of the itchy trigger finger of a small time hood, from the sticks, named Caesar Enrico Bandello (Edward G. Robinson), known mainly as Rico. His partner is Joe Massara (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.), who longs to become a dancer. But, both head to the Big City (never named in the film but obviously patterned after Chicago). Joe meets Olga (Glenda Farrell), falls in love, and turns his back on Rico. Rico hooks up with an established gang, the Sam Vettori (Stanley Fields) Mob. He soon takes over after he shames Sam and establishes himself as innovative and daring. But, on a job robbing a rival gangster he kills the Crime Czar of the city, and brings heat upon all mobsters. Even though he gains the attention of the media, and the following of his gang, Rico still longs for the approval of Joe, and is jealous of Olga.
Rico threatens to kill Olga if Joe does not rejoin the gang. Joe refuses and Rico comes to kill them both, but backs down. Joe and he have a deep bond. But this loyalty undoes Rico, as Olga and Joe turn state’s evidence to the cops. Rico’s gang is all caught and/or killed, and Sam is hung. Rico hides out for a few months, but when his nemesis, Sergeant Flaherty (Thomas E. Jackson, who steals the film with his sardonic wit) goads him via newspaper stories, Rico, who has been holing up in a flophouse, takes the bait, and calls Flaherty. This results in a shootout between Rico and the cops. Rico ends up mortally shot, under a billboard for Joe’s and Olga’s play, muttering, ‘Mother of Mercy, is this the end of Rico?’
The rest of the actors in the film are non-noteworthy, save for George E. Styone as Otero. His fawning over Rico, and Rico’s fawning over Joe have led some obtuse critics to construe homosexual motives in these relationships. But it’s quite absurd, as Otero is clearly in hero worship mode over Rico, and Rico’s feelings for Joe are clearly that of a lonely man who’s had all others abandon him, and does not want to lose the last link to his past. There is a well shot scene where Otero fawns over Rico, in a tuxedo, and Rico’s image is next to Otero, almost as if a midget, in the mirror. Rico makes a fey gesture, just before the cut, and this has been used as ‘proof’ of the homosexuality of the film. But, again, this is just an imbuement of modern biases into a dated work of art from another culture. Compare it to a similar once deleted scene with a tailor in The Public Enemy, where an obvious homosexual is fawning over the James Cagney character, and the difference is stark.
More cogent is the claim that Little Caesar represents a look at American capitalism without the blinders. Rico is like many of the Gilded Age thugs who made violence and murder an accepted practice of business. In much the same way that the Rockefellers and Carnegies avoided being publicly seen with blood on their hands, so too do the big movers and shakers of the city’s underworld. Diamond Pete Montana (Ralph Ince) and the Big Boy (Sidney Blackmer), who are several notches above Rico, survive, because both keep low profiles, whereas Rico does his Al Capone and John Gotti-like best to court the press. In the world of Big Business, too, the CEOs that stay behind the scenes survive the longest. But, Little Caesar, while nowhere near great cinema, has had an undertow that few films have ever had- is it mere coincidence that four decades later the federal Racketeering Influenced Corrupt Organizations Act of 1970 (RICO Act) was named what it was named, a rather awkward acronym that plays off of this film’s lead character?
As for the DVD from Warner Brothers? The film is seen in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, and the print has many more blemishes and flaws than does the company’s release of The Public Ernemy. The DVD is part of a 6 disk Warner Brothers Gangsters Collection. The extra features are all good, for the DVD tries to present the film as it would have been shown in theaters, in a section called Warner Night At The Movies. Hosted by film critic Leonard Maltin, the segment features cartoons, newsreels, trailers and short subject films from the same year as the film in the DVD- this one being 1931. The trailer is for Five Star Final. Then we see a newsreel and a short Spencer Tracy film titled The Hard Guy. The cartoon is Lady Play Your Mandolin, and there is a 1954 re-release Foreword to the film. The featurette on the film is called Little Caesar: End of Rico, Beginning Of The Antihero. Assorted film experts, including director Martin Scorsese, reminisce on the film and its impact. There is also the original theatrical trailer for Little Caesar and the 1954 re-release disclaimer. The film commentary features film historian Richard B. Jewell, and it’s merely an ok commentary. Unlike the best of the genre, his commentary is not scene specific, but he does make some good points, such as the Flaherty character being less important as a character within the diegetic reality of the film, but more so assuming the role of a Greek Chorus. I noted this the first time I watched the film, and that, along with the scene of Rico in the mirror, and the overhead shot when the film first cuts to Little Arnie’s gambling house, were the things that leapt out at me as being important. He also makes some incisive comments about how Rico is basically a dupe, for, as a man who thinks the Big Boy’s painting is so expensive because of its gold frame, he is forever doomed to be longing for what he cannot have, as well as being a pawn to folks like the Big Boy, and, later, to Ma Magdalen (Lucille La Verne) the fence. To his credit, Jewell puts little stock in the homosexuality angle that some critics chomp on.
All in all, Little Caesar is a film that, for most folk, they will watch with a sense of fascination for its crudity, and how such a film rose to ‘classic’ status. It’s entertaining, but not deep. It even makes Alfred Hitchcock’s Freudian melodramas look complex, by comparison. But, Edward G. Robinson gives a good, not great, performance of a character whose existence was so utterly alien to most film patrons of the day that it has gained a legendary status that its actual exposition cannot uphold. Nonetheless, it is worth a looksy, for wile not as nearly well crafted and stylistically influential as The Public Enemy (after all, it lacked Jimmy Cagney, right?), it must have some power, because, after all, when Rico utters his parting line, one almost feels sorry for the little bastard. I said almost, and that word is why the film does, if barely, rise above being mere melodrama, for melodramas never get the percipient enough involved to notice such filigrees, framed in gold or not.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Alternative Film Guide website.]
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