Saturday, August 20, 2016

Before I Die #577: Little Caesar (1931)

This is the 577th movie I've now seen from the "Before You Die" list that I'm gradually working my way through.


Director: Mervyn LeRoy

Another bona fide classic that, while clearly tremendously influential, has lost quite a bit over time.

Little Caesar was and is, by all accounts, the earliest morality play gangster movie. Preceding The Public Enemy by a mere four months and 1932's Scarface: The Shame of a Nation, it featured a star-making turn by Edward G. Robinson as Rico, power-hungry, eminently violent thug who uses his cunning, brutality, and willpower to quickly carve out a sizable portion of the criminal underworld in an unnamed big city. With one exception that ultimately leads to his downfall, Rico shows no mercy to anyone who gets between him and his grab power and respect through fear.

Like Tom Powers and Tony in the other two aforementioned films, Rico was modeled after Al Capone, the most infamous organized criminal in the United States at the time. The fictional arch villains in these movies were used to illustrate the film-makers belief that such crime lords were to be seen as a cancer on society - a cancer which the public had a responsibility to root out and destroy. To the end of delivering this message, any trace of glamour and attraction is stripped away from Rico. Yes, he eventually acquires flashy material goods, but his methods of obtaining them are so cruel and repugnant that all but the most immature and superficial of viewers would mistake Rico for some sort of role model. And by the end, Rico is meant to be a lamentable, appalling , and almost pathetic figure.

One might be briefly blinded by the slick clothes and
powerful figure that Rico cuts, but one doesn't have to try
very hard to see that it is merely window dressing on a
deranged, power-obsessed psychopath.
Beyond its clear message about violent crime, the movie holds up only so well, these 85 years later. Robinson really is an acting force. Like James Cagney in The Public Enemy, he unintentionally puts to shame all of the many weaker performances around him. Perhaps it is because this iconic movie has been parodied and comically evoked so many times since its release, but it is difficult to take seriously all of the tough-guy slang that gets bandied about. I imagine that it was fresh and riveting back in the 1930s and '40s, but I couldn't stifle laughter at much of the dialogue. I was, however, pleasantly surprised by the unusual performance by Thomas E. Jackson as Sergeant Flaherty. Jackson played the part with an odd, slow drawl and a self-assured calm which really stood out. I found it one of the stronger, more memorable supporting performances in any movie from that era.

There can be no doubt about this movie's influence on film, regardless of genre, but particularly the gangster/crime movie. In hindsight, I wish I had watched this one before The Public Enemy and Scarface, as it clearly influenced these latter two. Like those movies, it is an easy, entertaining watch that shows the best, earliest examples of a type of movie that is distinctly American and still very much alive to this very day.

***An interesting note that the trio of early anti-gangster movies seemed to rely solely on death at a young age as the major deterrent to taking up a life of crime. Those movies and their creators never reckoned on the notion of living fast, taking what you can get, and dying young would become a credo embraced by alpha types in impoverished neighborhoods, where a short life is often assumed. For individuals with this "get rich or die tryin'" mentality, this type of movie has become not a cautionary tale but almost a guide for living. One need look no further than the modern reverence that many young aspiring and hardened criminals have for De Palma's 1983 remake of Scarface. The ultimate message in that movie is no different from its inspirations from the early 1930s, but for many it has had the polar opposite effect than what the original film-makers intended.

That's 577 movies down. Only 600 to go before I can die.