Monday, June 09, 2014

Little Caesar (1931)

This is the gangster film that started it all, with Edward G. Robinson in his star-making role as the small-time hood who quickly climbs his way to the top of Chicago's crime racket, and just as quickly falls back into the gutter. It established the "rise and fall" narrative that influenced so many gangster movies to follow. As the first major gangster movie of the sound era, it was as influential in its way as STAGECOACH was to the Western or DRACULA was to the horror film. As others have noted, the gangster film really came into its own with the addition of sound, allowing audiences to hear the rapid-fire of machine gun bullets and the slang dialogue that has become forever associated with the genre.

Although eclipsed by Warner Bros.' own THE PUBLIC ENEMY, directed by William Wellman and released later the same year, and Howard Hawks' SCARFACE the year after, LITTLE CAESAR still packs a powerful punch thanks to Robinson's alternately tough and pathetic performance in the title role that transcends the limitations of the early sound film medium with his masterful delivery of dialogue and his total command of every scene in which he appears.

However, LITTLE CAESAR is so well-remembered for Robinson's iconic performance that it's easy to overlook the film's other strong points, namely its concise script by Robert N. Lee and Francis Edward Faragoh (adapted from W.R. Burnett's novel) that tells the story in just under 80 minutes without sacrificing the character development between Rico and his long-time friend and former partner-in-crime Joe Massara (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.), which provides the dramatic crux of the plot. Then there are Anton Grot's sets, re-creating gangland Chicago on the backlot of the Warner Bros. studio, including a particularly elaborate nightclub set infused with Art Deco style.

Finally, Mervyn LeRoy's direction should be singled out for praise. He was not a visual stylist like Wellman or Hawks, and yet he never allows the images to become dull or impoverished even during the lengthier scenes of exposition, expertly blocking the actors' movements in the frame and finding interesting ways of lighting the set and moving the camera. Of particular note are his handling of the nightclub robbery sequence, depicted entirely in montage, and the unceremonious shooting of a young gang member on the steps of a church.

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