Judge Steve Evans will never think of pizza again when this classic noir is mentioned.
Our reviews of TCM Greatest Gangster Films Collection: Prohibition Era (published September 22nd, 2010) and Ultimate Gangsters Collection: Classics (Blu-ray) (published May 27th, 2013) are also available.
Is this the end of Rico?
Edward G. Robinson defined the gangster genre and became a star in this trend-setting 1930 gem from Warner Bros.
Facts of the Case
Petty hoodlum Cesare Enrico Bandello (Robinson) vows to take over a Chicago mob by killing anyone in his path. With attitude and aggression that belies his small stature, "Rico" defies his mafia bosses, murders the Chicago crime commissioner during a New Year's Eve ball, and double-crosses any associate foolish enough to question his grab for power.
Rico barks and snarls his way to the top, snapping off invective with the staccato clip of a Tommy gun. The role launched Robinson into superstardom just as he was typecast for years as a pugnacious gangster and ornery little SOB. His performance as Rico has been imitated and parodied so often that it can be hard to understand what a breakthrough role this was for the Romanian-born Robinson. He raises the performance almost to the level of Greek tragedy, as Rico kills and connives inexorably to his destiny. Little Caesar may be Robinson's best-known work, followed by no-nonsense insurance investigator Barton Keyes in Billy Wilder's classic noir, Double Indemnity. A quiet collector of art, Robinson always seemed bemused in interviews that his fortune came from playing vicious thugs in the movies.
Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. costars as Joe Massara, Rico's longtime associate who is trying desperately to go straight. Despite sharing his famous father's name, Fairbanks commands minimal screen time and displays little of the charisma he would bring to later projects like Gunga Din. We learn on the commentary track that Clark Gable was originally considered for the part of Joe. Though it seems unlikely that an established star like Gable would have wanted such a small role, the benefit of hindsight suggests he might have stolen the film—taking the focus off Robinson's menacing, mesmerizing performance.
Adapted from a novel by W.R. Burnett, the innovative screenplay by Francis Edwards Faragoh unfolds from the perspective of the gangsters who populate the plot. Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo would take a similar approach 40 years later in their script for The Godfather. Indeed, one of the assassinations during the famous Baptism massacre that climaxes Coppola's masterpiece is an obvious homage to a virtually identical murder in Little Caesar.
In both films, the effect immerses viewers in the underworld, as we are forced to identify with the killers and thieves who inhabit this substratum of society. This must have been a vicarious thrill for Depression-era audiences stricken by poverty. For the price of a movie ticket, they could watch the diminutive Rico "Little Caesar" Bandello rob and kill in order to rise above his station, yet be safe in the knowledge that comeuppance would be waiting in the final reel. During the 1930s and well into the '40s, Warner Bros. specialized in these social commentaries thinly disguised as pulp fiction. In a time of hopelessness and despair, the characters in Little Caesar define their self-worth in terms of wealth and influence—both fleeting in a world of duplicity and sudden death.
The camera captures Rico's observant nature as he gazes in envy at a mob leader's jeweled cravat, diamond pinky ring, and stock of fine cigars. He visibly twitches at the sight of bundled cash piled high on a gangster's desk. Rico salivates at the thought of wealth, but a lust for power is his real obsession.
Setting becomes another character in Little Caesar, as we gain entrance to places with florid names like The Bronze Peacock and The Palermo Club, where schemes take life and a man's fate might literally be sealed in cement.
So pervasive was the impact of this violent movie that the federal Racketeering Influenced Corrupt Organizations Act of 1970—or RICO—probably owes its acronym to Robinson's character.
Warner Bros. includes a generous package of extras on this disc, which is part of the studio's gangster collection now available as individual titles or in a boxed set. Added content includes "Warner Night at the Movies 1930," hosted by Leonard Maltin, featuring a trailer for Five Star Final starring Robinson, a newsreel, a short film starring a young Spencer Tracy, a cartoon, and the feature attraction. Each program can be played in succession or individually. Warner Bros. includes the original theatrical trailer as well as a curious foreword that accompanied the 1954 re-release. Rounding out the extra features, University of Southern California film historian Richard Jewell supplies an insightful commentary track, and a 16-minute feature chronicles the cinematic evolution of the antihero.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Like most films of its day, Little Caesar reflects the awkward transition from the era of silents to the new age of talkies. While director Mervyn LeRoy shows a remarkable facility for voiceover and layered dialogue, the technical limitations of early sound recording required the camera to be bolted down during dialogue-intensive scenes. Cinematically, the results are often static, though compensated by Robinson's electrifying performance. LeRoy also relies on intertitles like the old silent films to confer information quickly and convey the passage of time.
Little Caesar would also benefit from a musical score to offset lengthy silent passages. Audio is presented in the original mono.
The film transfer suffers for lack of adequate restoration, as 75 years of accumulated scratches mar the print for much of its 78-minute running time. Still, Warner Bros. is commended for keeping the film alive and commercially available in an affordable edition. A multimillion-dollar restoration might push the retail price of the DVD beyond the interest of some collectors.
A gangster classic, Little Caesar became a virtual blueprint for the genre. The film's influence and Robinson's star-making performance transcend time, becoming manifest in pictures as different in tone and texture as The Godfather, Miller's Crossing, Goodfellas, and even Reservoir Dogs.
For sheer cockiness alone, Rico would be free to go if he could get up and walk away. Warner Bros. receives praise for releasing a decent, if not spectacular, print of a classic film with a handsome package of extras in a proper keep case.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary by Film Historian Richard Jewell
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