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EMPIRE ESSAY: Little Caesar Review

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Rico joins Sam Ventori's gang. He replaces Sam as leader, pushes rival gang leader Arnie Lorch out of town, then goes after the job of next-higher-up Pete Montana. He accepts when "Big Boy" offers him that prize but his sights are set higher still. They are also cast on his best friend Joe's girl

★★★★★

If Al Jolson's "You ain't heard nothin' yet" in The Jazz Singer (1927) was the CGI water-tentacle in The Abyss (1989), then the soundtrack of a Warner Brothers picture like Little Caesar (1931) was Jurassic Park (1993). Audiences who had grown up with inter-titles, live piano music, and gesturing mimes were bowled over not only by the talk of the talkies but by the sound effects. Little Caesar has the rhythm of snarled urban street talk, the rat-tat-tat of tommy guns used in drive-by hits and the screech of getaway car tires, as scenes blow up and over as fast as a child's tantrum. From the film, 1930s audiences learned slang phrases ("Make it snappy", "Screw, mug", "You said a mouthful") and criminal expressions ("torpedo", "moll", "cannon").

Based on a novel by W.R. Burnett (who also wrote High Sierra and The Asphalt Jungle), Little Caesar hit screens after a couple of successful talkie gangster movies (Doorway To Hell, The Racket) had appeared, but it was different. Producer Darryl F. Zanuck said: "Every other underworld picture has had a thug with a little bit of good in ' him. He reforms before the fade-out. This guy is no good at all. It'll go over big." Warners, the studio that had introduced the talkies, loved ripped-from-the-headlines stories and instructed directors like Mervyn LeRoy to make sure their movies really moved. Like most major gangster films, Little Caesar is roughly modelled on the plot of Macbeth — he gets ambitious, he gets violent, he rises to the top, he takes a huge fall, he dies in the gutter. Little Caesar rushes through this rise-and-fall in under 80 minutes.

But the film really went over big because of its star. Edward G. Robinson, born Emmanuel Goldenberg in Romania but raised in New York City, had played hoods before on stage and screen, and had established his acting chops in Shaw and Shakespeare. Invited to test for a supporting thug role, he held out for the lead and was cast over more conventionally handsome movie star types like Lew Ayres (The Doorway to Hell (1930). Robinson's performance remains electric, dwarfing everyone else despite his small stature. Cesare Enrico Bandello — Rico, "Little Caesar" — is the first great film gangster. A small-time heist-man, Rico comes to the Big City (unnamed, but plainly Chicago) and attaches himself to a second-string mob, rising through his willingness to break the criminal code and ruthless enough to gun down the city's crusading anti-crime commissioner.

"Sam," Rico tells his soon-to-be-former boss, "you can dish it out but it's getting so you can't take it no more. You're through." As a new boss, he wipes out his rivals and wins the patronage of "The Big Boy" (Sidney Blackmer), a Capone-style political fixer. But he has one weakness, a surprisingly gay (for 1930) fixation on George Raft-like ex-gangster dancer Joe (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) and can't rub the kid outwhen it's clear Joe is about to squeal to the cops. Rico falls to a skid row flophouse and dies because acanny Irish cop (Frank Faylen) taunts him into a shoot-out.

It's a fully-realised performance and still imitated: Robinson's bullfrog features and strutting bantam walk, with the snarled catchphrases ("The bigger they I come, the harder they fall") and repeated use of "see" to emphasise I threats or boasts, remains an archetype of the gangster. Rico starts out an uncouth hick but as he kills and robs his way to the top — the film is a bit vague about how he makes his money, with no mention of prohibition or protection racketry — he is transformed into a dandy in a derby hat, double-breasted waistcoat, pinstripes and camel-hair coat. Before meeting with the Big Boy in his lavish mansion (told a painting is worth $15,000, Rico muses "Boy, those gold frames sure cost plenty of dough"), Rico gets into his first tuxedo and awkwardly admires himself in the mirror, at once a preening queen and a little boy dressed up.

Like the incestuous Tony of Scarface and the woman-beating Tom of The Public Enemy, Rico is sexually weird, making him a freak even among crooks. But Robinson sees a streak of pathos in his collapse, in Rico's desperate wish for class and respect rather than cold cash.

The last act is surprisingly moving. In the first great gangster death scene, the fatally wounded and disbelieving antihero breathes "Mother of Mercy, is this the end of Rico?" as he dies in the shadow of a poster advertising the hit film his former friend has just made in Hollywood: Tipsy-Topsy-Turvy ("Laughing Singing Dancing Success ").

Brilliant early crime epic.