Little Caesar

Little Caesar (1931) movie poster

(1931) dir. Mervyn LeRoy
viewed: 11/23/08

My whimsy for the day of watching a few films didn’t take off well.  Several of the primary films that I sought at the video store were not there, things that would have made a good pairing.  So, in the end, I grabbed a handful of noir and/or gangster films, all ones that I wanted to see, but sort of at random.

First, I watched The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), which was one that I’d wanted to see the most.  But I also grabbed Little Caesar, which I’d had in my Netflix queue, but hadn’t had the biggest urge to see.  As you’ll soon see here, I also grabbed White Heat (1949) with James Cagney.  As it turns out, if I could have planned better, Little Caesar would have been best paired with another James Cagney film, The Public Enemy, which would have then paired up well with White Heat.  Well, that would have been the most apt triple feature of the set.

Little Caesar is excellent.  Released in 1931, part of the rich but brief era between the onset of “sound” film and the implementation of the Hays Code in 1934, the Pre-Code Era (also see: Scarface (1932)), as it is now known, was full of racy stories, more sex, more violence, more character than once the Puritains stepped in and “cleaned up” Hollywood.

It stars Edward G. Robinson, and perhaps it is my own lack of familiarity with the actor that kept me from being interested in it.  I’d recently seen him in Key Largo (1946) but had mostly known of him from caricatures in old Warner Brothers cartoons.  He’s archetypical, maybe partially from his classic voice, so wont to be immitated, but also perhaps I think so because that’s how I grew up knowing him: as a cartoon.  He’s brilliant in the film.  A true star-turn.  This movie made him.

Adapted from a book by W.R. Burnett, who wrote the book as a thinly veiled story about Al Capone, so it is said, the story follows a small time, small town hood and his buddy who move up to Chicago and eventually climbs to the top of the heap, only to sink back into the gutter when his greed and ego get him and his gang shot down.

The film is considered a critique not merely of American gangsters, but of the American Dream itself, a rise to the top, through hard work and hard-nosedness, skewed through the lens of perversity of that of a psychopathic egotist and murderer.  The film, with The Public Enemy, kicked off the gangster film genre as we know it today, and sparked more interest and idealization of the gangster/mobster hero/anti-hero.  The perversity and pleasure in siding with the psychopath.  Which is the more tangible type of criticism of the film at the time that got those behind the Hays Code into action.

With its great final line: “Mother of Mercy!…Is this the end of Rico?”, the whole thing is top notch and Robinson is flat-out awesome.

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