"Mother of mercy, is this the end of Rico?"
dir. Mervyn LeRoy
Edward G. Robinson,
William Collier Jr.
"For all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword." Matthew: 26-52
The words above dissolve from a title card to a lone highway gas station in the deep night. A car imbued with purpose sails into frame and rests before the pumps. A lonely figure from within the station gets up and saunters out to greet the driver who quickly leaves his car and beelines towards the entrance. The driver, with a handgun aimed at the belly of the solitary attendant, pushes him back into the light of the seemingly safe interior which immediately goes black. The quiet is shattered and the darkness is intermittently ablaze with short repeated blasts from the gun.
So begins the classic prohibition-era morality tale Little Caesar, a film that made a star of the late, great, jowly. pug-faced and portly Edward G. Robinson. With a unique nasal intonation and clipped delivery (punctuated with occasional feline-like drawls), Robinson dazzled anyone and everyone who laid eyes upon him. Rendering every one of his extraordinary line readings with a scowl and sneer, Eddie G. as Little Caesar led the Warner Bros. charge towards box office domination during the Great Depression with a series of tragic, violent, thrilling, melancholy and strangely romantic crime thrillers that took America and the world by storm.
Under Mervyn Leroy's crisp direction, this film adaptation of W. R. Burnett's grand pulp novel (and like many pictures to follow, inspired by the real-life exploits of Chicago's notorious gangster chief Al Capone), wastes no time getting to the action of the story.
The scene following the opening robbery has Rico (Robinson) eyeing a front page newspaper caption proclaiming the ironclad underworld rule of Diamond Pete Montana (Ralph Ince). Rico jealously admits to his pal and partner Joey Massara (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) what a couple of small time hicksville hoods they are and that the city is the place to ascend to new and dizzying heights of power.
No more knocking off gas stations for Rico.
From this point on, the classic rise and fall of a hoodlum - replete with killing, dames, booze, double-crosses and more killing - careens full-tilt with the velocity of a gangster's Tommy-gun.
Little Caesar is 80 years old and while certain sequences and the technique might feel dated now, it's important to remember that outside of a few silent pictures (most notably, D.W. Griffith's The Musketeers of Pig Alley and Josef Von Sternberg's stunning Underworld), it was the first of three seminal gangster pictures in the sound era (along with William "Wild Bill" A. Wellman's The Public Enemy and Howard Hawks's Scarface: The Shame of a Nation). As such, it set the mould for all that followed.
Martin Scorsese, for one, has always revered early Warner Bros. crime pictures and we see many dashes and dollops of these works in Marty's work. When Rico, for example, seeks a toe in the door of Chicago's organized crime, he pays a visit to Sam Vettori (Stanley Fields), a lower level mob boss and proprietor of the delicious den of iniquity, the Club Palermo. Upon welcoming Rico to his "family" and christening him with the "Little Caesar" nickname, we're treated to a nicely directed moment when an off-camera Vettori introduces our hero to a motley crew of hoods, pointing to each one individually round a table as they smoke, drink and play cards.
"There's Tony Passa. Can drive a car better than any mug in this town. Otero, he's little, but he's the goods, alright. Bat Carilla, Killer Pepe, Kid Bean, and this one here, Scabby, what a smart guy he is," says Vettori. During this speech, director LeRoy moves in on a series of extreme closeups, the camera whirling in a 360 degree dolly with a slightly tilted semi-God-shot as each man is introduced - some acknowledging the intro, while others do not. It's a less showy, but still effective inspiration for what Scorsese eventually did sixty years later in Goodfellas when he introduced us to the chief mobsters via the off-screen Ray Liotta in a series of brilliant singles.
Like all great artists, Scorsese borrows from the best, then makes it his own.
Edward G. Robinson borrowed, it seems, from nobody. As an actor, he was a true original. A Romanian-Jew who immigrated to America with his family when he was ten and growing up on the Lower East Side of New York, Robinson was groomed to be a Rabbi first, and when that didn't work out, a lawyer, but it was acting that ultimately beckoned. Though he worked regularly in silent films, it was theatre where he excelled. The stage was, and in fact remained his first love. He spoke numerous languages fluently and cut his teeth in Yiddish theatre. With the coming of sound, his career really took off. His swagger, style and adeptness with language served him well. His distinctive voice created many golden opportunities for him and Little Caesar provided the role of a lifetime.
While Little Caesar is a stunning, terrific picture in every respect, it's Edward G. Robinson who ultimately owns the movie.
As Rico, Robinson creates a character who is vile, cretinous, borderline psychotic and yet, from beginning to end we're with him. The script provides no literal obvious backstory for his ruthless ambition and the way he plays the role, we don't need it. Robinson fills in the blanks perfectly.
In one scene, when Rico is confronted by his pal Joe who desperately pleads to "get out" of this life of crime, LeRoy wisely and brilliantly keeps the camera over Joe's shoulder during his lengthy monologue and trained squarely on Rico. Robinson's look of vile ambition, utter disgust and pitiful envy over the fact that his friend has found love and purpose is skin-crawling. And all the while, we simply can't take our eyes off him.
Rico's deeply closeted homosexuality is also putty in Robinson's hands. At first, we wonder why he's so close to the fey, sensitive, handsome Joe, but when Joe reveals his penchant for public performance, ballroom dancing and the love of a good woman, the jealousy, disgust and yes, even heartbreak, is clear in Robinson's performance. He displays no real (or at least no overt) love, loyalty or compassion for anyone but himself - his only desire is to possess what he can't or doesn't yet have.
Robinson commands every scene, every shot he's in. It's impossible to look away, all the more extraordinary since Rico is so utterly reprehensible.
What Robinson seems to understand and convey so extraordinarily is the humanity in evil and by the time he utters his famous closing line, "Mother of mercy, is this the end of Rico?" we even shed a tear for this hollow, vicious thug.
This, however, is no real surprise. Though Robinson played mostly gangsters sleazbags or cuckolds, he was in life, an extremely delicate, intelligent and cultured man. In fact, he was an inveterate collector of fine art and once said:
"Acting and painting have much in common. You begin with the external appearance and then strip away the layers to get to the essential core. This is reality and that is how an artist achieves truth. When you are acting, you are playing a part, you are being somebody else. You are also, at the same time, being yourself."
Now that's acting!
That's a star!
"Little Caesar" is available in a extras-packed and very reasonably priced new box set of four prohibition era gangster pictures from Warner Home Entertainment under the TCM Archives banner. The package is slender and the discs are flippers, but for movie lovers, it's one of the best deals around.