Last night I saw ”Little Ceasar” a second time, this time in the company of two good friends. It is funny how a movie changes when you see it in the company of others. I was bracing myself for a tedious round of boring gangster cliché, as this was the impression first round left me with. Instead I was genuinely entertained.
What a surprise. I mean, the film is the same, so what is new?
The thing is, we were enjoying all these gangster clichés exactly because they are cliché. That makes them fun to talk about or laugh about. Now, I would not say this experience was top notch, but it was a far cry from my first impression.
Story-wise “Little Ceasar” is as template as it gets. The rise and fall of a gangster hot shot.
Even on the specifics there is little new under the sun. Two friends decide to go to the city to make it big in the underworld. The crafty and ruthless one, Rico “Little Ceasar” Bandello (Edward D. Robinson) has his eyes set straight for the illustrious title as king pin with all the fame and trappings that come with the title including unlimited power. The timid one, Joe Massara, (Douglass Fairbanks, Jr.), just wants to get his dancing career restarted and wear some pretty cloth. He is not really cut for this entire gangster thing.
It strikes me as a bit of an odd couple; the hardboiled gangster and the effeminate dancer, but I suppose they wanted to create a contrast between the two. In any case, they have hardly arrived in town before they drift apart and Rico gets himself a job in Vettori’s gang as a gunman with a reluctant Joe in tow, while Joe spend most of his time dancing at the Bronze Peacock club with his new girlfriend and partner Olga.
From this point the story follows two tracks: The advance of Rico toward gangster stardom and the widening gap between Rico and Joe.
An important crux in both tracks is when Vettori’s gang hit the Bronze Peacock and uses a most reluctant Joe as watchman. This puts Rico in a position to take over leadership of the gang, but it also prompts Joe to decide to resign from the gang.
As head of the Vettori gang Rico is now a hot shot and can let himself be celebrated as such. He made it and this is just the beginning. Unfortunately his success has also triggered the interest of police detective Flaherty. He is so over the top cold and slow speaking that he serves as a prime cliché of the police terrier who will not let go of its prey no matter how long it takes.
Rico has a ruthless streak, which we see unfold when one of his men turn repentant and seeks out a priest. He is shot down on the stairs to the church. When Joe finally tells Rico he is quitting he wants to leave town with Olga since he knows that Rico will not let him leave the gang. Instead Olga insists that they spill the beans to Flaherty and thus solve the problem the right way. Easy for her to say, it is not her who will get shot. And true enough before the police arrives Rico and henchman Otero show up to silence Joe. At the moment of execution Rico realizes he cannot do it and instead Otero pulls a shot at Joe before the police shows up and they make a quick escape through the window.
Otero gets caught, Rico’s organization is unraveled and Rico himself goes underground, living in the gutter. Even then Rico gets provoked by being called yellow and challenges (stupidly) the police. They of course trace the call, show up and shoot him down like a dog, just below a huge billboard proclaiming the stardom of dancers Olga and Joe.
The thing about all these clichés, both in outline, detail and execution is that they all come from this movie. This is where it started. All those clichés are only clichés because they have been repeated shamelessly by countless stories since. What was new in 1930 has become gangster mythology since.
I think a movie like “Public Enemy” is better because it is more concerned with the characters, but there must be some credit to the movie that started this entire bloody fad.
Technically I must congratulate Warner on the restoration of “Little Ceasar”. This is a very early talkie, but both sound and picture were surprisingly crisp on my edition. That really helps. Still, no soundtrack, limited effects, overacting, stiff dialogue. Man, they made a lot of progress in the thirties starting from this point.
I would say that “Little Ceasar” is more enjoyable than good, but in good company, that is also enough.