Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Films I've Overlooked: Little Caesar (1931)

Little Caesar and The Public Enemy, both released in 1931, have become linked in the public consciousness as the first great gangster films, and also as the breakthrough performances for two iconic gangster stars - Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney.

I saw and yapped about The Public Enemy a few months back (HERE), and figured it was time I had a look at Little Caesar too. There are similarities, sure, in scenery, supporting characters, dialogue, and the fact that both leads - while uncompromisingly bad - are somehow likable. But what struck me most are the differences.

Most of those differences, I suspect, are due to W.R. Burnett. While Public Enemy was based (supposedly) on an unpublished novel by a couple of street thugs, Little Caesar was based on the work of a talented novelist. And it shows. Public Enemy drives its moral home by hitting the viewer over the head with a club (I'm guessing this is part of the reason that novel went  unpublished). The saga of Little Caesar unfolds with far more finesse. Public Enemy, at times, is maudlin, while Little Caesar is clever and smart.

In releasing Little Caesar, First National-Vita phone (essentially a Warner Bros company), seemed of two minds. Though Douglas Fairbanks Jr. had second billing, he got most of the attention on the movie posters. Most moviegoers must have expected this to be a love story with a crime element, rather than a crime story with just a touch of love. Actually, though important to the plot, Fairbanks got relatively little screen time, while Robinson was rarely out of view. (By the time of the 1954 release - below - Robinson unquestionably the star. The French, though - at bottom - got the message the first time.)

Caesar Enrico Bandello (Robinson) and his pal Joe Massara (Doug Jr.) begin the film as small-time hoods. Rico dreams of being a big-time hood, while Joe just wants to be a dancer. Both get their wish, putting them on very different paths. Joe wants to leave the gang life behind, but Rico - mostly out of ego - refuses to let him go. While Joe tries to dance his way to redemption, Rico just goes from bad to badder. When one of his gang mates listens to his ma and decides to confess his sins, Rico guns him down on the steps of a church. As you might expect, things do not end well for Rico.

The fates of the two anti-heroes is another defining difference between this film and The Public Enemy. Cagney, too smart for his own good, goes out in a melodramatic blaze of violence. Robinson, not as smart as he thinks he is, goes out in far more ignoble - but more realistic fashion.

Bottom line: Little Caesar plays out like a novel, while Public Enemy is a comic book.

More Overlooked Films at SWEET FREEDOM.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I sure agree with your review. There was just always something too heavy handed about Pubic Enemy that I couldn't get into. I thought it was very well directed, but I didn't like the story.

Little Cesar was my favorite, too. :)