Edward G. Robinson, tremendous, claimed the role that made him a star in Little Caesar, Mervyn LeRoy’s ultimately brilliant meditation on the unnaturalness and perniciousness of the American ethos of “rugged individualism,” which, to say the least, wars with humanity’s quest for sociability. LeRoy’s film, based on an unpublished novel by W. R. Burnett, also addresses the difficulty of self-determination—in America or, for that matter, anyplace else. It is one of the most important Hollywood films of the 1930s, and its success helped define abiding features of the cycle of gangster sagas that Josef von Sternberg’s Underworld (1927) had launched.
Squat, pudgy and with a face not even a mother could love, middle-aged Robinson plays a character, in part modeled on Al Capone, with twin identities: Cesare Enrico “Rico” Bandello and “Little Caesar.” Rico refers to himself in the third person—for instance, when he says, “No cop’s ever gonna put cuffs on Rico”—as a way of determining and confirming his reality and identity; “Little Caesar” is a creature of the press that proves to be his downfall, the price exacted for his quest to rise from anonymity “in the gutter” as a two-bit hooligan to become, in the words of Tennyson’s Ulysses, “a name”—a somebody, but a somebody owned by the press, which helps determine the course of his life and death. In effect, Rico’s success, his climb up the ladder of crime, requires the appropriation of his identity and theft of his self-determination, culminating in his fall, making him vulnerable to the collusion between press and law enforcement that ruthlessly engineers his sanctioned murder at night on a dark street. (LeRoy would criticize the U.S. press on other grounds in his best film, They Won’t Forget, 1937.)
Rico participates in yet another “double identity.” Joe Massara and Rico started out together on their low-grade criminal careers. Now, Massara has begged out of Rico’s gang to pursue his own passion, dancing, which provokes Rico’s confrontation with the solitudinousness and loneliness of his individualism, which Massara’s loyalty and companionship had helped assuage. Rico has already proven he will shoot dead anyone he cares to (ever ready in this regard, Rico holds his cigar as if it were a gun, as a closeup demonstrates), and the matter of anyone who withdraws from Rico’s gang is a no-brainer. Indeed, Rico and his men break into Massara’s apartment precisely to shoot dead Massara and Olga, Massara’s girlfriend. At the last second, though, Rico’s eyes burn with something akin to tears and he cannot squeeze the trigger of his gun. For Rico, this paralysis results from the equal and opposite claims on his psyche that Massara’s rebellion has imposed; for Massara’s decision both deprives Rico of his sole friend but also in a flash comes to encapsulate the self-determination that Rico himself longs for. To kill Massara might also murder the possibility for Rico’s own self-determination. Put another way, Massara’s decision both impresses upon Rico his lack of control of things, which his notorious trigger-happiness aims to suppress from view (his own view and the view of others), and provides a model of such control that he dare not obliterate it. Put yet a third way, to kill his one-time close friend might mean Rico was also killing Rico.
I am not discounting the sexual element either. Indeed, the casting of handsome 21-year-old Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., in the role of Joe Massara underscores this element. It is simply the case that other elements of the Rico-Massara relationship contribute more fully and directly to the thematic aims and development of LeRoy’s film. (Fairbanks, incidentally, is excellent.)
However, there is an obvious connection between the glimmers of Rico’s repressed homosexuality that the film provides and the film’s larger themes. It corresponds to the “rugged” in “rugged individualism” for which Rico strives. When he learns of Massara’s desire to become a dancer, Rico calls him a “sissy.” The number of notches in Rico’s belt, so to speak, shows how tough Rico is; he himself denounces “softness” in others. In short (or hard and long), LeRoy’s film implies that the American male pursuit of rugged individualism is, at root, an attempt to deny or cover up either homosexual inclinations or male anxiety over the existence of such inclinations. Indeed, this connection helps unify the film thematically.
Apart from Robinson and Fairbanks, LeRoy’s film isn’t acted well; to accommodate the microphones of the day, most of the actors speak so slowly that their performances are studied and stiff. On the other hand, this helps Robinson’s rapid-fire manner of speaking, honed on stage, to rip through both the other voices and the film’s silences. Rico’s final moment—the film’s penultimate scene—is heart-piercing. Expiring, Rico delivers his famous utterance: “Mother of Mercy, is this the end of Rico?” Although the question is marvelously ambiguous (is Rico referring to the end of his life or the location, a gutter?), the answer he receives is almost instantaneous. It is because of his final words, I suppose, that some have characterized Rico as a tragic hero. He is not this, of course—not in any Aristotelian or even Shakespearean sense. Rather, he is closer to the modern anti-hero. Rico is a riveting monster, and the primitive nature of LeRoy’s film suits him to a tee.
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