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Edward G. Robinson,
Rico is a small-time hood who knocks off gas stations for whatever he can take. He heads east and signs up with Sam Vettori's mob. A New Year's Eve robbery at Little Arnie Lorch's casino results in the death of the new crime commissioner Alvin McClure. Rico's good friend Joe Massara, who works at the club as a professional dancer, works as the gang's lookout man and wants out of the gang. Rico is ambitious and eventually takes over Vettori's gang; he then moves up to the next echelon pushing out Diamond Pete Montana. When he orders Joe to dump his girlfriend Olga and re-join the gang, Olga decides there's only one way out for them. Written by
Technically it is not the first gangster movie. D.W.Griffith's MUSKETEERS OF PIG ALLEY was, and after that there were films in the silent period dealing with gangs and crime. But the cycle of anti-hero gangsters began in the sound period with LITTLE CAESAR (1930/31) followed by THE PUBLIC ENEMY (1931) and SCARFACE: SHAME OF THE NATION (1932). Each made a movie star out of the lead actor: Edward G. Robinson as Enrico Bandello in LITTLE CAESAR; James Cagney as Tom Powers in THE PUBLIC ENEMY; and Paul Muni as Tony Carmonte in SCARFACE.
The interesting thing about these three sound classics is that the central anti-heroes are not the same (except in their willing use of violence). Cagney enjoys the violence as much as Muni, but Cagney has a great sense of loyalty to his friends and a deep love for his mother. Muni respects his mother, but his family love is centered on his sister (Ann Dvorak), and his loyalty to friends ends the moment he suspects they are no longer obeying him or are threatening him. And Robinson? He has no close contact with any family in the story (his last words are addressed to the Virgin Mary ("Mother of mercy"), not his own mother), and never has a girlfriend (a fact made more clear in the novel). However, he has very strong feeling dealing with his close friend Joe Massara (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.), and actually hesitates only once in killing anyone: when he might have to shoot Joe to get at Joe's girlfriend Olga (Glenda Farrell). Suddenly his eyes get teary - one wonders how close he felt towards Fairbanks. His loyal associate, Otero (George E. Stone) does not hesitate to try to shoot Fairbanks, and he wounds him, but they are forced to flee before Otero can finish the job. Interestingly, Rico/Robinson is not as moved when Otero, fatally wounded, tells him to flee a scene or two afterward.
The gangs in PUBLIC ENEMY and SCARFACE are successful and organized, but we never fully see this. Not so in LITTLE CAESAR. One critical approach to the film has likened it and the rise of Rico to Andrew Carnegie's advise to young businessmen at the turn of the century. And we do see the organization going from Joe and Rico and Otero to Sam to Diamond Pete Montana to "the Big Boy" (who lives in a mansion with accoutrements). Interestingly when the gang is destroyed, the news of the trials and executions do not include Montana (who has always kept a low profile - he never has his picture taken), or "the Big Boy". The ones who learn the rules of corporate America, as applied to crime gangs, survive: the Lucianos and Costellos, not the Siegels or Anastasias or Schultzs.
The film set stardom for Robinson, although (like Cagney, but oddly not like Muni) Robinson was stuck mostly in crime movies in the 1930s. It wasn't until the later 1930s that he was able to show he could play other types of characters, although even when not a gangster he was cast as the villain (THE SEA WOLF). He never did win an Oscar for this part, still his best known), but he did have a long distinguished career in movies, capped (after his last film, the under appreciated SOYLENT GREEN, with a life achievement Oscar. Not bad for a man whose best known character died in a gutter wondering why he was ending this way instead of on top.
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