Sunday, March 1, 2009

Little Caesar meets The Public Enemy

I recently watched two classic "gangster" films, Little Caesar (LC) and The Public Enemy (TPE). Both appeared in 1931, and both were the breakout films for their respective stars, Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney. Ironically, both struggled with being typecast from that point on. Other stars were Jean Harlow and Joan Blondell in TPE and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. in LC. Jean Harlow seemed out-of-place, but that just may have been her role as a high society type who gets involved with gangsters. Both films were placed by the American Film Institute (AFI) on its top ten gangster film list with TPE at No. 8 and LC in the 9th position.

Both films focus on the development of the main character as he shoots his way to the top, or near to the top of the gang. The two lead characters, Tom Powers (Cagney) and Rico (Robinson), while both see violence as necessary, differ considerably, even though they both end violently.

Rico comes across as tough, mean, and nasty as he snarls his way to the top, growling around his ever present cigar, or holding and jabbing it at a hapless underling who has displeased him. Cagney seems psychotic, almost easy-going and sometimes insolent as he winks and sneers his way through confrontations, but always seemingly on the verge of exploding into violence. Cagney's habit of playfully pulled punches supposedly suggests affection, but they seem to occur at times when Cagney represses a violent reaction, sometimes even with his mother.

Rico (Robinson), at the beginning of LC, is a small time thief who decides to go to the big city where the real action is. He and his friend Joe Massala join a mob. As the film progresses, one can see his growing ambition as he moves on up the criminal corporate ladder. His craving for power eventually drives him to become one of the most powerful gangsters in the city.

TPE, on the other hand, begins with Tom Powers (Cagney) as a young boy, growing up in a lower class urban setting. The film traces his development from shoplifting when only a child to a robbery that goes wrong and ends with a dead police officer. He and his friend Mike join a gang just as Prohibition begins. Bootlegging then becomes extremely lucrative. Powers moves up in the gang hierarchy because he is more violent than the others, but he differs from Rico in that he does not seem to be driven by Rico's craving for power.

Both films, naturally, feature violent endings, as the Biblical injunction demands: "All they that take the sword shall perish by the sword."

After Power's friend is shot down during a struggle between two gangs, he gets two guns and marches into the rival gang's headquarters. In a surprising display of restraint, the film does not depict the gory shootout, with every splatter of blood shown as it would be today, but we only hear a number of shots and a scream. Then, during a driving rainstorm, Cagney staggers outside, obviously badly wounded, takes a few steps, falls into the gutter, and utters what probably is his most famous last line: "I ain't so tough."

Rico, on the other hand, is shot and killed by the police officer who had vowed to bring him down. Rico also uttered the last words of the film as he is shot down in the bitter cold behind a billboard advertising the appearance of his friend Joe and Joe's girlfriend as a dance team: "Mother of Mercy. Is this the end of Rico?"

While both films were considered violent when they appeared in 1931, standards have changed considerably since then, and I doubt that either would get an R rating today.

TPE is also famous for the incident at breakfast, when Powers, irritated by his moll, shoves a grapefruit in her face. There are a number of stories about the origin of that scene, but the one that critics consider most credible and also the one told by Cagney and Mae Clarke (the victim) is that it was conceived by Cagney and Clarke as a practical joke on the film crew. Even though it wasn't in the script, William A. Wellman, the director, at end of filming changed his mind and decided to keep it in.

Overall Reaction: two very good films. I would recommend watching them together.

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