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Hail Caesar!

September 1st, 2003

BY JIM PATTON

What can I tell you, if you haven’t seen Little Caesar? How about (to paraphrase the inimitable Edward G. Robinson as Rico/Little Caesar, an Al Capone-inspired gangster): Get your butt out and rent it, or my gun’s gonna speak its piece. Grrr.

edwardg.jpgTough talk? Well, I learned my best tough stuff from Edward G. in this 1930 blockbuster, commonly known as the grandfather of the modern crime film. He went on to great things, including priceless performances as the suspendered insurance-fraud investigator in Double Indemnity and as Johnny Rocco, an updated Rico, in Key Largo. But if you want pure, perfect Edward G., go all the way back.

Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., shared top billing, playing Rico’s pal Joe Massera, but from the start the show is all about Edward G. He’s a punk criminal in a hick town, with big dreams. After he and Joe stick up a gas station in the dark of night, shooting the attendant, we see them sitting at the counter in a steamy diner at midnight, Joe ordering “spaghetti and coffee for two.” (Gotta love it.) Rico scans a newspaper and sees an article headlined “Underworld Pays Respects to Pete Montana” — a banquet for an underworld kingpin someplace far away. Rico’s ambition and envy boil up. He tells Joe, “Diamond Pete Montana doesn’t have to waste his time on cheap gas stations. He’s somebody. He’s in the big town, doing things in a big way. He’s somebody.” A moment later he snaps, “Joe, this was our last stand in this burg. We’re pulling out.” Joe asks where they’re going. “East. Where things break big.”

What follows, for a snappy eighty minutes, is the story of Rico’s rise and fall. The story’s pretty obvious, the characters are cartoonish, lots of the acting is hammy ⎯ I’m convinced the movie would be long-forgotten with anyone else starring ⎯ but the squat, pug-faced Edward G. makes it work. And how.

“When I get in a tight spot, I shoot my way out. Why, sure. Shoot first, argue afterward. This game ain’t for guys that’s soft.”

Pugnacious little guy, puffing his chest out, giving guys the hard stare, talking out the side of his mouth.

“Money’s all right, but it ain’t ever’thing. Yeah… Be somebody. Look hard at a buncha guys and know they’ll do anything you tell ’em. Be somebody.”

In the Big Town he hooks on with the East Side gang and shoots his way up.
Memorable moments: the malevolent stare he gives a rival boss, Little Arnie Lorch, early on, after Arnie makes the mistake of telling him to “park your gat, Rico… yeah, next to your milk bottle.” The same deadly stare directed at Joe, his longtime pal, when Joe gets “yella” and wants to quit the gang ⎯ followed by the ultimatum “You’re gonna be in on this and you’ll like it,” and then the look again and Joe shriveling before our eyes.

Okay, maybe the lines don’t look like much on paper. Check out the movie, I tell you. It’s all in the delivery.

Rico, making his power play, to his fading boss: “Sam, you can dish it out, but you’re gettin’ so you can’t take it no more. You’re through.”

You’ll relish Flaherty, the Irish cop who lusts to take down “that swell-headed mug.” And Rico’s reaction when he finds out Little Arnie Lorch has put out a hit on him: “If he’s looking for trouble, that’s what we got the most of.”

And then Rico and his goons (Rico wearing expensive jewelry and a bowler hat now) bust into Arnie’s office, and he kicks back in a chair and swings his be-spatted shoes up on Arnie’s desk and says, with utmost contempt, “Arnie, y’oughtta had better sense than to hire a couple outside yaps [to kill me] — especially bad shots. Now you’re through. If y’ain’t outta town by tomorra morning, y’ain’t never leaving ’cept in a pine box.” When Arnie mentions Vettori, Rico’s erstwhile boss, Rico informs him, “Sam is through. Now you’re through, too.” And — again, priceless — “You can dish it out, but you got so you can’t take it no more.”

But eventually (and inevitably, in a time when the censors insisted that evil get its comeuppance) Rico, having made it to the top, is brought down. He freezes up when he needs to pull the trigger on the turncoat Joe (his stunned lieutenant Otero sneering “Now you’re getting soft!”) and he winds up in a flop house (“Clean Beds 15¢”), drinking rotgut out of the bottle, before his untimely end. Classic.

I say, right? Well, this one time, take my word. Give it a chance. Cop a few chestnut lines for your personal repertoire. Savor Edward G., the original hard guy and still the tops for my money. If nothing else, learning how to talk out the side of your mouth is worth the price. •

Posted by: The Editors
Category: All Movie Issue, Patton | Link to this Entry

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