March 17, 2011

Little Caesar (1931)

My parents enjoy telling me how, when I first emerged wrinkly and screaming into the world, I looked just like Edward G. Robinson.  I like this, and I think it says something about my parents.  I think if more parents were truly honest with themselves, they'd find this was true of their babies too.  Some of us were downright reptilian to start with.

So what I noticed while watching Robinson's performance in Little Caesar, is that the comparison folds neatly back on itself.  For his character, Rico, is a lot like a baby.  The sort of angry, tempestuous baby everyone fears the most.  He always wants more, wants better, wants wants wants.  Gimme gimme gimme.  He has no patience.  He needs to be the center of attention.  Anytime he isn't doing anything else, he's complaining.  Once he achieves power and success, he has an almost adorable uncertainty of what to do with it.  Possibly my favorite scene is when he comes over to the head honcho's pad, and isn't quite sure what to say about all the nice furniture, or what to do with his cigar.  But he watches the Big Boy's actions and tastes, and copies them later on.  Not because he really likes or even understands them - just because that's what he saw a big important person do, so he copies it.  Eventually he navigates their awkward conversation by admiring everything in terms of price.  See, he's not interested in the thing itself, but what it took to get it.  Being successful - actually having things - isn't what he's good at.  What he's good at is wanting things.  Taking.  Grabbing.  And snarling until he gets his way.  As a baby he was the kind of kid who couldn't just play with the toy he was holding.  He had to play with whatever toy somebody else was holding.  And God forbid you don't want to play whatever game he wants to play, or he'll gun you down on the cathedral steps.

There was a special feature on the DVD discussing "the rise of the anti-hero" in reference to Rico.  Depending on your definition of the term, I'm not convinced it's appropriate.  When I think "anti-hero" I generally think of The Man With No Name, or Snake Plissken - someone whose motives are sympathetic if not their methods.  Someone who is functionally the hero despite not having the personality of one.  But there is nothing sympathetic or functionally heroic about Rico, nor was there intended to be.  The "sympathetic" one is Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., his buddy, but even he isn't much of a hero.  He's a nice enough guy, but doesn't manage to make a single useful decision throughout the course of the movie, not even at the end when it might have made a tidy end to his character arc.  And the cop certainly isn't sympathetic.  The fact he's on the good side of the moral line is probably a matter of luck more than anything else.  So there really aren't any heroes in this movie.  If anything, there's those that tempt fate and those that keep their head down.  That's a pretty grim statement to make, but we are deep into the Great Depression at this point.

The special features also mentioned the comparison between the gangsters in the film, especially Rico, and the businessmen responsible for the Depression.  This made a lot of sense to me.  The primary arc of the movie is how Rico's relentless "ambition" (greed) brings him almost to the top in life, and then straight back down to the bottom.  Regardless of how specifically the film means to target its allegory, it's definitely a reference to mainstream business.  Most of the, er, business of the film is office politics.  Power dynamics.  What does Rico's gang actually do?  Probably something to do with alcohol (we're also still in Prohibition), but the movie never says.  Early on they go on a very important job, but what exactly this job is about (it appears to be just a robbery) is never explicitly stated.  Because it doesn't matter - everything is kept as general as possible, because it isn't really about gangsters specifically.  If they all could keep their "rods" put away for ten minutes, it would be nearly indistinguishable from an episode of Mad Men.  This is a movie about corporate businessmen and how they're all a bunch of babies.

Since this was our first full talkie, I paid close attention to the sound, which proved quite rewarding.  Interestingly, the movie has no music (except during the opening titles).  It was curious going from "silents," which have all had nearly constant wall-to-wall music, to a talkie with none at all.  Perhaps they didn't know what to do with it?  They wouldn't want it to distract from the dialogue and painstakingly made sound-effects, after all.  And the modern conception of "underscore" is a very different style from what we heard over the silent films (even in cases like Metropolis which had original scores rather than just classical or improvised accompaniment).

But I have no idea whether this lack of score was common for films of the time.  It was also possibly an artistic choice, which I could easily believe.  The most interesting scene in terms of sound is the heist job early on.  Instead of following the whole thing, the scene is done in montage, which actually had a number of unique effects.  First of all it again eliminated the specifics of what they were doing to focus on the attitudes and broad choices.  Secondly, it felt weird because it had no music - how many times have you ever seen a montage without music?  It was weird.  It's weird because montage takes us out of the immediacy of the moment - it's "summary" from a witness rather than "being there" and seeing it for yourself.  Except the only sound is a little dialogue, a little shuffling and a gun shot, and - most importantly - a constant background of ambient crowd noise (this is all happening in a large restaurant or something).  And all these specific, subdued, natural, ambient sounds effect the exact opposite of montage!  The soundscape creates (as well as early sound tech can) a vivid and localized sense of place; of actually being there.  The editing creates a dreamlike sense of vagueness and distance.  They are utterly, diametrically opposed to each other.  This is weird.  I have never seen a sequence constructed like this ever before in my life, which alone is pretty impressive.  But you know what the total effect was?  It made me feel exactly the way Fairbanks, Jr. is probably feeling immediately after it happens, as he tries to explain the situation to his girlfriend even as he struggles to confront it in his own mind.  Everything went wrong.  Everything went out of control.  Things just started happening.  He was just there - right there - yet even he can barely remember how it all happened; how events connect and lead one to another.  Imagine the mind of a drunk in a bar fight.  This sequence captures that feeling perfectly.  And all without haze filters or slow-mo, or other fancy crap.  For the most part the movie is very straightforward anyway, without a lot of complex or stylish filmmaking.  But, in its quiet and modest way, that heist scene is incredibly innovative, and absolutely brilliant.

NEXT WEEK: But my exploration of "silent talkies" is cut short as we move on to the film often credited with establishing "real" film score as we know it today: King Kong.  Also there's a fight with a dinosaur.  I like those.

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