For one brief moment in history, the classic gangster film we will see over the next four weeks flowered. The moment was after the introduction of the sound film in 1927, and before the enforcement of the production code in 1934. There were gangster films before this, but as film critic Thomas Schatz wrote “The new audio effects (gunshots, screams, screeching tires, etc.) encouraged filmmakers to focus upon action and urban violence, and also to develop a fast-paced narrative and editing style”. The gangster genre continued on past the introduction of the code, but the code’s insistence on retribution, Schatz wrote, “displaced the gangster from the center of the narrative, either by doubling him with a more effective prosocial figure, by instilling in him some ‘redeeming’ qualities, or simply by reducing him to a supporting role.”
The most quoted work of criticism on this genre, and its classic period, is Robert Warshow’s “The Gangster As Tragic Hero”, an essay published in 1948. To Warshow the gangster hero combines both “rational enterprise,” like any other American businessman, and “irrational brutality.” He writes “The gangster is the man of the city, with the city’s language and knowledge, with its queer and dishonest skills and its terrible daring, carrying his life in his hands like a placard, like a club.” Warshow writes that these films present the audience with what he calls “an agreed conception of human life: that man is a being with the possibility of success or failure.” What then happens to the gangster, Warshow believes, presents a view of these possibilities that audiences might find disquieting: “At bottom, the gangster is doomed because he is under the obligation to succeed, not because the means he employs are unlawful. In the deeper layers of the modern consciousness, all means are unlawful, every attempt to succeed is an act of aggression, leaving one alone and guilty and defenseless among enemies: one is punished for success. This is our intolerable dilemma: that failure is a kind of death and success is evil and dangerous, is – ultimately – impossible. The effect of the gangster film is to embody this dilemma in the person of the gangster and resolve it by his death. The dilemma is resolved because it is his death, not ours. We are safe; for the moment, we can acquiesce in our failure, we can choose to fail.”
Little Caesar was based on a 1929 novel by W.R. Burnett, who was a Chicagoan, and whose book was said to have been based on the career of Al Capone. Producer Darryl F. Zanuck reportedly thought so when he bought the film rights. The admirable script, with its laconic and energetic dialogue, was written by Robert N. Lee, Francis Edward Faragoh, Robert Lord, and Zanuck. Cinematography was by Tony Gaudio. Art direction and set design were by Anton Grot and Ray Moyer. Edward G. Robinson starred. It was not his first starring role in film but his bravura performance here was his breakthrough role, and one that defined much of his future career. In supporting roles were Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Glenda Farrell. The film to a great extent tracks the career of Rico (played by Robinson) in juxtaposition to the career of Joe (played by Fairbanks). It was directed by Mervyn LeRoy, and produced by Hal B. Wallis and Zanuck. It was made in late 1930 and released in January, 1931. It could not have been made anywhere else than at Warner Brothers, whose gritty, street-smart style was in part invented by director LeRoy and producer Zanuck. Little Caesar’s simple, quick-moving story, in a series of tableaux, moving from brightly lit to darkly shadowed, is almost operatic. I hope you enjoy watching it with me tonight.