There's A Rope Around My Neck Now And They Only Hang You Once: Little Caesar (1931)

If it were not for the western being probably the most identifiable in terms of recurring tropes, it would be easy to point to stylistic choices and narrative methodologies within films that one could define to be within the confines of the film noir genre.  Of course, there are some decidedly unique elements that arise almost entirely out of the genre, whether it be the femme fatale of the story, or the heavy use of shadows and other expressionist techniques to play upon the alienation and existential angst of the films less than ethical protagonists.  Yet, I am also aware that the label of "noir" can be attached to quite a few works that themselves, are not entirely of the genre, because as a friend of mine has stated, despite my constant attempts to explain to him the common tropes of noir, noir films are the one's where the guns always represent a penis.  Reductive I know, but rather poignant if I do say so myself.  Needless to say, while the film noir genre does owe its entirety to the hardboiled detective novel, it would not be the cinematic staple it has become in the film canon were it not for the decidedly engaging work of directors like Fritz Lang, who himself was making noir before the genre truly existed.  This is very much the case for director Mervyn LeRoy who directed Little Caesar along side six other films in 1931 alone.  While it is not entirely derivative of the genre, because the genre was not established, an individual with even a cursory understanding of the genre can easily pinpoint all of the tropes that would emerge within the genre, excluding one or two key elements that simply did not work within the crime thriller proper.  Indeed the moments of back alley chases and vague ethical frameworks, much like the shadows that have come to signify the noir film, creep into Little Caesar, consuming the ethical frameworks of the characters and the world they inhabit, and should anybody find themselves uncertain as to the genre making its name loudly in this film, I would only ask that you refer to every line of dialogue delivered and scowl directed by Edward G. Robinson.  In some ways, he is more the face of film noir than Humphrey Bogart could ever hope to be.

Little Caesar focuses on the movement from low-profile criminal to mob boss of one Rico (Edward G. Robinson) who would be referred to as Little Caesar, a name that gives much away in regards to plot.  Rico, a man who clearly expects to get his way, navigates the world with such a sense of guile and tenacity as to make a name for himself almost instantaneously.  Rico is very careful with who he trust in his life, placing almost all of his value in his mob pal Joe Massara (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.), yet when Joe leaves the racket to pursue his passion in dancing, what little restraint Rico had concerning his ethics are thrown out the window.  Indeed, before Joe can leave Rico demands that he help stick up the club at where he works as a last gesture of friendship and as a means for Rico to make a considerable power grab within his own gang.  With Joe out of the picture, the other members of Rico's gang begin to question his supremacy and even take plan a hit on him, an action that Joe catches wind of and attempts to inform Rico before it occurs, but fails to do so in time.  Despite the hit still occurring, the men hired to take out Rico are less than proficient at their job and only manage to graze Rico, a mistake that leads to his immediate quest for revenge.  Of course, Rico realizes that the world of gangsterdom does have a degree of rules and responsibilities, therefore, instead of outright destroying his attackers, he decides to afford them a chance to flee in the night with an understanding that they will never step foot in the streets of Chicago again.  However, just because Rico feels it in his heart to adhere to the laws of the underworld, does not mean the same for those around him and when Joe's girlfriend comes to discover the tricky situation her lover has been placed in, she jumps at the chance to tell the police.  Rico realizing that Joe is a danger to his survival invades his home, planning to shoot him and escape himself, yet when given the opportunity, his years of friendship block his murderous intent.  Rico, now on the run from the cops fails to escape in time, instead being gunned down in a dockside warehouse, perhaps the most film noir death imaginable.

So since, I am positing this as being one of the first film noir works it is probably necessary to draw upon the ways it works within the context of the genre and the ways it counters it as well.  Firstly, the film is highly critical of moral certainty, indeed, going so far as to depict Rico not as a man who exploits the weaker in the world, an act that would become prevalent in later film noir works, perhaps most infamously involving an old woman and some stairs in Kiss of Death.  Rico does kill and harm people, but it is worth considering that the people who he attacks exist within the same seedy criminal world as he, and to a degree have forfeited a world of moral goodness involving an agreement that nobody is murdered.  As such, viewers are forced to accept Rico as the protagonist despite being a less than morally sound person, although, as noted, his bad traits are tame compared to some of the later noir works.  This moral ambiguity extends rather perfectly into another trope that emerges within Little Caesar, which is the existentialist nature of Rico as a character.  Existentialism posits that the world has no meaning, aside from that which you attach to it, therefore you are responsible only for your actions and how you navigate the world.  Rico is a prime figure in his existential outlook, indeed he navigates the world with a notable consideration for his own safety and self-advancement, so much so that his understanding of relationships all predicate themselves upon his desires.  He understands that to move through the world with a concern for the meaning others apply to their lives would mean making him weaker and less proficient in his crime boss role.  It is then interesting to consider that his ultimate demise comes when he fails to act on his own meaning and listens to the begging of Joe, whose life Rico spares in a moment of emotional shift.  These tropes are the highlights of this pre-noir masterwork,  as mentioned, it does lack a considerable femme fatale role, as does it miss a lot of the expressionist flare and psychoanalytic moments of later noir works, yet it is very much the precursor to one of the wildest of genres in all of cinema history.

Key Scene:  The close-ups during Rico's failure to murder Joe are astounding, the expressions Robinson delivers are jarringly haunting.

I was unaware that this was part of a larger box set upon my viewing of this.  I intend to grab up a copy in the upcoming weeks, it should prove well worth the investment.

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