By Mike La Sorte, Professor Emeritus
In November of 1930, a smash flick hit was Doorway to Hell, starring Lew Ayres playing a gangster named Louis Ricarno, who quits Chicago for Miami but gets sucked back into the rackets. Shortly afterward, the first underworld movie of the talking-picture era was released with Edward G. Robinson as Rick Bandello, a snarling tightly wound mob caricature.
The quote above is the dying words uttered by Rico, a Chicago gangster of the 1920s, after being cut down by police bullets. The film, Little Caesar (B&W, 78 mins, released in 1930) had an enormous influence on the mob film genre as it evolved during the 1930s. (In June of 2008, the film was ranked ninth by the American Film Institute on the list of the ten greatest gangster movies. Rico's final statement of amazement ranked 73 out of the 100 most memorable in cinematic history.)
Rico is portrayed as a quirky gangster in extremis—a psychopathic, trigger-happy killer determined to blast his way to the top. This morality tale of virtues and vices delivers two messages to the viewer: that you can't make it in the underworld unless you are merciless; the other is contained in a biblical quotation with which the film opens, "For all that take the sword shall perish with the sword."
The three principle characters are Caesar Enrico Bandello, aka Rico (Edward G. Robinson), his partner in crime Joe Massara (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.), who aspires to a dancing career and is not cut out for gangsterdom, and his nightclub dancing partner and lover Olga Sassoff (Glenda Farrell).
PLOT SUMMARY. The film's setting is the Sicilian section of Chicago in the 1920s. Rico, a small town thug, and his compatriot, Joe Massara, venture to Chicago to make their fortunes. Rico's passion is to become a mob chief while Massara, deep in his heart, wants to pursue a dancing career. Joe meets Olga while Rico joins Sam Vettori's gang and quickly pushes Vettori aside. Rico suspects that Joe will betray him. He pushes hard at Joe to desert Olga and join him in the world of crime. Joe refuses. Angered though he is, Rico cannot bring himself to gun down his lifelong friend. Now in desperate straits and isolated, Rico retreats to a hideaway. Persistent police taunting brings him out of his lair and he is shot down in the streets by his archrival Sergeant Flaherty (Thomas E. Jackson). Dying in the gutter, the unbelieving Rico appeals to a greater power, "Mother of mercy, is this the end of Rico?" In this final scene is a large billboard featuring Joe and Olga in a coming performance. Joe has realized his dream, whereas Rico meets his doom, a message that ruthlessness as a stepping stone to wealth and success does not in the end pay off—honest toil does.
Two examples of the dialogue follow. The first, at the beginning of the film, is in an all- night diner, after Rico, with Massara at the wheel, robs a gas station and shoots the owner. The second is Rico's introduction in Chicago to Sam Vettori's gang. He becomes a member.
Massara: I ain't made for this thing [crime]. Dancing'…that's what I wanna do.
Rico: Women…dancin'…Where do they get you? I figure on makin' other people dance.
Vettori: Boys, I want you to meet a new guy who's gonna be with us. This is_____.
The final scene supplies the film's message: the straight and narrow way succeeds over the criminal life. At the film's conclusion, Rico, a lifetime teetotaler, hunted by the police, is living in a flophouse reduced to an alcoholic ruin. He reads in the paper that, "He is hiding like a rat in his hole. The once swaggering braggart of the underworld wilted in the face of real danger." With a flush of anger, Rico telephones Flaherty and challenges him to a street shootout. This dialogue follows:
Rico: This is Rico speaking. Rico. R-I-C-O. Little Caesar, that's who. Yeah, you're a big guy now, ain't you, shooting' your mouth off in the papers. So I ran off when it got hot, huh? You think I can't take it anymore? Well, listen, you crummy, flat-headed copper, I'll show you whether I lost my nerve and my brains.
Flaherty: Thanks, Rico, old boy, the same to you and many of them. Come on tell me some more. The sound of your voice does my heart good.
Rico: Funny guy, ain't you. Flaherty? You ain't got much longer to laugh. I'm coming after you. See? And I'm gonna put one in your dirty hide for every lying' crack you made about me in the paper, see? I'm gonna show you who's gonna finish up in the gutter. I'll show you.
The final and fatal confrontation occurs on a street in front of a large billboard featuring the upcoming performance of the successful Joe Massara/Olga Stassoff dance team. Flaherty cuts down Rico with a blast from his Thompson machine gun. As Rico dies he mouths his beseeching cry of surprise and despair—"Mother of mercy, is this the end of Rico?" The juxtaposition of his corpse in the gutter and the billboard advertisement above drives home the moral lesson that living by the gun is a fool's errand.
Although few today would recognize the name George Bancroft, he was the world's number one box office star in the silent film era. The handsome, burly ex-sailor was mobbed by fans here and abroad. His breakout flick, Underworld (1927), hailed the Hollywood version of the new type of American criminal, the gangster. In the leading role of "Bull" Weed, Bancroft played a vicious and unrelenting lord of crime, creating the status of a new culture hero. Considered a masterpiece of the silent era, even today it holds up as an exciting and engrossing movie and regarded as the prototype of that genre. Anticipating the tragic Rico, "Bull" Weed comes to a bad end, not only oozing blood from his mouth but with epigrammatic fade outs.
In historical perspective, Underworld foretells the repeated fate of the cinematic gangster of decades to come. Critical appraisal acclaimed the melodrama as seeking "…dramatic revelation and emotional truths through a dialect of pathos and action…the foundation of the classic Hollywood movie."
The "Bull" Weed character set the stage for Hollywood tough guys like Jimmy Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, and Humphrey Bogart. The plot elements of Underworld anticipated Little Caesar, The Public Enemy (1931), Smart Money (1931), Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) (costarring Bancroft), Each Dawn I Die (1939), High Sierra (1941), and White Heat (1949).
The gangster Rico has been resurrected in past decades taking on a new life as the acronym for a crime busting, complex law (Racketeering Influenced Corrupt Organization), which has proven effective in the dismantling of American organized crime.
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