Little Caesar (1931)

February 12, 2007 § 1 Comment

Little Caesar: the gangster movie to start all gangster movies. While it seems easy to “dish it out” throughout the film the central moral issue is whether you can “take it”. Interesting how this is a non-female world, and I don’t think it is stretching it too far to suggest a homosexual whiff in the relationship between Rico the tough short guy and Doug Fairbanks Jr. as the gangster-turned dancer. Let me dance ! Now how often have we heard this in future gangster films ?

Pre-Code, full of slang and archetypal male problems (to be, or not to be, yellow), but also highly aware of public policy issues: Flaherty the copper is unbelievably calm and composed, an placidly ironic figure of law enforcement that just knows his time will come — a figure suggesting that society should not lose its cool and confont gangsterism with quiet fortitude. And there’s even less to like in the character of Rico than in that of contemporary Scarface: he’s a bragging, loud, violent and failed wannabee who enjoys pushing people around. He’s quite literally perverted: the first scene shows him musing that to “make it to the big time” he’s going to have to go “East.” Now that’s always a sign of trouble somewhere in an American movie (see opening sequence of 1945 Detour. Even The Postman Always Rings Twice conforms to this underlying, unstated law: whoever fails to make it out West becomes a social failure and a candidate for life on the run)

As a transition from silent to sound the film is incredibly stagey. It seems they could not yet decide whether they had to stage it silent or sound. Close-ups on characters speaking seem to hark back to silent days, while group shots make full use of the sound depth of field. Also, while there are still true intertitles advancing the narration in the picture, there is also an instance of something I’m yet to see in a silent Hollywood film: titles over a moving image. This happens when we move to Little Archie’s nigthclub for the first time.

It’s got to be stock footage of a nightclub somewhere in a previous film since it does not match the following shots (either in texture, in grain, or in settings), and I’m curious to know from what film. A crane shot looking above gambling tables would be a prize shot in any film, and it’s not hard to see why Melvyn Le Roy would be happy to re-use it. But apart from its origin (not to be taken lightly though; if it were to be established that the shot is from a silent film, this could become quite involved) the title-over-a-moving-image calls for some comments.

I’ve never seen it done in a silent film and I’ve always wondered why it wasn’t done in silent films. And I don’t mean the use of written filmed material, as the name of the nightclub (which functions just like an intertitle would) in this cross-fading shot:
club palermo

no, I mean real titles, handwritten. What a gain in visual continuity it would have been to have titles, whether descriptive or, even better, dialogues, flashed on the images while the characters were talking ! For some reason though, this was never done. My personal take on this mystery is that images and titles do not have the same aesthetic status in a silent film. Titles clearly point to an omniscient narrator (titles may be informative, ironic, or clearly comical), while images would tend to illustrate the story. With sound, images seem to have gained in perceptual realism: they seem to have been treated as referring so powerfully to a reality in the images that adding titles over them would not diminish their perceived realistic weight. They went on showing something that really existed there in the image, beyond the camera, even with words written on them (I’ve treated an example of words flashed on the image in a silent film here).

Titles in silent films are often illustrated — but like story-book illustrations. And one of the pleasures of silent films is that narration is so overt that one does feel taken in a story-book type of moment. Gather ’round and listen to this story, they seem to call out (I’ve analyzed this in this blog more in detail). Of course it’s not that simple and one of the points of my research is to establish just how silent films deal with the increasing annoyance of images that reveal more and more of reality as technology (film stocks, film lighting, portability of film equipment, etc.) and tastes (exotism, tourism, explorations, documentaries and newsreels create a demand for images of the real) evolve throughout the 1920s. But they maintain a pretty solid line: titles are for narration, point to a clearly fictive construction of the film, while images should not be tampered with because they’re not quite fictive (or not just fictive). I’m not sure this reinforces the reality of what is shown. Rather, at times, silent films seem to treat moving images as a mere illustration of a story written out in titles, though that’s a worst-case scenario. The medium ground seems to be that the material presented in images, because of the written interruptions, loses of its reality to be merged with the fictive world of the words.

This gambling table shot is an instance of how sound changes that perception — and ironically, I find it to reinforce the reality of what’s shown in the images rather than transforming it into more of a fiction.


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