Old friends grow into new enemies, 1:00:00 into Mervyn LeRoy’s Little Caesar (1931). On the right we have Edward G. Robinson’s Rico—vulgarian, sociopath, and rising star of the Chicago underworld. On the left is Joe (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.), a former gang member who now makes his living as a dancer. But you can’t get out that easily. After inviting him over for a cordial parley, Rico throws down an ultimatum: either Joe dumps his career and girlfriend for the gang, or he and his “dame” are as good as dead.
The scene starts out visually loose, with the camera taking in the whole of Rico’s new, palatial apartment, lingering on the nouveau riche decadence of his statues and furniture. But as the conversation turns heated, as Rico tells a lackey to “screw” and edges nearer to Joe, the framing gets tighter. Only the two impassioned men remain in focus. This particular shot lasts nearly thirty seconds, zeroing in on Robinson’s face as he lectures, cajoles, and threatens his erstwhile partner in crime.
“Can’t you just forget about me?” begs Joe. Rico snarls back, his voice cracking: “No, I don’t wanna forget you, you’re my pal!” This is more than a mere gangland squabble. It’s a tragic romance. Robinson’s arched eyebrow and burning gaze bespeak the heart of a spurned lover, of a man consumed by that age-old sentiment “If I can’t have him, no one will.” (I’m certainly not the first to point out Little Caesar’s throbbing queer subtext. Rico’s line “Nobody ever quit me!” is especially striking in post-Brokeback America.)
So he leers at Joe, trying to look intimidating while also banking on their one-time closeness. When he rests a cigar-clenching hand on Joe’s shoulder, he could just as well be getting ready for a kiss or a fistfight. The shot’s constructed for maximum tension, relying on both their physical proximity and the fact that Fairbanks was a good four inches taller than Robinson—a fact for which Robinson’s aggressive body language more than compensates.
Furthermore, the camera’s positioned so that we only glimpse the side of Fairbanks’ face, but get to witness Robinson in all his jealous glory. He’s the star of this show, the histrionic firecracker whose obsession propels the scene. He’s poised to seduce or, failing that, destroy. Inflamed by rejection and inflated by his sudden ascent, he can’t take “no” for an answer. Hell hath no fury like Little Caesar scorned.