Tag Archives: edward g. robinson

One Hour Mark: Little Caesar

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Cinema

Long Day’s Journey into Nightmare

By Andreas

In the mood for something seedy, paranoid, devilish, but still light-hearted? Look no farther than this week’s pick for “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” over at The Film Experience: Fritz Lang’s fantastic film noir The Woman in the Window (1944). It stars the always-great Edward G. Robinson (Little Caesar, Double Indemnity, etc.) as a middle-aged psychology professor who gets involved with the foxy Joan Bennett, the titular woman in the window. One thing leads to another, and next thing you know, he’s following a murder investigation that could end up sending him to the chair.

Both Ashley and I picked favorite shots for this movie, and both involved the sequence where Robinson and Bennett systematically hide the body of the hot-blooded Claude Mazard. It’s a crucial scene, as they deposit all the clues that the police will interpret throughout the film, and Lang shoots it with all the expressionistic lighting he can muster to heighten the mood. For example, Ashley’s “best shot” was this glimpse of Bennett wrapped in shadow:

She’s escaping under cover of night, and trying to avoid any cops’ (or audience members’) prying eyes. But the streak of light on her arm gives her away. Even though The Woman in the Window backs out of its fatalistic attitude with a pretty cheap twist at the end, these scenes are suffused with raw fear. That’s what you get when you murder a man in Fritz Lang’s part of the universe. (If you want a Lang noir that never backs down, though, 1945’s Scarlet Street is basically the same movie, only far more pessimistic and full of erotic obsession.)

Soon thereafter, Edward G. Robinson is driving off into the wilderness to get rid of the body. That’s when we get my favorite shot of the film:

I love how we get two parallel worlds here, with the glimpse outside the car on top, and Mazard’s dead face on the bottom. Robinson’s giving a quick look around, just in case, while Mazard lies in swath of light as if silently screaming, “Look at me! I’m a dead body!” The image’s composition confirms all of Robinson’s worst fears, both by calling attention to the corpse and implicitly assigning blame for his death to that face in the window. (Worse yet, Mazard’s dead eyes are tilted upward.)

Edward G. Robinson being presented in profile also subtly heightens our panic, since he’s gazing off-screen at something we can’t see… but can easily imagine. But what else would you expect from Fritz Lang, who conjured up some of the cinema’s worst nightmares? We should just be grateful that The Woman in the Window is an experience we can wake up from.

1 Comment

Filed under Cinema