Welp, I’ve seen the ur-war film, now it’s the ur-gangster film. At least the feature interviews on the DVD I got said so, with a handful of talking-head interviews with lots of film scholars. Even Martin Scorcese turns up to make that case. A friend who’d heard I was about to watch this pointed out that even Bugs Bunny cartoons patterned their “gangster characters” after Edward G. Robinson’s performance in this.
So it feels a bit unsporting to say that Edward G. Robinson didn’t seem to be quite so threatening a gangster.
The film is about the rise and fall of Caesar Enrico Bandello – who goes by “Rico” – in Chicago’s underworld. At the start of the film, he and his buddy Joe are small-town crooks robbing gas stations and drug stores, but after one of their heists they decide to go for broke in the big city. Rico is set on his life of crime, but Joe wants to go a different route – he wants to be a dancer. They head to Chicago to pursue their separate paths.
Rico stays in touch with Joe, though, and when Rico’s mob boss “Big Boy” proposes a hit on the night club where Joe works as a dancer, Rico bullies Joe into collaborating on the plot. During the furor, Rico ignores Big Boy’s order that they conduct a clean heist, and seizes the chance to shoot the police commissioner. Big Boy dresses him down after the heist – but Rico argues back that his boss is just “getting soft” and declares that maybe he should take charge.
….I have to stop a moment – because this, here, is exactly where the film lost me. Rico’s boss is one of Chicago’s main mob bosses, and here comes Rico, an upstart who’s disobeyed orders and declared that not only was he not wrong, but that he should take over. Tony Soprano or Vito Corleone would have thrown the guy out of his office and then sent one of their other men to assassinate Rico a few days later, right? Right. But instead – Big Boy totally caves and puts Rico in charge, with only the faintest of protests. Which I didn’t buy in the slightest. Unfortunately, Rico’s “meteoric rise to power” is told in exactly this flimsy a fashion, with a series of increasingly more powerful mob bosses simply rolling over in submission after Rico blusters a bit – making what was a major plot thread feel completely unbelievable.
This isn’t to say that the film was a loss. Instead, I was more fascinated by some things it was seeming to say about wealth and fame. In the first scene, the catalyst for Rico’s wanting to go to Chicago is a fluffy news piece about a big-name Chicago gangster enjoying a splashy party, and wearing a piece of diamond jewelry for the occasion. In a later scene, when Rico is still one of Big Boy’s underlings, he’s tagged along in the entourage when Big Boy goes to a meeting with another mob boss; and the film makes a point of showing us when Rico covetously examines the other boss’s pocket watch, tie pin and other bling. For Rico, the bling is the important thing; the bling is how he can be sure he is successful himself. He wants his own name in the paper, for any price. And – he does get that, for a time.
But every so often we get a glimpse of Joe’s path, which makes for a fascinating contrast. After the hit on the night club, Joe ghosts on Rico, devoting himself to his dancing job – and to his dancing partner Olga, who before long is shacking up with Joe. Rico stops by after a while – he’s afraid that Joe knows too much about him, and has come to convince Joe to work for him again. When Joe refuses, Rico considers killing him – but can’t. This moment of Rico “going soft” is where his own luck takes a downturn, sending him into hiding at a flophouse while Joe and Olga continue on their own story.
At the very end of the film, we get one last glance at how these two friends’ paths diverged. As Rico gasps out his last breath after a shootout (“Mother of mercy, is this the end of Rico?”), the camera pans up – to reveal that he is lying under a billboard advertising Joe and Olga’s new show at a local theater.
So, I admit that this contrasting-paths perspective is very likely what the filmmakers intended – that we were to consider how the pursuit of a fast life and flashy status signifiers lead Rico to a bad end, while dedication to a craft and a passion led to real success for Joe. But it seems that most people were more titillated by Rico’s story instead. Whereas I didn’t buy it because it wasn’t mean enough. I’m not entirely sure what to make of that.