Thursday, February 26, 2009

Movies: Two Seconds and Little Caesar

Two Mervyn LeRoy movies featuring the unmistakable Edward G. Robinson showcase the actor's favorite roles, at two extremes—the schmuck condemned to suffer eternally for one bad decision (we know this guy from The Woman in the Window) and the hard boiled gangster determined to claw his way to the top of the city's bloody ladder. Either way, his performance seethes with the mealy-mouthed pathos that made him famous. Me? I can take it or leave it; Robinson's schmuck is almost too much to bear (Two Seconds could put an edgy person over the brink), and I like my villains leaner and meaner—I'll take Richard Widmark any day over Eddie G.

In Two Seconds, we see the man's demise in lengthy flashback, supposedly all recalled in the two seconds it takes him to die in the electric chair. He had started out as an okay guy, a riveter who worked on a skyscraper's steel skeleton, rooming with his co-worker and best friend, just looking for the right girl. After another botched double date, he wandered into a taxi dance hall (oh, how I wish these still existed!), where he met a conniving vixen who played to all desires. Against his roomie's warnings, the schmuck took her out again, and she got him so drunk that she was able to bribe a justice of the peace to marry them. Arguing about the situation up in the sky, the idiot raises his hand against his well-intentioned friend, sending the man plunging to his death. This sends our man into a permanent nervous state; he can't work, so his new wife goes back to the dance hall, against his insistence. She buys herself dresses and pays their rent, along with grocery and doctor bills, with this "dirty" money, while her husband sits at home with the shakes. When he comes into an unexpected windfall, he really looses his mind. He goes to the dance hall and finds her there, in the arms of another man. Paying back his debt in cash, he pulls out a gun and shoots the woman dead. We see him briefly in front of the judge, pleading for clemency in his famous whine, insisting that he deserved to die while he lived off the dirty money, but that he should be free, now that he's paid his debts. Of course, the judge can't abide by this logic, and we return to the chair, where the crank is pulled: the necessary two seconds have passed, and he's dead now.

What a delightful ending! Little Caesar's is no brighter. This time, Robinson is Rico, a small-time crook who decides to up his game after reading about a famous gangster in the paper. He joins a small gang of organized thugs and quickly takes over the operation, winning the boys' approval by joining them on the front lines, unlike their previous leader. His next target is the head of the neighboring territory; he and his gang quickly knock off their casino and when The Big Boy (!)notices Rico's hunger and ability, he makes him the new head of the North territory. Rico is suddenly living large (though we never see him with a nice dame); he has a swanky pad, his picture in the paper, and the city vice squad following his every move. Too bad he slips when the real heat comes on—his buddy's girlfriend, who loathes him for keeping her man in the gang, traps Rico and calls the police, insisting that her boyfriend testify against him. Rico's friend silently refuses, but Rico is long-gone, jumped out the window and run away. His old landlady, who has hidden all his money, hides him over night in a secret room, but won't give him more than $125 to escape with, and he can't kill her because she's the only one who knows where the stash is. Stranded, Rico finds himself drunk and unshaven at a flophouse, listening to a group of bums read a newspaper out loud. Hearing his name, he springs to life—his ego is more important than his safety, and he doesn't like hearing himself called a chicken in the papers. He calls the head of Vice and starts running again, but they find him, and shoot him down dead. The End, dead, again. Poor Eddie G.

No comments: