Of the three foundation gangster pics (THE PUBLIC ENEMY/’31 and SCARFACE/’32 are the other two), Mervyn LeRoy’s was first out of the gate and technically the most primitive. Shot in 1930, it plays like an early Talkie, but still manages to put out loads of character (and characters) while laying out much of the classic gangster iconography we still expect from the genre. Ben Hecht & Josef von Sternberg’s UNDERWORLD/’27 got there first, but without sound the effect isn’t the same. (In fact, LeRoy handles a pivotal shooting in CAESAR silent film style with fancy edits, angles & quick dissolves sans synch-sound.) Edward G. Robinson is deliciously assured in his signature role as Rico, the squat, violent quick-study mob-man. But there’s a chink in the armor, he’s overly protective of handsome pal Douglas Fairbanks Jr., a hesitant partner who’s getting out of gang life to dance professionally with Glenda Farrell. So while Rico’s rise is fast, his fall is even faster. Something director LeRoy can’t always make believable with all the missing dramatic pieces in an 80 minute running time. Not that you’ll mind with so many indelible moments, mostly from little touches Robinson keeps coming up with, along with memorable turns from his loyal little pal George E. Stone and the slow-talking chief detective who takes him down, Thomas Jackson. The current DVD really shows off the great work of lenser Tony Gaudio and art director Anton Grot, tenement & garret apartments that close in on these hoodlums with heightened realism and a touch of claustrophobic German expressionism. The film's both dated and an essential period piece.
ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Only one underscored scene in the whole pic. A conversation between a mob-guy and his mom, right before he gets rubbed out. Someone must have noticed the similarity to the finale of ‘Cavalleria Rusticana’ and figured they ought to have some music.