There is no turning back for the Gangster genre in American cinema-the instant Rico, a. k. a. "Little Caesar" holds up the gas station attendant fate is sealed as three gunshots are defined as the first step that is perplexed by moral ambiguity of the audience and the 'code' of the 1930s. For audiences, the violence was exhilarating rather than horrific, the technological pleasures of speeding getaway cars and Tommy-guns, the performances attractive in vivacity rather than vile in their brutality, and the rewards of the gangster life was "a fantasy of consumption" (Mason 29) they could only hope for.
Though, through the genre's vivid iconography that makes its films so recognizable mirrors the story of a man's rapid rise to power followed by the symptomatic acts of uncontrollable desires that lead to the tragic hero's downfall. The genre is considered to be predominately cohesive in its classical representation of form and structure as it is most greatly influenced by a group of films produced in the early 1930s (Little Caesar, Scarface, The Public Enemy) that provide the archetypal narrative backbone for future gangster films.
These films focused on the rise of cold-blooded criminals who were modeled after notorious men of the era, such as Al Capone. In Scarface and in Little Caesar, Tony Camonte (Paul Muni) and Rico "Little Caesar" Bandello (Edward G Robinson) both rise to the top with ease of access into the physical spaces of legitimate society and of the rich with no acknowledgment to the boundaries of the fixed social structures. Warshow states, "the gangster's activity is actually a form of rational enterprise, involving fairly definite goals and various techniques for achieving them" (14).
Moreover, a sensible drive for success is made clear through the eyes of Rico and Tony. Though, we rarely see the routine and rational aspects of their behavior, the practice of violence-"the quality of unmixed criminality,"(15) as Warshow puts-becomes the totality of their career. In entirety, it isn't the money or the women, but the gangster's desire for success is for power, not material gain. It's interesting that in the opening scene in the diner, Joe and Rico foretell the story of "Little Caesar".
Joe tells Rico if he went to the big city, he would quit and resume his dancing career, and Rico scoffs at this, saying he wants to have respect or nothing at all. The gangster sees the world as something to be mastered. Rico's pursuit of happiness comes at the expense of society as he robs and kills his way to the top. "I could do all the things that fella does, and more, only I never got my chance. Why, what's there to be afraid of? And when I get in a tight spot, I shoot my way out of it. Why sure.
Shoot first and argue afterwards. You know, this game ain't for guys that's soft" (Robinson). The tool of business for the gangster is his gun, and for Tony Camonte the Tommy gun transformed his character into an innocent, child-like figure trigger happy and immune from moral judgment. "I'm gonna spit," says Tony. In a primitive way, he grabs the gun into his arms and empties a steady round of spitting bullets into the wall. With a crazy grin on his face, Tony's eyes widen with delight and exhilaration at the sight of destruction.
The gangster life is immediately associated with an economy of excess, in this pleasure, which, however is replaced very soon after by an economy of violence" (Mason 25). Though, in Hawks' film the audience almost sees nothing of the machine-gunning, bomb explosions, and outrages in terms of human suffering. In Scarface, the violence is typically shown through montages. These sequences depict fast pace images-cars flying around the streets within the city and gang wars seem like children at play, only with real bullets.
Wood exemplifies that, "the film communicates, strongly, a sense of exhilaration: Hawks actually encourages us to share the gangster's enjoyment of violence" (Wood 20). The gangster is always on the move, always in motion, propelled by his insane desire to get to the top. On screen, the constant craving for more: excess illustrated through forces of chaos and aggression becomes the gangster's domain. Employed within the unlimited possibilities of aggression, both Tony and Rico most viciously shoot their way to the top.
Little Caesar and Scarface gave birth to the gangster whom not only makes violence a spectacle by turning it into performance but also showed off the wealth and status it provided. In LeRoy's classic, Vettori and Diamond Pete want to maintain the status quo-resort to a lower profile. They avoid the celebrity status that Rico desires. After his rise to the top Rico is obsessed with his celebrity status. Walking on the street to display his power, Rico purchases ten copies of the newspaper at a sidewalk newsstand so that he can admire his picture on the front page.
Making himself an easy target in his new, expensive coat, Rico openly and foolishly strolls down the street with the ten papers under his arm. A speeding milk van passes by after he has pulled out his watch and admired it with a smile. A machine gun fires on him and wounds him in the arm. This careless simulation most strongly represents the deviant gangster's vulnerable place in society. The gangster figure is characterized by his urge towards individual freedom along with the fulfillment of his desires through excess in violence and acts of brutality.
Rico and Tony transform into individuals whom act out of their own greedy desires in an unrestrained and excessive way. It's the only way they know how-the quick of a trigger. Moreover, for Tony's case there is no limitation at all, and it his overindulgence that causes his dramatic slip. He is too ready to use his gun causing him to shoot Rinaldo without bothering to find out the truth of his sideman's relationship with Cesca. This act causes his downfall and is symptomatic of his excessive desire: "his desire for absolute obedience and control which is also an act of enforcing discipline on others" (Mason 27).
However, for Rico it is his old friend Joe that stands in the way of his demise. Joe stares Rico down and fearlessly stands up to his gun, telling him to, "Shoot! Shoot, Rico! Get it over with! " Rico, suddenly overwhelmed becomes paralyzed and cannot bring himself to shoot and kill his old friend, and he backs off. For Tony and Rico, their vulnerability becomes more and more apparent as the narrative progresses and they are considered outsiders rather than gangsters who abide by routine and rationalization within the criminal world.
In Scarface, Tony looks to the neon sign outside his steel coated windows, "The World is Yours," for his existential motivation, and makes the mistake of literalizing its metaphorical content. What goes up must come down, even if it has to be shot down. The fall of the gangster comes rapidly after he has briefly reached the apex, or ironically, almost reaches it. "The downfall is often one of position and not just death," (59) says Kaminsky; Rico is reduced to poverty and Tony a state of innocence.
The gangster manifests himself as an entity that challenges the status quo of modernity, without moral recognition, in a state of excessive destruction. It is difficult to rationalize the death of the gangster, but this uncertainty plays through his existence and demise. The gangsters whole life is an attempt to assert himself out of the crowd, and as Warshaw puts: "he always dies because he is an individual; the final bullet thrusts him back, makes him, after all, a failure" (15). Such is the allusion to the imagined narrative trajectory described in all understandings of this genre-the rise and fall of the gangster.