"MOVIE MAD" by Michael van den Bos

(c) 2014 by Michael van den Bos

1 Post from February 2012


A SLIGHT CASE OF MURDER (1938) – directed by Lloyd Bacon

Edward G. Robinson shot to fame playing gangster Caesar Enrico Bandello in the 1930 Warner Brothers’ gangster movie Little Caesar, which—along with 1931’s The Public Enemy, starring James Cagney, and 1932’s Scarface, starring Paul Muni—forever defined the iconic American movie gangster. Those titles, and other crime movies from the Great Depression, were based on true stores that were ‘ripped-from-the-headlines’—with Little Caesar and Scarface drawing inspiration from real-life Chicago crime boss Al Capone—and they were noted for their fast pacing and violent stories drenched with urban grittiness, replete with a cynical, slangy street vernacular.

Edward G. Robinson’s robust and riveting performance as the insatiable power-seeker Little Caesar elevated that movie from its stiff direction and typecast Robinson in a variety of tough guy roles over the years. He was occasionally able to break away into other roles, however, most notably as the intelligent and sympathetic insurance investigator in Billy Wilder’s brilliant film noir, Double Indemnity (1944). Robinson could also make fun of his gangster persona, spoofing it a few times during his career in films like the delightful The Little Giant (1933), in which he plays a bootlegging crime boss who decides to break into upper-class society after Prohibition’s repeal.  A few years later, Robinson topped The Little Giant in his funniest, most disarming gangster comedy, A Slight Case of Murder (1938), a quicksilver Warner Brothers poke at the genre they specialized in.

In A Slight Case of Murder, Robinson plays gangster beer baron Remy Marco, who is also a loving family man. After Prohibition ends Marco attempts to go legit, but the beer he so easily pushed on speakeasies when booze was illegal isn’t selling in a legal market because it’s so vile that even his former henchmen gag at the thought of drinking it. Marco is losing money faster than a machine gun spits lead and the bank is about to foreclose on his brewery. His problems mount when four dead rival gangsters are found in his summer home along with a bag of payout money stolen from a bookie, and, unbeknownst to Marco, the fifth surviving gangster —who plugged the other four—is hiding in the house and ready to whack Marco. Meanwhile, Marco’s daughter, newly graduated from a European university, announces her engagement to a young and nervous rookie state trooper. This causes Marco and his wife Nora (Ruth Donnelly), to bristle, a reaction which stems from a slight aversion to cops from their former gangster days.   

A Slight Case of Murder is based on a play by Damon Runyon (who authored two short stories which became the basis for the Broadway and film musical, Guys and Dolls) and Howard Lindsay.  The screenplay was written by Earl Baldwin and Joseph Schrank, who created a beautiful balance of sophisticated farce and domestic drawing room comedy in a wiseguy world not unlike Scorsese's Goodfellas.  With its domestic portrayal of gangsters, A Slight Case of Murder is like a comic overture to The Sopranos by way of Noël Coward.

Edward G. Robinson elegantly riffs on his tough guy persona, displaying remarkable comic timing as Marco struggles to deal with his problems in legitimate ways before resorting to criminal cunning when absolutely necessary. Ruth Donnelly practically steals the movie away from Robinson as the doting wife who puts on airs of being a refined high-class ‘lady’ but at heart remains a wise-cracking gun moll.

Director Lloyd Bacon was not a film stylist, but like many of his 1930s Warner Brothers pictures, he fortifies A Slight Case of Murder with a giddy verve, making it a gleeful, gag-filled and affectionate homage to the gangster genre.

A Slight Case of Murder is available on Warner Home Video DVD.  In the Vancouver area, order this DVD title from VIDEOMATICA SALES - tel: 604-734-5752; website: http://videomaticasales.wordpress.com/A Slight Case of Murder plays frequently on Turner Classic Movies, search the TCM schedule for airings.  Here is the link to the movie's information page on the TCM website: http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title/90494/A-Slight-Case-of-Murder/.