Two of my friends gave me a collection of gangster films for my retirement. One of the movies is Little Ceasar. The movie has a nominally moral ending with Rico dying in the street muttering the immortal words, “Mother of Mercy, is this the end of Rico?” The movie also makes an immoral point, one which is repeated in Manhattan Melodrama and Angels With Dirty Faces, that the path to survival, and in some cases prosperity, is paved by the betrayal of your friends. In Little Ceasar Joe Massara is with Rico when they pull off the gas station robbery that opens the film. We hear shots fired, and presumably the station operator is killed. This makes Joe an accomplice to murder. In our day it would qualify as felony murder, and he would be death penalty eligible under both current and past law. When Rico and Joe move to Chicago, they are both involved in a robbery and murder. Joe is again an accomplice, and is death penalty eligible. Ultimately Joe testifies against Rico in exchange for immunity. We see a billboard with Joe and Olga in a musical in the closing moments of the movie. So we know that Joe has escaped not only the second murder charge, which would be okay, but also the first, which most definitely is not okay in my eyes. So Rico dies under the billboard that testifies to the success of the friend who has ratted him out. In effect the moral of the movie becomes, “If you rat out your friends in time, you can get away with murder, and rise to the top.”
In Manhattan Melodrama and Angels With Dirty Faces the nominal heroes, played by William Powell and Pat O’Brien, are both willing to send a friend to the electric chair as a result of their principles. Maybe it’s a result of childhood trauma from losing friends due to changing schools, moving, and so on, or maybe it’s the result of reading too much Nietzsche when I was growing up, but to me the willingness to sacrifice their friends for principle makes the protagonists less noble and less appealing than their friends (Clark Gable and James Cagney) who consent to the sacrifice. All the nobility seems to be on the side of the bad guys in these two movies.