Entertainment Magazine

Little Caesar

Posted on the 23 March 2017 by Christopher Saunders

Little Caesar

"Mother of Mercy, is this the end of Rico?"

More than any other movie, Little Caesar (1931) codified the gangster movie. Mervyn LeRoy's feature inspired a million imitators, perversely making the original seem clichéd. For all its crudeness it still packs a punch, thanks in large part to Edward G. Robinson.
Small-time Chicago hoods Rico Bandello (Edward G. Robinson) and Joe Massara (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) fall in with gang boss Sam Vettori (Stanley Fields). Rico becomes a leading enforcer and bullies his way to the top, murdering superiors, colleagues and city officials alike. Joe, more interested in becoming a dancer with girlfriend Olga (Glenda Farrell), initially helps Rico but the friends drift apart. With Rico becoming the "Little Caesar" of Chicago, he's targeted by Police Sergeant Flaherty (Thomas E. Jackson), who decides to exploit Joe's misgivings.
Based on a W.R. Burnett novel, Little Caesar offers the ingredients for nearly every gangland tale since. Rico's meteoric rise is a brutal rush of robberies, rub-outs and betrayals, eschewing love, friendship and commonsense for ill-gotten power. He quickly ascends the ladder, but his recklessness alienates allies and makes him a target for the law. Though Joe betrays him, he's ultimately done in by his own arrogance. Hence the basic Hollywood dilemma: we're enjoined to relish Rico's violent career, while treating his downfall as a cautionary tale. This queer moral balance has marked basically every crime story since.
Little Caesar's light on the allegorical ponderings of later gangster sagas, its themes about the American Dream only implicit. Instead, LeRoy opts for efficiency, breezing through plot points with the dispatch of a B Movie. There's plenty of stylized violence and montage work, particularly an effective sequence intercutting a jewelry heist with a New Year's party. Several set pieces explicitly inspired later flicks: a hit on courthouse stairs appropriated for The Godfather, a sumptuous gangster banquet worked into The Untouchables. But Caesar doesn't develop its story or characters beyond the broadest archetypes, making it crude and mechanical.
Edward G. Robinson became an instant star as Rico, his cigar-chomping mannerisms and sneering accent becoming clichéd shorthand for Hollywood gangster. While Caesar's script doesn't give Robinson much room for depth or nuance (only in a scene where he weighs whether to murder Joe has strong impact), his forceful, angry charisma carries the picture. Rico isn't exactly likeable but thanks to Robinson's acting, he's great fun to watch. Even with a stiff supporting cast, Robinson makes an indelible impression.
Released in the midst of Prohibition gang wars in Chicago, New York and elsewhere, Little Caesar struck an immediate chord with a gangster-obsessed nation. It begat The Public Enemy, Scarface and innumerable lesser works that copied its rise-and-fall structure.

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