Little Caesar (1931). 79 minutes. Directed by Mervyn LeRoy. Starring Edward G. Robinson (as Caesar Enrico Bandello/“Little Caesar”), Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. (as Joe Massara), Glenda Farrell (as Olga Stassoff), William Collier, Jr. (as Tony Passa), Sidney Blackmer (as Big Boy), Ralph Ince (as Diamond Pete Montana), Thomas E. Jackson (as Sergeant Flaherty), Stanley Fields (as Sam Vettori), Maurice Black (as Little Arnie Lorch), and George E. Stone (as Otero).
Little Caesar is a gangster movie from the early days of sound—so early, in fact, that it still includes title cards to announce major transitions in a few scenes. It was made before the Production Code was in place, which means that it is more risqué and more violent than movies produced only a few years later when the Code was enforced. The film made Edward G. Robinson a star, and its influence is wide-ranging. The climactic scene in The Godfather (1972) where Michael Corleone’s men gun down an enemy on the steps of a courthouse references Little Caesar, as does the scene in Goodfellas (1990) where the camera travels around a table as a character introduces the gangsters who will soon be involved in a heist. As a result of these and other scenes that have been absorbed into movie culture, Little Caesar may already seem familiar to you upon first viewing, but Robinson’s performance remains fresh and provocative.
Low-level criminals Caesar Enrico Bandello and his friend Joe Massara read about mob boss Diamond Pete Montana in the newspaper and resolve to become major players in the Chicago underworld. Upon relocating to the big city, Rico becomes a hired gun for Sam Vettori, but Joe insists on pursuing a career as a dancer and finds work in a club with the beautiful Olga Stassoff. Joe no longer wants a life of crime, but Rico arranges for a major heist to take place at the club on New Year’s Eve against Joe’s wishes. Crime overlord Big Boy has instructed Rico to avoid violence, but just as the clock is striking midnight and Rico is conducting the robbery at the club entrance, the city’s crime commissioner appears, and Rico shoots him. Soon after, Rico takes control of Sam’s syndicate.
As Rico grows more powerful, he attracts the attention of the press and other mobsters. Little Arnie Lorch attempts to have him shot in public but his men only graze Rico, and later Rico strong-arms Lorch and his men into leaving town. Big Boy gives Rico total control over the Northside of the city. Although Rico is successful, he is concerned that Joe knows too much about his crimes and is adamant that Joe remain a part of his operation. When Joe refuses, Rico confronts him and tries to shoot him but cannot bring himself to do it. Rico goes into hiding in a flophouse and obsessively reads stories about himself in the press, which reporters hope will cause him to reveal his whereabouts. One night, unable to lay low any longer, he taunts the police, who pursue him across town. Rico is gunned down behind a giant billboard of Joe and Olga dancing. The film ends with the dying Rico asking, “Mother of mercy, is this the end of Rico?”
Little Caesar was directed by Mervyn LeRoy, who also directed such outstanding pre-Code films as Gold Diggers of 1933 and I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932). There is an artfulness here as there is in those movies, especially in the aforementioned scene where the camera pans around a table and we are introduced to a host of gangsters with their evocative nicknames. But there is also a wonderful sequence on New Year’s Eve when Rico orchestrates a robbery in the lobby of Joe’s club. As the clock strikes midnight and the robbery is carried out, the crime commissioner makes his way to the lobby and is shot by Rico. In an ordinary gangster movie that might be as much as we are given to contemplate. But consider how this scene is edited: footage of revelers is intercut with and grafted over the scene in the lobby, so that we see the party in the main room projected over the lobby with Rico on one end and the commissioner on the other. The crime and celebration move across the space of the camera together, intensifying the scene’s climax and causing us to get lost in the overlay of images and noise. We share in the commissioner’s confusion, and we experience the brilliance of Rico’s scam at the same time. In a weird way, the editing even humanizes Rico somewhat. It could be that he kills the commissioner to shock the underworld and work his way further up its echelons. But we can also understand his decision to shoot the commissioner as a reaction to the chaos of the midnight revelers. Maybe he, like us, feels overwhelmed by the preponderance of noise and activity and exercises poor judgment. Perhaps he is more fallible than his pristine appearance would imply.
There is not a lot of room elsewhere for a discussion of Rico’s morality. We primarily see him acting in his capacity as a professional gangster. I suppose the closest we get to a personal scene would be one of the scenes with Joe—but even there, Rico is always ostensibly discussing business. There is also the scene when Rico is riding in the hoodlum Tony’s funeral procession along with other gangsters in separate cars. They observe that Rico has sent a wreath to the funeral home, and it says only “Tony.” They interpret this as an act of humility—Rico could have included his name but did not. Of course, they are able to identify the wreath as his anyway, and they know that Rico has personally slain Tony, so their assessment seems strange. Then again, maybe that wreath is Rico’s feeble way of apologizing to the dead man. It is a strange story indeed that offers us a glimpse of someone’s interior by way of noticing what he does not write on the funeral wreath of a man he kills.
Perhaps there are not as many bullets fired here as in the pre-Code Scarface (1932), but Edward G. Robinson as Rico has a menacing intensity that might make one think the movie is more violent than it really is. Rico’s career path is laden with brutality, and the plot is driven by greed and callousness, but like so many of the pre-Code gangsters he and his surroundings look fantastic as he commits nefarious deeds, whether he is wearing a three-piece pin-striped suit with a diamond tie tack or his first ever tuxedo. He shoots people in public and speeds away in sparkling cars. He is quick to pull a gun at meetings when he is merely a junior thug, packed close in rooms with men who know how to dress. He swiftly edges out his competition by threatening to kill them, and of course he is shot himself with a Tommy gun—once successfully and once unsuccessfully, the latter on the street in front of an elegant china shop. Robinson is capable of playing street-wise criminals who seem at home sporting slicked-down hair and a satin bow tie in a palatial mansion or looking filthy and unshaven in a flophouse, where Rico does in fact end up. He can look natively elegant while simultaneously conveying authentic sliminess—it is a weird quality. Of course, the fact that Rico spends much of the movie looking great while committing crimes contributes to our sense that the movie in a way, and for a time, enjoys Rico’s success as much as he does.
Because this is a pre-Code movie, some of the on-screen violence would not have been possible only a few years later. I am thinking in particular of the many vividly flashing gunshots. But there are also some interesting sexual undertones that might not have been permitted under the Code. I am referring to what some critics have described as a homosexual subtext, which they locate in Rico’s insistence that his friend Joe ditch his woman (Rico himself does not have a female lover), his intense need for Joe to stay in the business with him and share in his crimes, his resulting attachment to the underling Otero, who is featured seated next to Rico in bed in one scene, and Rico’s inability to shoot Joe, the object of his devotion. It could be that Rico is latently homosexual—that he is actually in love with Joe. William R. Burnett, the author of the novel that Little Caesar was based on, felt that the movie went too far in this regard and wrote a letter to the studio to complain, so modern critics are not the only ones who have reached this conclusion. It could also be that Rico has intense homosocial feelings for Joe; homosocial feelings are feelings of strong attachment that we can have for members of our own sex even if we are not sexually attracted to them. The movie’s depiction of Rico’s feelings is vague enough that it is not clear if he harbors homosexual or homosocial inclinations.
But before I make the pre-Code mores of Little Caesar seem overly liberated, I should point out that Rico’s feelings for Joe seem obsessive and slightly deranged, and perhaps that depiction is not reflective of a very progressive creative mindset. The scene where Rico attempts to shoot Joe is a strong case in point. As Rico approaches Joe with a gun, the camera zooms in on Rico’s emotional face. He looks confused, transfixed, spooked—all at once. The result is that he cannot act. Perhaps we may think that is a good thing; after all, we are hardly rooting for Rico to murder Joe. But Rico’s feelings in isolated close-up look decidedly peculiar. It is a strange moment, which is to say that the movie makes Rico’s feelings for Joe, whatever they are, seem incapacitating and odd rather than natural or admirable.
Reflecting on topics such as obsessive amorous relationships, good-looking gangsters, and on-screen violence might bring to mind Scarface again. But Little Caesar is not as eloquent as Scarface. It is a little cruder, a bit coarser, and substantially less meditative on the relationship between style and crime. At the same time, Rico’s emotional hang up (his obsession with Joe) does feel similar to Tony Camonte’s twisted relationship with his sister in Scarface. Both Rico and Camonte are possessed by deep infatuations that overwhelm their criminal intentions. The gangsters’ attachment to these objects of affection, while a contributor to their instability, nevertheless in a way reveals some measure of humanity about them insofar as it demonstrates that they have feelings (admittedly complex ones) for someone other than themselves. But of course, their love for others is mostly about their own emotions—it is not charitable or compassionate.
Little Caesar, Scarface, The Public Enemy (1931), and other important pre-Code gangster movies were made during a time when real-life gangsters such as John Dillinger and Al Capone were coming to prominence as national news staples. For all three movies to suggest that there is not only something evil about their protagonists’ crimes but also something implicitly deranged about their private lives was a daring move. These films made very public accusations of psychological abnormality and weakness in figures who were very much at large and violently destructive. I have written about how chic Rico’s habits are, how good-looking Robinson is in that role. But the way that pre-Code gangster movies also suggest instability in the mental lives of real gangsters not only provided a counterbalance to the movies’ emphasis on their protagonists’ cool sophistication; it also made for edgy social commentary. It would be a shame if Little Caesar’s striking glitz and slickness eclipsed its historical boldness.