If gangster films had a family gathering, The Godfather would sit at the head of the table as the patriarch of romanticised manhood, Goodfellas would jitter passing plates as the rock and roll burn out son, Scarface would be stuffing its face as the gaudy uncle, and Little Caesar would sit back overlooking powerful company as the great grandfather.
Mervyn LeRoy’s Little Caesar is credited as the initial spark of a burning interest in gangster pictures, a fascination which has never been truly extinguished, but it is far from being the absolute origin.
D. W. Griffith’s 1915 picture Musketeers of Pig Alley was the first to flirt with organised crime but their are many other landmarks in the genre. Josef Von Sternberg’s 1927 film Underworld was one of the earliest to paint a sympathetic portrait of mobsters, whilst Lewis Milestone’s The Racket depicted a more conventional and moralistic representation. Little Caesar was not even the first talkie, Warner Bros released Doorway to Hell almost simultaneously.
But despite these earlier movies, the spark began here with Little Caesar, and the reason can be explained in one simple word: Rico.
Little Caesar unveiled a cigar chomping, rough and tough gangster with a mouth quicker than a tommy gun, laced up in a pinstripe suit and topped with a trilby. Rico was a whole new mobster that had to be seen to be believed, and heard to be appreciated. But this figure was not totally alien to the American public.
Al Capone lived large and publicly. He joked with paparazzi, was quoted in their stories and smiled for their pictures. Capone’s image and lifestyle were ubiquitous across America, so Jack Warner and Darryl Zanuck settled on commissioning Burnett’s thinly veiled novel to illuminate the headlines, but the adaption called for someone who could fill the spats of the Chicago tyrant. If Capone could act, maybe he would’ve take the silver screen himself.
Instead, Warner Bros got the next best thing. Edward G. Robinson’s profile boasted a flat nose, thick neck and a natural snarl, he may not have been romantic leading man material, but as a ruthless mobster he was a dead ringer. Robinson’s smile is as settling as a sharks, his deep set eyes constantly roaming under his trilby with clockwork formulation, and his voice is piercing.
Rico was the blue print for imitators for the remainder of the decade, but time has not been kind to Robinson’s incarnation. His rapid fire talking, voice, style and physique have all become something of a monochrome Dick Tracy, and the subject of endless parody. Rico is still fascinating, but his threatening and meaning nature is watered down, and often accidentally comical.
But when it was fresh, Robinson’s greedy, gun toting and gusty anti-hero captured the imagination and attention of audiences as America trembled from the Wall Street Crash and spiralled deep into the Great Depression. Headlines were filled with charting the adventures of anti-heroes and renegades like Bonnie and Clyde, the Barker Gang and John Dillinger. Each were violent and dangerous, but they represented rebellion against a failed establishment and a warped American Dream.
And censors feared this. The Hayes Code had not yet totally taken a grip, but its choking hold can be felt in Little Caesar. Censors feared public outrage if Rico was glorified, and so he is forced to suffer morality on his age old rise and inevitable fall. The morality feels injected and plays havoc with character consistency.
Sam Vittori (Stanley Fields) is one of the big bosses of Chicago and Rico’s initial employer, until his gang is commandeered by Rico. Anyone would expect some kind of violent retaliation, instead Sam instantly gives up. How did he ever become a boss? Douglas Fairbanks Jr’s character of Joe should be a counterpoint to Rico, they were old partners. Instead, Rico outshines Joe, leaving him in dark only until a superfluous climax. Rico storms Joe’s apartment with his gun at the ready, he aims to silence him once and for all, but at the last minute Rico suffers a change of heart. An odd turn of events considering his itchy trigger finger offing people left and right and censors not wishing to brush Rico with morality.
The oncoming Hayes code may have tamed what should have been a wilder and violent ride, but Robinson creates menace without blood. In one iconic scene, Little Caesar is on top of the world and enjoys a banquet with his goons. His men honour him with an expensive watch. The police interrupt the fun and threaten Rico again, they further mention a robbery has taken place and an expensive watch is missing. After the police exit, Rico turns to his men, each studies Rico with wide eyed expectancy like naughty children.
Voted at number 9 on the American Film Institutes’ top ten films listed under ‘Gangster’, Little Caesar flirts with that blurry line drawn between classic and landmark. Of its own merit, it is entertaining, though for the wrong reasons in certain parts. Nevertheless, it is the root of a genre of some of cinema’s proudest pictures, and for any film fan it is a must see, see?
Ruined and trapped like a rat, Rico readies for a shootout with the police. What he doesn’t expect is a roar of machine gun fire ripping through his cover and his gut. The life leaks out of his veins and with his final breath, Rico utters an infamous line in mafia history ‘Mother of Mercy, is this the end of Rico?’