Director: Mervyn LeRoy
Producers: Daryl F. Zanuck, Hal B. Wallis (First National)
Writers: Franics Edward Faragoh, Robert N. Lee (screenplay), W.R. Burnett (novel)
Photography: Tony Gaudio
Music: Erno Rapee
Cast: Edward G. Robinson, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Glenda Farrell, William Collier Jr., Sidney Blackmer, Ralph Ince, Thomas E. Jackson, Stanley Fields, Maurice Black, George E. Stone
It’s 1930. American morale has been crushed by the Great Depression. People are out of jobs, deflated, flat. Yet onto the movie screen walks this gangster — an ambitious, proactive, fast-talking son of a bitch, and he electrifies the viewing public. Edward G. Robinson in Little Caesar was more than just a fine performance. It marked a seachange in American film, making room for edgier presentations and defining a new genre in the gangster picture. From then on, American film culture would include the anti-hero, chasing an American Dream represented by a big desk and modern architecture, usurping the power of those who’ve come before but gone soft, and following a tragic career path “starting in the gutter and ending there.” (A)
The fact that such a genre captured the same fear of runaway free enterprise that caused the stock market to crash the year before, immediately explains its public appeal. We hail these gangsters’ willingness to do something about their depressing circumstance, and at the same time pray for their demise in order to assauge our idea of living in a civil society. In short, we can’t get enough of the gangster picture.
The film chronicles the rise and fall of gangster Caesar “Rico” Bandello (Robinson). He begins a small-time thief with his partner Joe Massara (Douglass Fairbanks Jr.), with whom he sits in a diner reading headlines of the nation’s biggest mob boss, “Diamond” Pete Montana (Ralph Ince). “He’s somebody,” Rico says. “He’s in the bigtime, doing things in a big way. And look at us, just a couple of nobodies, nothin’.” The two decide to head east and chase the dream in Chicago, where Joe becomes a dancer and falls for fellow-dancer Olga (Glenda Farrell). Meantime, Rico goes to work for crime boss Sam Vettori (Stanley Fields), who gives him the nickname “Little Caesar” for his short, stocky build. Rico tries to help Joe through the ranks with him, but Joe wants out, especially when he learns the gang’s next job is at the Bronze Peacock where he works. As Olga tries to convince Joe to leave the life for good, Rico rises further through the ranks, overthrowing Vettori and rival Little Arnie Lorch (Maurice Black), telling each, “You can dish it out, but you got so you can’t take it anymore.”
His meteoric success grabs headlines and the attention of a godfather known only as “Big Boy” (Sidney Blackmer), who asks him to takeover Montana, the same crime figure Rico had admired in the papers to start. But Rico has mind to take out Big Boy as well, leaving himself sole control of the city. That master plan can never be, though, as Rico’s fame also attracts the suspicion of the police, led by crime crackdown expert Sergeant “The Bull” Flaherty (Thomas E. Jackson). Flaherty’s been looking for just one piece of evidence against “Little Caesar,” and when Rico leaves himself open in a dealing with Joe, it’s Flaherty’s chance to nab him. The result is a famous gut shot that leaves Rico on the ground uttering the famous line: “Mother of mercy, is this the end of Rico?”
It was the perfect role for Emmanuel Goldenberg of Romania, who came to America in pursuit of a dream like Joe’s, changing his name to Edward G. Robinson (the ‘G’ for Goldenberg) to give himself a snappier name for the theater (B). He tried breaking into pictures at age 30, appearing in the silent film The Bright Shawl (1923), but was not enough of a success to leave theater entirely. Then came sound. It was with this technological breakthrough that Robinson, the fast-talking actor, could showcase his full talent, and in 1929, Paramount decided he might make a good gangster beside Claudette Colbert in Hole in the Wall. A year later, Hal B. Wallis had him auditioning for the part of Otero, but decided he was perfect for the lead instead. And thus, a legend was born.
Robinson’s Rico proved villains don’t have to be huge macho guys. This one was short, stocky, and with a whiny voice, yet he remains one of the most ruthless psychopaths in the history of film. Case in point: one of his gang members, Tony (William Collier Jr.), sees the error of his ways and decides to confess his sins. Immediately, Rico follows him and guns him down on the steps of a church. Yowzers. It’s no wonder the guy lands #38 on AFI’s 50 Greatest Villains, four spots higher than Cagney’s Tom Powers in The Public Enemy (1931) — a film equally responsible for the genre’s explosion.
Rico was the epitome of compensation, a short dude making up for it in firepower. He has a spark about him, drawing other hoods to follow him as he follows his own motto: “Shoot first and argue afterward.” He’s an intelligent fellow — “the old bean’s working all the time” — even if he is “a little quick on the trigger.” He never drinks alcohol because he doesn’t want to compromise his decision-making. And above all, he’s determined that no cop will ever put the cuffs on him, even if it means death. Such a lifestyle possesses a kind of hubris that explains his obsession with how he’s perceived by the public, which ultimates brings his downfall.
But is his real downfall an extension of his latent homosexuality? Isn’t he eventually ratted out because he can’t muster the ability to shoot Joe? As Rico says about Joe, “This is what I get for liking a guy too much.” Joe is his only weakness, and his sexual attraction provides a subtext for the film, just as incest provides one for Tony Camonte in Scarface (1932). Granted, the film never outright claims Rico as a homosexual, but the dots are there to connect. Early on, Rico aks Joe, “Women? Now where do they getcha?” He then says his dream is to “look hard at a bunch of guys and know that they’ll do anything that you tell ’em.” Later a title card reads, “Rico continued to take care of himself, his hair and his gun — with excellent results.” Isn’t it suggestive enough that he constantly keeps his hand on a gun?
Such attention to character can be attributed to screenwriters Franics Edward Faragoh and Robert Lee, who based their Oscar-nominated script off Willaim R. Burnett’s 1929 novel of the same name. It’s said Burnett wrote the book after an incident where he heard his own singer friend gunned down on a live radio broadcast (C). It’s fitting that Little Caesar be inspired by such an event, as the relationship between crime and the media plays out from start to finish. It’s a newspaper that has Rico dreaming in the diner. It’s a newspaper photo at his banquet that foreshadows his downfall. And it’s a negative column that leads to Rico’s demise. Even the powerful final image, that of Rico lying dead beneath a billboard for Joe and Olga’s latest play, reinforces the tragedy of this fame-seeker’s ultimate shortcoming. No doubt it’s that last shot, of the gangster dying beneat a symbolic sign, that influenced Hawks’ ending to Scarface (1932).
It’s also fitting that a film full of snappy dialogue come to a close with such a zinger in that final billboard scene. Of all things the big bad gangster could have said, we hear a quivering, cowardly admission of his own mortality and the limits to his mortal fame: “Mother of mercy, is this the end of Rico?” The line has since gained immortality, voted #73 on the AFI’s 100 Movie Quotes. But few know Robinson was originally supposed to say, “Mother of God,” before studios changed it in fear of being blasphemous. Such fears may also explain the Biblical quote in the beginning: “For all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.” Decades later in 1954, another “foreward” was added to the beginning as part of combo release of Little Caesar and Public Enemy. It reminded viewers that “Tom Powers in Public Enemy and Rico in Little Caesar are not two men, nor are they merely characters—they are a problem that sooner or later we, the public, must solve.” No doubt this “disclamer” was added to quelch complaints the film actually glorifies the mob, a claim I never got. While Rico is a compelling character, the film absolutely shows all there is to be lost in a life of crime.
That said, director Mervin LeRoy faced far less censorship than Hawks would two years later in Scarface, the latter feeling the repercussions of all the complaints that began with Little Caesar. To continue the LeRoy-Hawks comparison would reveal LeRoy as the inferior of the two. But there are some directorial points worth noting. Several of the camera set-ups are intriguing, like one looking out from inside the burning fireplace, or the one looking out through a small opening between curtains at the Bronze Peacock. As the camera dollies up through those curtains to look at the club patrons, we can’t help but feel an allegiance to the perspective behind the curtain, where we later return as the gangster pour in to hold up the joint in a brilliant montage of dissolves. To introduce all these gangsters, LeRoy uses a nifty moving camera early in the film, panning as Vettori lists their names (a precursor to the club scene in Goodfellas?). Still, my favorite shot composition comes with Otero (George E. Stone) in the left of the frame speaking to an off-screen Rico, who stands on a table so that his whole body witll appear in a wall mirror to the right of the frame, the very reflection of his own self-aggrandizement. LeRoy was not one of history’s top-tier filmmakers, but such set-ups reveal why he, a Thalberg Award recipient, directed a trio of classics in a span of three years with Little Caesar (1930), I’m a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), in which he brought back Farrell, and Golddiggers of 1933 (1933).
LeRoy’s work has influenced several gangster films to follow. The shot of Rico slowly approaching the camera with a wild look in his eyes may have influenced a similar shot by William Wellman on Cagney a year later. Meantime, the shot of Tony being shot on the steps and rolling down predates Cagney’s operatic death on the steps in The Roaring Twenties (1939) and more closely resembles the death of Barzini in The Godfather (1972). Still, I’m hesitant to say Little Caesar has permiated pop culture all that much. The title appears as a gangster TV show in the beginning of Analyze That (2002), The Simpsons spoofs Robinson’s famous last line with, “Is this the end of Milhouse?” and we’ll never know if it had anything to do with the naming of the pizza joint Little Caesars, founded in 1959.
What’s more, the film’s coolest potential claim on pop culture remains up in the air. Rumors have swirled that the U.S. government’s 1970 statutes called “The Racketeering Influence Corrupt Organization Act,” or RICO, got its acronym from Robinson’s character. Notre Dame Law School professor G. Robert Blakey, the admitted movie buff who drafted RICO, to this day “won’t confirm or deny” the rumor (D). There’s something sweet in that, and telling of movies place in our cultural lore. Even if it weren’t true, wouldn’t we want to believe it? Wouldn’t we want to think that the AFI’s #9 Gangster Film of All Time is capable of this? For if it were true, finally Robinson will have won. There really would be no end to Rico.
CITE A: Public Enemies/Gangster Pictures documentary on TCM
CITE B: David Thomson, New Biographical Dictionary of Film
CITE C: Turner Classic Movies intro
CITE D: IMDB Trivia