Little Caesar (1931)
One of the first credible gangster movies, "Little Caesar" is a work in characters and pride. It's the predecessor to such classics as "The Godfather" and "Goodfellas" and it may surprise you how approachable this movie remains even still today.
The story concerns a man named Rico (Edward G. Robinson) who just wants to make it big as a crime lord. He has seen the success of Diamond Pete Montana and he thinks that he could be just as good wrecking havoc on the tax-paying world. Tired of knocking off little gas stations and small diners, Rico enlists himself in the service of Sam Vettori (Stanley Fields), one of the underlings of Pete Montana. His convinces the man of his bravado and wins himself the nickname "Little Caesar" though most of the time he's referred to as Rico.
One of the first jobs that Rico participates with the gang is a hold up at a night-club where Rico's old pal Joe Massara (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) works as a dancer. Joe was in the gangster squad but left the scene when he met a girl. Now he's being pulled back in for this job and he doesn't like it; but Rico's ruthlessness doesn't let him turn yellow before the big day.
As Rico gets more responsibility, he also gets more arrogance and starts to go against Sam, who considers himself to be the mastermind. If Sam didn't think of it, the gang won't do it; yet Rico is proving himself to be a more worthy boss to follow and some of the gang's mood is changing.
"Little Caesar" is very much a movie of highs and lows, or hubris and the fall, it's very much Scorsese's influence, though it possibly exceeds some of that director's work.
As Joe struggles with the ropes that tie him to the work that Rico does, Rico is rising to the top of the food chain, and he loves it here. He is a glutton for the fame, he is prideful beyond prideful, and we all can see how this might end.
Rico's rival is Sergeant Flaherty (Thomas E. Jackson), the policeman who thinks that he is going to pull the mob's curtains down and shed light onto the underbelly of the city.
"Little Caesar" is short, vicious, and sweet. It's brutal with its violence, for such an early picture, and it doesn't seem to shy away from painting a very complex picture of our main character. He is an anti-hero, and yet he is also the villain of the piece. We somehow sympathize with him as he rises to the top of the world, yet we all know that it will be to his eventual downfall. These things just don't work out well for the underdog.
Edward G. Robinson is spectacular here and, in fact, most of the performances are quiet modern. It's very dramatic at moments and also very unsentimental. There are no huge orchestras here or brash crying scenes...in fact when "the end" title card scrolls up, it doesn't even get the swell of music that is so common from movies of this day and age.
What "Little Caesar" excels at it providing you with just the right amount of intrigue into all the characters while establishing the tropes that have become so well known throughout the gangster genre.
It's certainly a boys' party here, with only one lead female character who just acts as a plot device; yet it never strove for gender equality. "Little Caesar" is true to its time period, true to its story, and true to its characters. It's very entertaining and very engaging.
Posted by Micah Jones