Retro Review: ‘Little Caesar’
During the era of Pre Code Hollywood, gangster films proved to be big business for Warner Brothers. As those suffering during the Depression saw gangsters to an extent as folk heroes, it made sense they would want them on the big screen. Many of the gangster pictures during this era have gone on to become certified film classics; the Public Enemy, Scarface, and the 1930 flick we are looking at today Little Caesar.
Wanting to make it big in the underworld of the Windy City, “Little” Caesar Rico Bandello joins an infamous Chicago gang. His fellow criminal Joe, also sets up in town, but he pursues a career as a dancer instead. Reluctantly he is coerced by his old friend Rico to help rob a club which ends in needless violence. Despite the local crime bosses becoming furious at this, the ambitious criminal uses this to climb the criminal career ladder. Through pure toughness and a willingness to leave a body count Rico rises through the ranks, even taking over the city’s north side. All the while Joe tries to divorce himself from his old ways. Given that Joe knows enough to put his old friend behind bars for life, a confrontation between he and Rico is inevitable. No matter how things end, Bandello knows he has to go out in a blaze of glory.
For most people Little Caesar stands out in film history for turning its leading man Edward G. Robinson into a star. Given his incredible performance as Rico Bandello, this notoriety is completely warranted. It is a criminal understatement to say he was convincing as a man with the ruthlessness and toughness to ascend Chicago’s underworld. But there is also a vulnerability which emerges no matter how much he tries to keep it at bay. This comes out best when he is confronting Joe. Knowing he has to kill the closest friend he ever had, the normally stone cold crook finds himself morally conflicted. Director Mervyn LeRoy, wisely zooms the camera in for a close-up of Robinson. We watch as the actor’s expression tell a story as he tries to put up a strong front but his grief is holding him back and his raw emotional conflict is aid bare for all to see. For a while Little Caesar saw Robinson typecast as a tough-as-nails gangster, but thanks to wise career decisions, he successfully transitioned into a career as a character actor. Those roles in classics like: Double Indemnity, the Ten Commandments, and Song of Norway, proved to be the perfect showcase of his talents.
One of the things working in favor of Little Caesar was the time in which it was made. In what was known as Hollywood’s Pre Code era, the enforcers of the Hayes Code lacked the necessary tools to clamp down on things like sex and violence. As you can imagine this greatly benefited gangster flicks in particular. While this flick does not have the hard-edge of the Public Enemy it is still a gritty and violent picture. Granted like a lot of the early talkies, the production values are not the smoothest. That being said the camera work is far better than it has any right to be. This can most likely be attributed to director, Mervyn LeRoy’s experience in the Silent Age when a strong visual language was a necessity.
Little Caesar was one of those films which established the “Gangster movie” in Hollywood. It told the story of an ambitious criminal who rises to power only to fall even harder, paving the way for everything from White Heat to Goodfellas to follow. This is thanks in large part to Edward G. Robinson who gives on of cinema’s iconic performances. The impact it has had on moviedom is so significant that it has more than earned it’s place in history.