Director: Mervyn LeRoy
So recently I decided to start looking into some of the original gangster films back during their glory years of the 1930s. Little Caesar (a word I have misspelled more times than I care to admit) is pretty universally regarded as one of the milestones of the genre, and so with anticipation I settled on it as my starting point.
Little Caesar stars Edward G Robinson in what was to become his breakout role, playing the title character Enrico Bandello, or Caesar to those who he comes across. It’s a standard crime tale of a young hoodlum attempting to rise to the top of organised crime. Starting out as part of a two-man team holding us gas stations, Rico becomes fascinated by news reports of the bigger players living with wealth and power that others only dream of. Rico is quickly away and making deals to get himself up the ladder of crime, not caring who he has to cross over to get there. A few stick ups later, and his house of cards begins to tumble in a pretty classic fashion. A friend’s betrayal, his own sense of loyalty, and a few determined cops help bring matters to a conclusion in the only way they can.
Robinson himself is pretty much the sole star of the movie, and he certainly portrays the role of an unhinged psychopath well. His portrayal is in some ways an early version of the roles Joe Pesci would come to play sixty years later – the short, loud and violent man who no one could predict, let alone care to trust. The rest of the cast are competent, though none of the other members particularly stand out. That just means that the focus is left on Robinson, who is plenty capable of carrying the film himself.
By today’s standards, it’s a pretty standard affair. But looking at it in the context in which it was filmed and released, 1931 America where prohibition was still in effect, the Depression was in full swing, and gangsters like Al Capone still roamed the streets, the film stands out as a remarkable period-piece and a great portrayal of life at that time in America’s history. This is what makes the film the most interesting to watch – a unique glimpse into an era which influenced so much.
It’s a short film (running at slightly over one and a quarter hours), so it makes for quick entertainment. The plot isn’t particularly sophisticated, but it is a great example of the fledgling gangster genre helped out by a defining performance by Robinson, band helps to set all of the identifying characteristics of gangsters films to follow.