Genre: Gangster Running Time: 1 hr. 19 min.
Release Date: January 25th, 1931 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Mervyn LeRoy Actors: Edward G. Robinson, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Glenda Farrell, William Collier Jr., Sidney Blackmer, Ralph Ince, Thomas Jackson, Stanley Fields, Maurice Black
malltime hood Caesar Enrico Bandello (Edward G. Robinson, with a face shaped into a permanent scowl, perfectly designed for villainy) aspires to be like gangland kingpin Diamond Pete Montana (Ralph Ince), who frequently makes headlines concerning his criminal enterprises. Fame – notorious or otherwise – is more important to Enrico than money. Ditching longtime pal Joe Massara (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.), who would rather return to a career of dancing (with glamorous women) than crime, “Little Caesar” heads East to connect with mobster Sam Vettori (Stanley Fields) to make his way into the big times.
Some time later, Joe acquires a decent job at The Bronze Peacock, dancing alongside blonde bombshell Olga Stassoff (Glenda Farrell), while Caesar works his way up the ranks in Vettori’s gang until he ends up in a room with Montana himself. In short order, Caesar helps plan a heist against the Peacock on New Year’s Eve, forcing Joe to participate. Joe can’t seem to get away from his past life of crime, while self-destructive Caesar can’t get deep enough into the underworld, soaking up the infamy with his boastful, conceited attitude.
The supporting acting is subpar, the plot is plain, and the characters are one-dimensional. But Robinson is instantly convincing as an out-and-out brute, obsessed with image, power, and violence. Where the surrounding players fail to generate much interest, the top-billed baddie steals the spotlight at every turn. He may not be sympathetic or destined for some last-minute redemption, but he’s nonetheless striking in his narcissism and viciousness; his unwavering commitment toward ferocity, impulsiveness, and anger remains enticing throughout. “If anybody turns yellow and squeals, my gun is gonna speak its peace.”
The film contains many of the staples of early gangster epics, from irredeemable mugs, to drive-by shootings, to armed robberies, to hostile takeovers within organizations, to plotting rivals, to the law slowly closing in (represented by smarmy copper Flaherty [Thomas Jackson]). And thanks to Robinson’s carefully-honed persona, his wickedness grows more entertaining the greater his influence and territory become (especially after he adopts the tailoring and expressions of his superiors). “The bigger they come, the harder they fall.”
Halfway through, the film needlessly bridges a gap in time with an intertitle to reiterate Rico’s master plan to run the whole town (eventually, another pops up, equally as pointless). He only has one final boss to overtake: his own, dubbed Big Boy (Sidney Blackmer). This, of course, marks the beginning of his downfall; once he’s near the top, there’s no other direction to go. And he’s willing to sacrifice his only real friend just as quickly as he tramples his opponents. Ultimately, this renowned classic is more memorable for Robinson’s sensational performance than for the plot – regardless of its archetypal qualities, its effective depiction of a mobster’s rise and fall, and the gripping finale.
– Mike Massie