“Mother of Mercy! Is this the end of Rico?”
‘Little Caesar’, directed by Mervyn LeRoy in 1931, is an American gangster movie starring Edward G. Robinson, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and Glenda Farrell. Robinson, in his break-through role, plays Caesar Enrico “Rico” Bandello, a small-time crook who, with his friend and accomplice Joe Massara, played by Fairbanks Jr., moves to Chicago to make it big. Once there Bandello moves up the ranks of the local gangs, ending up in charge, whilst Massara falls in love with Olga, played by Farrell, and tries his hand at dancing. As the police close in, Bandello finds himself torn between his friendship with Massara and the knowledge that his former partner could bring him down, an in the meantime Massara is desperately trying to leave the life of the gangster but his drawn back in. It’s a spare, short movie, economical with its story and told in punchy episodes. The stand out part of the film is Robinson’s weird but powerful performance as the diminutive and unlikely criminal, with a hint of repressed homosexuality. The perspective of the film is entirely with him, and LeRoy achieves the very tricky balance between the audience recognising him as the villain but also sympathising with him. The movie is packed with arresting images and action, the gunfights in particular are intense, but the while film is carefully crafted to create an almost abstract feeling. The final scene in which Bandello is trapped behind a poster of Massara and Olga, is perhaps the most poignant and affecting moment in the film, reminiscent of the final shot of Howard Hawks’ ‘Scarface’ made a year later.
Would I recommend it? It’s Edward G. Robinson’s first gangster role so it deserves to be seen. It’s a lean movie, but watched with a film like ‘Scarface’, you would get a really powerful double bill.