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Rico is a small-time hood who knocks off gas stations for whatever he can take. He heads east and signs up with Sam Vettori's mob. A New Year's Eve robbery at Little Arnie Lorch's casino results in the death of the new crime commissioner Alvin McClure. Rico's good friend Joe Massara, who works at the club as a professional dancer, works as the gang's lookout man and wants out of the gang. Rico is ambitious and eventually takes over Vettori's gang; he then moves up to the next echelon pushing out Diamond Pete Montana. When he orders Joe to dump his girlfriend Olga and re-join the gang, Olga decides there's only one way out for them. Written by
As the first mobster to make a big dent in cinema, Rico "Little Caesar" Bandello deserves respect. But does he make for a great movie? I say no.
After a final gas station hold-up, Rico (Edward G. Robinson) and pal Joe Massara (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) breeze into the big city to score with mob boss Sam Vettori (Stanley Fields) and his crew. Soon Rico is the one running things, but will his itchy trigger finger and habitual line-stepping run him afoul of police Sergeant Flaherty (Thomas E. Jackson)?
"The bigger they come, the harder the fall," Rico boasts. "I ain't doin' bad in this business so far."
The problem with "Little Caesar" is obvious from the start and more so as the film progresses: Rico is an idiot. He only makes it as far as he does because all the hoods he messes with, like Sam, are even dumber. When he takes over Sam's gang, he just tells Sam he's through and that's that. When he wants to make a statement about running things, he throws a party and invites the papers. When he starts shooting, he zaps the new crime commissioner and then tells everyone to mind not to say nothing about it.
Maybe if the film showed this to be dumb behavior, I'd feel a little different. But instead this is suggested as being the typical road to hoodlum hegemony, and highly effective if not for a human foible or two that slip Rico up.
Robinson stands out in the flawed proceedings almost as much by default as by his considerable talent. He's great with his rough banter, and his flourishes with his cigar, but he is playing a Snidley Whiplash caricature and it shows.
It reminds me of another Romanian-born actor who made his big splash in movies the same year, Bela Lugosi in "Dracula." Both films are atmospheric potboilers focused on a single over-the-top villain. Both are sadly diminished by time with their formulaic conventions, weak supporting cast, and creaky early-sound production.
When "Little Caesar" wants to project menace, we see Rico warn people "my gun's gonna speak its piece," only he doesn't really do much with it. Fairbanks is lost as a lamb in a hurricane playing Joe, especially when he hooks up with Glenda Farrell and tries to make his break from Rico, a matter the film pushes into the background until the last 15 minutes. Watching Fairbanks and Farrell have their clinches reminds you of what was so wrong with early talkies: Even in a clinch, the lovers always shouted at each other.
Though a Pre-Code film, "Little Caesar" makes strange concessions to regional censors. When someone is shot, director Mervyn LeRoy is careful not to show Rico or anyone else actually pulling the trigger. There's no mention of booze, or vice, or any other illegal activity. Apparently these guys make all their money holding up each other's parties.
Critics looking at the film today scrape for matters of interest such as Rico's possible homosexuality, and the matter of how mob activity might be seen as mirroring big business. But in the end, what you get here is a thin story featuring a character who defies gravity and convention without doing very much of anything interesting.
Maybe I should be more grateful to "Little Caesar" for paving the way to other, better gangster films of the 1930s. By itself it is a curio more than anything else, testament to one big talent who left a lasting impression but would make his mark on better films to come.
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