Little Caesar (film)
Little Caesar is a 1931 American pre-Code crime film distributed by Warner Brothers, directed by Mervyn LeRoy, and starring Edward G. Robinson, Glenda Farrell, and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. The film tells the story of a hoodlum who ascends the ranks of organized crime until he reaches its upper echelons. The storyline was adapted from the novel of the same name by William R. Burnett. Little Caesar was Robinson's breakthrough role and immediately made him a major film star. The film is often listed as one of the first full-fledged gangster films and continues to be well received by critics.
In 2000, Little Caesar was included in the annual selection of 25 motion pictures added to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress being deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" and recommended for preservation. The Library of Congress maintains a print.
Small-time criminals Caesar Enrico "Rico" Bandello (Edward G. Robinson) and his friend Joe Massara (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) move to Chicago to seek their fortunes. Rico joins the gang of Sam Vettori (Stanley Fields), while Joe wants to be a dancer. Olga (Glenda Farrell) becomes his dance partner and girlfriend.
Joe tries to drift away from the gang and its activities, but Rico makes him participate in the robbery of the nightclub where he works. Despite orders from underworld overlord "Big Boy" (Sidney Blackmer) to all his men to avoid bloodshed, Rico guns down crusading crime commissioner Alvin McClure during the robbery, with Joe as an aghast witness.
Rico accuses Sam of becoming soft and seizes control of his organization. Rival boss "Little Arnie" Lorch (Maurice Black) tries to have Rico killed, but Rico is only grazed. He and his gunmen pay Little Arnie a visit, after which Arnie hastily departs for Detroit. The Big Boy eventually gives Rico control of all of Chicago's Northside.
Rico becomes concerned that Joe knows too much about him. He warns Joe that he must forget about Olga and join him in a life of crime. Rico threatens to kill both Joe and Olga unless he accedes, but Joe refuses to give in. Olga calls Police Sergeant Flaherty (Thomas Jackson) and tells him Joe is ready to talk, just before Rico and his henchman Otero (George E. Stone) come calling. Rico finds, to his surprise, that he is unable to take his friend's life. When Otero tries to do the job himself, Rico wrestles the gun away from him, though not before Joe is wounded. Hearing the shot, Flaherty and another police officer give chase and injure and capture Otero. With information provided by Olga, Flaherty proceeds to crush Rico's organization.
Desperate and alone, Rico "retreats to the gutter from which he sprang." While hiding in a flophouse, he becomes enraged when he learns that Flaherty has called him a coward in the newspaper. He foolishly telephones the police to announce he is coming for him. The call is traced, and he is gunned down by Flaherty behind a billboard – an advertisement featuring dancers Joe and Olga – and, dying, utters his final words, "Mother of mercy, is this the end of Rico?"
One interpretation of the film's title character is that he is a repressed or closeted gay man. The evidence cited includes Otero's fawning admiration of Rico, Rico's great affinity for Joe, and Rico's complete lack of interest in romantic relationships with women, as well as his utter contempt for Joe's interest in women. When the film was released, author Burnett apparently drew the same conclusion about the screen version of the character. Having written Rico as explicitly heterosexual in his novel, Burnett wrote a letter of complaint to the film's producers about the conversion of the character to gay in the screen adaptation.
Together with The Public Enemy (1931) and Scarface (1932), Little Caesar proved to be influential in developing the gangster film genre, establishing many themes and conventions that have been used since then.
The film's box office success also spawned the production of several successful gangster films, many of which were also made by Warner Brothers. It is listed in the film reference book 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, which says "Mervyn LeRoy's Little Caesar helped to define the gangster movie while serving as an allegory of production circumstances because it was produced during the Great Depression— Leavening this theme alongside the demands of social conformity during the early 1930s means that LeRoy's screen classic is far more than the simple sum of its parts."