Released in 1931, Little Caesar was directed by Mervyn LeRoy and starred Edward G. Robinson as titular mobster Caesar Enrico Bandella.
Little Caesar is based on the novel by W.R. Burnett and was adapted for the screen by Francis Edward Faragoh and Robert N. Lee. As a Pre-Code film, it was not subject to the same constraints as gangster movies that followed later in the decade.
Distributed by Warner Brothers, Little Caesar earned nearly 300% of its total budget during its initial box office run. This wild success made Robinson an instant star and inspired a raft of lesser imitations.
The rapid proliferation of the genre peaked in 1934 when the Government essentially banned all gangster movies by enacting the Hays Code, a set of strictly enforced guidelines designed to hold motion pictures to a “higher” moral standard.
Government censorship forced the genre to reinvent itself, shifting closer to what we know today as the police procedural, before returning to form in a 1970’s revival led by directors like Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma.
Along with The Public Enemy (1931), Scarface (1932) and Blood Money (1933), Little Caesar helped solidify the gangster movie as a cultural phenomenon. It was added to the Library of Congress National Film Registry in 2000.
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‘Little Caesar’: Spoiler-Free Synopsis
In Great Depression-era Illinois, a pair of small-time criminals migrate to Chicago seeking greater wealth and opportunity.
Joe Massara never really liked being a crook, he’d rather be a ballroom dancer. But Enrico Bandello loves it. He’s after money, power and influence—and he’ll do anything to get it.
In the city, Rico moves aggressively toward his goals. He elbows his way into the mob. He pulls a risky heist that makes his boss into a pariah. And when he kills the city’s Crime Commissioner on New Year’s Eve, Rico Bandello becomes the crown prince of the underworld.
Joe’s been busy too. He’s become a successful ballroom dancer. He’s got a steady gig at fancy club and a girl who’s urging him to straighten out.
Joe wants out of the mob.
But Rico might not let him go.
‘Little Caesar’: Full Plot Summary
The film opens with two friends eating supper at a roadside diner. Caesar Enrico Bandello (Edward G. Robinson) reads the newspaper, waxing poetic about chasing bigger opportunities in the city.
Joe Massara (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) halfheartedly agrees, expressing vague misgivings about his life of crime. He says moving to Chicago would be nice. Money and women would be nice too. But what he really wants is to pursue his passion for ballroom dancing.
Rico scoffs at this idea, adding that it’s not just about the money—it’s also about the power.
In Chicago, Rico meets with gangster Sam Vettori (Stanley Fields) at Club Palermo. It’s a short meeting. Rico volunteers to join the gang and Vettori accepts. Vettori takes Rico to meet his crew, introducing him as “Little Caesar,” as Rico grins with sinister approval.
At The Bronze Peacock, an upscale dinner theatre, Joe performs on stage with his partner, Olga Stassoff (Glenda Farrell).
After the show, the proprietor praises their performance and offers them a ballroom dancing job for $100/week. When the pair embrace in celebration, Olga finds a pistol in his jacket pocket. Ashamed, Joe explains that you can’t just leave the gang: once you’re in, you’re in for good.
Rico joins Vettori at an illegal casino run by Little Arnie Lorch (Maurice Black). The three of them are there to meet with Diamond Pete Montana (Ralph Ince), their mutual boss. Diamond Pete conveys a message from “The Big Boy,” the top gangster in Chicago.
Big Boy’s message is a warning. A tough new Crime Commissioner is on the job in Chicago. The syndicate needs to keep a low profile until the heat dies down.
Rico makes plans to rob a nightclub. In light of Big Boy’s warning, Vettori vetoes his initial scheme. Undaunted, Rico recruits Joe to help him pull the job. But there’s a catch. The target is The Bronze Peacock, the supper club where Joe and Olga perform their nightly shows.
Rico sets his plan in motion on New Year’s Eve. By sheer coincidence, Crime Commissioner McClure is in attendance at the party. An expressionistic montage shows the chaos of the robbery. As the action peaks, Rico and McClure meet face to face. The momentary standoff ends in violence: Rico pulls his gun and shoots him dead.
The fallout from the robbery lands squarely on Vettori’s head. The cops want vengeance. Diamond Pete and Big Boy are furious. But Vettori hesitates to fully punish Rico for his insubordination. Sensing weakness, Rico challenges Vettori’s authority. When his fellow gangsters fail to intervene, Rico takes over as their leader.
Rico continues to consolidate power by assassinating Tony, a junior member of the crew who suffered a nervous breakdown during the robbery and can no longer be trusted.
Tony’s funeral and the banquet that follows presents another chance for Rico to exert his growing power and influence. But Joe’s absence from the banquet leaves a bitter taste in Rico’s mouth.
Rico’s rapid rise destabilizes the Chicago underworld. Seeking to neutralize an emerging rival, Little Arnie Lorch puts a price on Rico’s head.
Lorch’s hitmen pull a drive-by shooting while Rico’s outside for a stroll. A volley of shots are fired, but Rico’s only grazed.
After the doctor repairs his wounded arm, Rico gathers up his thugs and pays Little Arnie Lorch a visit.
Little Arnie’s given two choices: get killed immediately, or leave town for good.
With Commissioner McClure dead, Vettori usurped and Little Arnie Lorch in exile, the Big Boy deems Rico the undisputed Boss of Chicago’s North Side.
A title card and upgraded surroundings tells us Rico’s fortunes have continued to improve. In an egotistical conversation with a lackey, we learn his true ambition. Rico wants to knock off the Big Boy and become Chicago’s top mobster.
Rico meets with Joe in an attempt to bring him back into the fold. But the meeting devolves into a bitter argument. Joe wants to go straight. He’s in love with Olga and intends on marrying her. But Rico won’t take no for an answer. In a fit of rage, he gives Joe a simple ultimatum: return to the mob, or Olga dies.
Joe rushes home to Olga, intent on fleeing the city. Olga wants no part of the plan and calls the police instead.
With the cops on the way, Rico arrives at Joe’s apartment. He barges in and pulls his gun, but in the heat of the moment, can’t bring himself to kill his oldest friend.
The police arrive. One of Rico’s thugs shoots Joe in the shoulder. Rico escapes into the night. The cops raid Club Palermo. Sam Vittori is arrested.
Rico goes into hiding at a safehouse concealed inside a fruit market. His exile lasts for months and lands him in a homeless shelter posing as a vagrant.
With Rico still in hiding, Sam Vittori is convicted and put to death. In a courtroom statement published in the newspaper, Police Inspector Flaherty condemns Rico’s legacy, calling him a boastful coward who couldn’t handle being leader of the mob.
Rico reads Flaherty’s comments in the paper and flies into a rage. He calls the station on the shelter telephone and threatens Inspector Flaherty’s life.
Unbeknownst to Rico, the cops are tracing his call.
Goaded out of hiding, Rico makes his way back into town. The police spot him on the street and stop the car. Rico darts behind a billboard and pulls his gun.
Inspector Flaherty offers Rico a final chance to surrender.
When Rico quite predictably refuses, Flaherty shoots him through the billboard with a tommy gun.
Opinion: My Review of ‘Little Caesar’ (1931)
Watching this movie from a contemporary perspective reminds us how little gangster films have changed across the years.
When compared to the mafia stories of the 1970’s, urban gangland films of the 1990s, and crime thrillers in the decades since, we realize these story lines haven’t really changed at all.
What HAS changed is the plot.
The plotting in contemporary gangster films is much more complicated, often to the point of detriment.
Disagree? Create a three sentence synopsis of films like Snatch (2000), Gotti (2018) or The Irishman (2019). Impossible!
Nevertheless, watching Little Caesar reminds us there are really only 4 types of gangster stories:
- The mobster that tries to “get out.” (The Godfather, 1972)
- The gangster that flies too close to the sun (Scarface, 1983) (Public Enemies, 2009) (American Gangster, 2007)
- “This town ain’t big enough for the both of us.” (Lucky Number Slevin, 2006)
- The gangster turned informant (Donnie Brasco, 1977) (The Departed, 2006) (Goodfellas, 1990).
This film is firmly in category #2.
Had Bandello gone unpunished, but wound up bitter and alone, the film would have been much more compelling. But given its cinematic era, this lack of depth can be forgiven.
It’s often difficult not to snicker at Robinson’s peculiar accent and manner of speaking. I suppose it never occurred to me that the “gangster voice” so frequently lampooned over the decades actually originated from a single source. Even James Cagney, one of Robinson’s contemporaries, pretty much ripped him off.
Cartoonish voice aside, Robertson plays the role with dead earnestness. There are no moments of levity. No humour at all. Forget you’re watching a classic film and you quickly realize that Rico Bandello is a stone cold psychopath.
Like most of the movies from this period, the characters seem underdeveloped compared to the films of today.
We know nothing about their families, origins, or activities beyond the confines of the film. We are not privy to their internal thoughts. There are no diaries, monologues, no introspective moments when they peer into a mirror or a pane of glass. There are no attempts to show us complicated psychology using dreams or exposition or hints of sexual proclivities.
And yet despite this lack of complexity, the movie somehow works. Maybe it’s refreshing to watch a film that stays in its lane, a story that allows its characters to just be “bad” without explaining why. Perhaps we need to return to less phony means of telling stories.
My main complaint is with the final scenes, which felt rushed and unsatisfying.
Rico should have had one last chance to escape or survive or even win the battle. The chase scene should have been longer and more suspenseful. His death should have conveyed a more compelling message.
Instead, Rico’s self-referential rhetorical question, posed in the third person, came off slightly…lame.
Little Caesar’s short, episodic scenes function like chapters in a novel. At the outset, the narrative perspective alternates between Joe and Rico, gradually shifting as the plot unfolds until the lens is aimed entirely at Rico.
My favorite aspect of the film is the robbery montage. The overlapping fade transitions create a dreamlike quality, as though we’re watching an event so seismic, for a second it disrupts the normal flow of time.
Although brief, this sequence is masterful, almost psychedelic.
In that instant, the film transcends its idiom and becomes something quite different, foretelling surreal atmospherics like those featured in John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967) or Burt Kennedy’s The Killer Inside Me (1976).
Analysis: What’s ‘Little Caesar’ Really About?
Ultimately, this film is about two friends that diverge onto opposite paths. Although the films are quite different, there would be no Dog Day Afternoon without this movie.
Another crucial difference between Little Caesar and the gangster film revival of the 1970’s pertains to place and setting.
In films like Mean Streets, Goodfellas and The Godfather, the pathway to criminality is either the family unit or the extended family represented by the neighborhood.
The characters that populate these films are essentially born into pre-existing systems: their fates are sealed. And thus these stories are generally concerned with how to dominate or escape these systems, with how to alter one’s fate.
But in Little Caesar, Joe and Rico are outsiders.
They re-locate to Chicago and volunteer to join the mob. Rico operates completely by his own initiative, robbing the dinner theater, executing the commissioner, muscling in on territory that was completely foreign to him only a few months earlier.
Given the above, and also the ethnicity of the film’s protagonists, it’s possible to read the film as a veiled condemnation of open immigration.
Another interpretation is to read the film as a criticism of America’s global status as a “melting pot.” Maybe the American dream is a lie. Maybe immigrants actually aren’t given opportunities to succeed, despite the nation’s reputation as a welcoming place.
A final reading frames Little Caesar as a sort of existential nightmare.
Rico lands in Chicago as a nobody. He rises up from the dust of the depression, conquering the underworld, vanquishing his enemies one by one by one. But even with the city in the palm of his hand, what kind of life is Rico living? He has no friends, no girl, no hobbies, no leisure, no intellectual life at all.
He’s like a well-dressed animal, stalking through the urban jungle, sniffing for prey. Every time he makes a kill, he only ends up hungrier.
In the end, the success he thought would bring fulfillment and belonging sends him back to where he came from.
Rico Bandello dies in the dirt, dressed like a bum, at the hands of the police. Just like he always knew he would.
Little Caesar’s Impact On Future Genres
Although these films were loosely based on real-world criminal syndicates, by no means did they function as cinematic documentary or even docudrama. Gangster films were pure fiction.
Like all works of fiction, the question must be asked: what are these stories really about?
Given their decade of origin, the gangster films are really about the unchecked capitalism of the roaring twenties and the economic inequality the persisted long after the crash.
The upstart gangsters of these films are like perverse entrepreneurs, operating with the same ruthlessness as a Wall Street capitalist, except on the wrong side of the law.
This dichotomy poses an important question: If the guys rigging the system are all crooks, is being a gangster any worse?
One can see how this cynical outlook eventually applied to every institution, culminating in the Film Noir of the 1940’s, were literally no one could be trusted.This paranoia that turned inward in the 1950’s with the invention of the psychological thriller, in which one’s own mind might be the enemy.
Broad assessments aside, early gangster movies asserted the “do what you gotta do” ethos echoed by many of the Film noir characters that followed in the years that followed.
In Rico Bandello, we see the roots of hustlers like Harry Fabian, the disciplined thieves in the films of Michael Mann, and even the one man killing machines like Richard Stark’s Parker or the much more recent John Wick films.
Is ‘Little Caesar’ (1931) Worth Watching?
If only for its influence and legacy, Little Caesar is absolutely worth watching.
The film’s 1931 release gives us an example of the kind of film that had been popular before the enforcement of the Production Code completely altered Hollywood’s trajectory in 1934.
With roles in Double Indemnity (1944), The Woman In The Window (1944), Scarlett Street (1945) and The Stranger (1946), Edward G. Robinson became a 1940’s Film Noir icon. His early films are thus essential viewing for those with deep interest in the canon.
Over its brisk 80 minutes, you’ll see the origins of the gangster movie, the gangster ethos, even the gangster voice—before these tropes devolved into cliches.
Little Caesar can be watched for free on YouTube.
For a contemporary comparison, check out Abel Ferrera’s King of New York (1990).
The film was nominated for an Academy Award for best adapted screenplay and ranks #9 on the American Film Institute’s Top 10 Gangster Films.
Edward G. Robinson starred in over 70 films through his 50 year career. In 1973, he was awarded an Honorary Oscar for his body work, but passed away just two months before the ceremony.
Director: Mervyn LeRoy
Date Created: 2023-12-08 00:50