Little Caesar

Critics Consensus

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91%

TOMATOMETER

Total Count: 22

75%

Audience Score

User Ratings: 6,064
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Movie Info

The first "talkie" gangster movie to capture the public's imagination, Mervyn LeRoy's Little Caesar started a cycle of crime-related movies that Warner Bros. rode across the ensuing decade and right into World War II with titles such as All Through the Night (1941). At the start of the picture, Caesar Enrico "Rico" Bandello (Edward G. Robinson, made up to look a lot like the real-life Al Capone) and his friend Joe Massara (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) are robbing a gas station -- later on, at a diner, they're looking over a newspaper and see a story about Diamond Pete Montana (Ralph Ince), a gangster so well known that he gets headlines and stories written about how powerful he is. That's what Rico wants, more than money or anything else: to be czar of the underworld and "not just another mug." Joe admits that sometimes he just thinks of trying to become what he wanted to be when he started out: a professional dancer. They head east to Chicago (which is never named, but with the talk of the north side and the territories, you know what city it is) and Rico talks his way into the local mob run by Sam Vettori (Stanley Fields). The leader has his doubts over how quick Rico is to go for his gun, but also thinks he might be useful if he is as fearless as he says and can be kept under control. Soon Rico is Sam's top enforcer and bodyguard, but it isn't long before he starts acting like the boss, questioning other members' loyalty and bravery and pushing into Sam's role as leader. He also commands the loyalty of the gang through his resourcefulness at planning and pulling jobs that are tough and risky, and getting away with them; the only exception is Joe, their respectable "front man," who has found romance with an actress (Glenda Farrell) and a career, and wants out of helping the gang. Rico won't let him leave, and pushes him to help them on a brazen New Year's Eve robbery of a restaurant, during which the new crime commissioner is shot dead by Rico. Now the heat is on, but instead of keeping a low profile, Rico seizes control of the gang from Sam and secures his power by ruthlessly rubbing out the only member (William Collier) who seems likely to squeal, gunning the man down on the steps of a church. Before long, Rico is the first among equals among the local mob chieftains, sharing a dais at a dinner honoring him with his nominal boss and one-time idol Diamond Pete. He's also making enemies by the bushel -- Flaherty (Thomas E. Jackson), the cop heading the investigation into the murder of the commissioner, won't let up and makes it his personal business to nail Rico, and the rival chieftains don't like the publicity Rico's getting or the attention it brings to all of them. Rico survives attempts on his life and consolidates his hold on the streets, and is suddenly on the edge of achieving his goal -- the "Big Boy" (Sidney Blackmer), the wealthy social Brahmin who really controls crimes in the city, invites him to a meeting to tell him that Diamond Pete is finished. Rico is going to be in charge of the rackets across the entire city and making sure the local bosses stay in line. He is at the pinnacle of his career, and then Rico overreaches -- he can still be nailed for the murder of the commissioner, and is paranoid enough not to trust Joe, even though Joe helped saved Rico's life and insists that he'll never squeal; Rico also plans on supplanting the Big Boy. His rise to power unravels as fast as it happened, in an outburst of violence that drives him underground. But with an ego as big as his, Rico can't stay hidden for too long, and Flaherty is waiting for him. The violence in Little Caesar may seem tame by today's standards -- although seeing a proper print of the movie, such as the 2005-issued DVD, does restore some of that impact -- but it was shocking at the time, and proved riveting and even seductive, especially because it was tied to a very charismatic performance by Robinson. Between his portrayal and the sounds of pistols and Thompson submachine guns, the movie was a sensory revelation and literalized the violence that had been suggested purely by visuals in such silent gangster classics as Josef Von Sternberg's Underworld (1927), itself yet another telling of a version of Capone's story. The language was also something newly coarse and bracing in movies, at a point when talkies were only a couple of years old. There's also a slightly homoerotic undertone to aspects of the character relationships that managed to get past the censors: Rico doesn't drink and seems uninterested in women; his fixation on Joe Massara, and his seeming competition for Massara's loyalty with the latter's fiancée, are couched in what seem like almost romantic terms; and his feeling of betrayal when Massara says he wants to leave the mob to get married seem almost more appropriate to someone caught in a romantic triangle. This is all made especially vivid when Rico laments not having killed Massara, admitting that he's been undone over "liking a guy too much." It's all nearly as striking as some of the more pointed psychological elements in subsequent gangster movies, including Tony Camonte's incestuous fixation on his own sister in Scarface (1932) and, at the far end of the cycle, Cody Jarrett's mother-fixation in White Heat (1949). ~ Bruce Eder, Rovi

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Critic Reviews for Little Caesar

All Critics (22) | Top Critics (5)

Audience Reviews for Little Caesar

  • Apr 04, 2013
    Imo, this film is pretty much like "Scarface". You have an up in coming gangster who rises through the ranks, becomes boss, enjoying the glamourous lifestyle, gets into conflicts with his closests friends, smoking cigars, following with a big climatic shootout. I really enjoyed this film and Edward G. Robinson plays a convincing Little Caesar. One of the big differences is Caesar doesn't partake in assassinating his boss (his boss then works for him), no love life, doesn't rat on his associates, cares a lot for his best friend. Caesar seems to be the gangster with a heart of gold and well even gangsters can be human. So in a way even though Caesar is a deadly gangster, he's got a bit of careness in his heart. Even if he is so good covering up his soft side.
    Brian R Super Reviewer
  • Sep 17, 2012
    One of the earliest gangster flicks of the talkie era, "Little Caesar" is a much bleaker film than the likes of "Scarface" and the various Jimmy Cagney genre entries. Unlike those films, no attempt is made to portray Robinson's hoodlum as any kind of charismatic figure. We get introduced to the title character as he slays a garage clerk in cold blood immediately before feasting on a late supper in a nearby diner. It's a shocking opening, mainly because you don't see any specific details, just the flash of a discharged weapon seen through the garage's kiosk window. Caesar considers knocking off small-town garages as beneath him and sets off to Chicago, the gangster's mecca, with his friend (Fairbanks Jr) in tow. There he gets a job as an enforcer for a mob led by Stanley Fields. It's not long before Caesar is rising through the ranks and, after killing the Police Commissioner, takes control of the gang from Fields. Meanwhile Fairbanks has struck up a romance with actress Glenda Farrell and wants to leave the criminal life. This does not please Robinson. The movie is filled with acts of cruelty and despair, leading you to really despise Robinson's character, no doubt the intention of the film-makers. The problem with this approach is that it distances the viewer from the story, you're never really given a character to get behind. The closest the film has to a hero is Fairbanks, but his character disappears from proceedings for a lengthy period. Had his attempts to escape a life of crime been the primary focus it would have made for a more involving film. Some have noted a homosexual sub-text to the film, specifically because Robinson, for all his ill-gotten wealth and power, never indulges in any female company. I see the character not as homosexual but asexual; he has no time for women because he simply has no time for humanity. He's driven purely by a desire for infamy and sees others as mere pawns in his quest. Considering how great he is in this role, it's strange that Robinson avoided being typecast in the same manner as Cagney. Not till 1948's "Key Largo" would he play this sort of menacing character. For me, Robinson was at his best playing patsies in films like "Scarlet Street" and "The Woman in the Window" but he's oddly remembered more for his relatively few tough guy roles. "Little Caesar" has a reputation I don't feel it deserves but it's worth a watch for fans of Robinson. Over the next few years Warner Brothers would expound on it's themes to make far superior gangster pics.
    The Movie W Super Reviewer
  • Jan 09, 2011
    Little Caesar's represents Cagney's gangster counterpart, and the more elegant and "sophisticated" side of gangster "values" and "family loyalty". The Roaring Twenties (the era, not the movie) had barely ended, and thanks to the powerful performance of Edward G. Robinson, along with some memorable scenes in the history of cinema and several classic lines, this movie and The Public Enemy gave the courage to Hawks to release a particularly groundbreaking gangster film titled "Scarface". 99/100
    Edgar C Super Reviewer
  • Sep 03, 2010
    A pretty good start at gangster films, but it could have been better.
    Aj V Super Reviewer

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