LITTLE CAESAR

USA

1931

Cesare Enrico Bandello: Edward G. Robinson
Joe Massara: Douglas Fairbanks Jr
Olga Strassoff: Glenda Farrell
Tony Passa: William Collier Jr
The Big Boy: Sidney Blackmer
Diamond Pete Montana: Ralph Ince
Lt Tom Flaherty: Thomas Jackson
Sam Vettori: Stanley Fields
Little Arnie Lorch: Maurice Black
Otero: George E. Stone
DeVoss: Armand Kaliz
Ritz Colonna: Nicholas Bella
Director: Mervyn LeRoy
Production co: Warner Brothers
Producer: Hal Wallis
Screenplay: Robert Lord, Robert N. Lee. Based on a novel by W.R. Burnett
Cinematography: Tony Gaudio
Editor: Ray Curtiss
Music: Erno Rapee
80 mins
16mm/Black & White/English
 
Press Materials
"Though it looks somewhat dated now, there’s no denying the seminal importance of this classic adaptation of W.R. Burnett’s novel. Robinson – vain, cruel, jealous and vicious – is superb as the ruthlessly ambitious mobster Rico Bandello, determined to gain sole control of the city criminal empire, anxious that his dancing-gigolo sidekick Massara (Fairbanks) should not leave him for a woman, and ending in bland astonishment that death should have overtaken him (‘Mother of God, is this the end of Rico?’), despite the cautionary opening title assuring one and all that those who live by the sword, etc. Like many early talkies, the film often in fact errs on the slow side, at least in terms of dialogue; but the parallels with Capone, Tony Gaudio’s photography, and LeRoy’s totally unrepentant tone ensure that it remains fascinating." – Geoff Andrew, Time Out
"The inspiration behind Little Caesar was production chief Darryl F. Zanuck's 1931 decision to exploit current headlines sensationalising gangster activities. On seeing the financial success of Little Caesar, the studio decided to capitalise on the style. Little Caesar was a product of the studio factory: made just six months before Five Star Final, it features the same director and star, Mervyn LeRoy and Edward G. Robinson. But because it was made before the gangster formula had rigidified, its terse and economic style has a raw power, which isn't lost on audiences today. Robinson's Caesar Enrico Bandello (‘Rico’) set the standard by which all later gangsters rose and fell." – Pacific Film Archive, 1985
"Voice, music, and sound effects are skilfully blended, particularly the seemingly constant noise of machine guns and screaming car brakes, enhancing the almost documentary realism of the screen criminals’ presence" – Mary Lea Bandy
 
"Little Caesar was one of the first sound films to portray the American gangster outside of prison walls, coming after such early prison stories as The Last Mile, The Big House, and Numbered Men. Robinson’s character is as ruthless as Al Capone, the real-life gangster upon whom Chicago author W.R. Burnett based his tale: Capone rose, as does Robinson, through the ranks from goon bodyguard to overall crime czar. The part Ince plays is based upon Big Jim Colisimo, whom Capone murdered in 1920 on his way up the bloody ladder of crime; the underworld banquet held in Robinson’s honor is based upon a notorious fete given on Chicago's North Side in the early 1920s to honor gangsters Dion ‘Deanie’ O'Bannion and Samuel J. ‘Nails’ Morton, attended by aldermen and high-society potentates, and reported widely in the press. Blackmer’s ‘Big Boy’ role is based upon the utterly corrupt Big Bill Thompson, mayor of Chicago and Capone's hip-pocket politician. Burnett was 28 years old and living in Chicago when, according to producer Hal Wallis, the young writer was listening to a radio broadcast from a local nightclub and actually heard the gunfire of gangsters spraying the audience with bullets to kill rival hoodlums. His friend was among those killed, and as a result he wrote Little Caesar, a bitter, savage portrait of mob violence. Burnett sent the book to Dial Press, where it was immediately accepted and published, becoming an overnight sensation and establishing Burnett as a master of crime tales. (He would later author such crime masterpieces as The Asphalt Jungle.) Asked by Wallis to write the film script, Burnett declined; Robert Lord did a rough draft, but Wallis, finding it too sophisticated, assigned Francis Edward Faragoh to tone it down with some gangster lingo. Darryl Zanuck also had a hand in bringing the story to
the gutter level where it would be believable. The resulting screenplay earned an Oscar nomination for Best Screen Adaptation.
"Made for a then-hefty $700,000, the film was a box-office smash and typecast Robinson in the role of the gangster. Given free rein by Zanuck, director Mervyn LeRoy produced a fast-paced film that kept up with its lightning-fast star. Oddly, Little Caesar contains a minimum of explicit violence, although murderous intent is always lurking in Robinson's menacing face. The 37-year-old Robinson was not new to films; he had been acting in movies since 1923, though he was largely unnoticed. Wallis assigned Robinson the lead, but the sensitive actor found it difficult to adjust to the role of the killer, blinking wildly every time he had to fire a gun. LeRoy solved the problem by affixing little transparent bands of tape to Robinson's upper eyelids, so that when he did blast away, his eyes remained wide open; this trick had the added benefit of giving Robinson an even more menacing, heartless appearance. The film was not the first movie to deal with the criminal underworld. The great silent film director D. W. Griffith portrayed the underworld of New York in a one-reeler, The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912). Then, in 1927, came the silent film Underworld, directed by Josef von Sternberg and written by Ben Hecht, a portrait of Capone and his rise to gangland big shot. But it took Little Caesar to establish the popular gangster genre, which was quickly augmented by a host of other films such as Public Enemy, Smart Money, and The Finger Points (all 1931), and Scarface (1932). – CineBooks
 
"Unbelievable, because it’s real. It’s true. He’s a great movie actor and his performances are in no way modulated for the camera – he never scaled anything down. He was different from most of the great stars in that he often played villains… He could express ambiguities in a character even if they were not written in the script. He was also innately sympathetic. White Heat particularly has a subversive duality because of this… He was one of a kind." – Peter Bogdanovich, Picture Shows, 1975
"The blistering savagery, unpredictability and childlike qualities of this animalistic man are expertly conveyed by Cagney in an emotional tour de force." – Allan Hunter & Kenny Mathieson, 1992
"Among the best films made in this country, and one with much to tell us about the kind of country – its marriages, family life, and corrupting aspirations – in which it was made." – William S. Pechter, 1967

Synopsis
"Caesar Enrico Bandello (‘Rico’) is a dedicated killer and thief right from the opening scene. He disappears into a gas station and, after a flash of gunfire, emerges with the money from the till. His driver, Joe Massara., nervously wheels the coupe into the darkness. Later, Rico and Joe are in a diner, ordering ‘spaghetti and coffee for two,’ leaving little doubt as to their nationality. After reading in the newspaper about underworld big shots, Rico tells Joe that he (Rico), too, will some day be a rackets czar, that he’s not ‘just another mug.’ When he arrives in the big city, Rico goes to the Palermo Club, where Sam Vettori is the resident boss and one of the underworld kingpins. When Rico tells Vettori that he can be of service to him, Vettori takes him into a room to meet his mob. The camera pans the room to show a motley, mean-looking crew, including Otero, Peppi, Tony Passa, and Kid Bean. Rico quickly earns both their respect and a lickspittle sidekick, Otero. As Rico proves his fearlessness in one caper after another, he becomes the No. 2 man under Vettori, while Joe falls in love with Olga Strassoff, a dancer in a club run by Little Arnie Lorch, and becomes her dancing partner. When head detective Lt Tom Flaherty begins applying pressure to the Vettori mob, Vettori loses his nerve, but after the mob backs Rico in a robbery opposed by both Vettori and the city's crime czar, Diamond Pete Montana, Rico takes over the mob. Montana has already told Lorch, Vettori, and other bosses to go easy on the violence because Commissioner McClure, the crime commissioner, is cracking down; Rico and his gang make a raid on Lorch’s nightclub anyway, robbing the till and the customers, and killing McClure.
Following the robbery, Rico meets ‘The Big Boy,’ a high-society tycoon who pulls all the underworld strings. Impressed with Big Boy’s huge mansion and exquisite furnishings, Rico apes his boss by setting himself up in similar surroundings. He is given a testimonial dinner at the Palermo Club, where he is awarded a gold watch as a gift from ‘the boys.’ The next day Rico buys
several newspapers featuring pictures of himself at the banquet, and, while strolling down the street, is fired on by a machine-gunner in a speeding truck, but comes away with only a flesh wound. Otero comes to Rico to tell him that Passa, guilt-ridden over the McClure killing, is going to his local priest to confess. When Rico fails to convince Passa that he is betraying the mob, he shoots and kills the repentant hoodlum on the steps of the church. Rico, now near the top of the heap, plans to get rid of Big Boy with the help of Joe. A weakling, Joe refuses to rejoin the mob, his resistance bolstered by the iron-willed Olga’s standing up to Rico. Rico, who understands nothing but money and power, tells Joe that ‘dames’ will be his downfall, that ‘having your own way or nothing’ is the only real reason for living. Olga calls cop Flaherty, telling him that her boy friend Joe knows who killed McClure. Rico and Otero confront Joe, but Rico cannot bring himself to shoot his old pal. When Flaherty and the cops arrive, Otero is shot to death, but Rico escapes.
His gang and fortune gone, Rico pays an old harridan, Ma Magdalena, to hide him in a secret back room of her rundown store. She gives him back only a pittance of the money he has stowed away with her for safekeeping and then kicks him out. Rico hits the skids, living on the streets and, when he can afford it, in flophouses. He reads in the newspapers that he has disappeared because he is a coward and won’t face Flaherty and the police stories are deliberately planted to draw him out of hiding. They work; when Rico makes a threatening call to Flaherty, his call is traced to the warehouse district, where Flaherty soon tracks Rico down. Seeing the police car coming, Rico ducks behind a billboard. Flaherty orders him to come out, but Rico, pulling a pistol, yells back: ‘Come in and get me!’ Flaherty aims a machine gun at the billboard and rakes it, peppering Rico with bullets. Rico collapses, and Flaherty steps behind the billboard in time to hear the once powerful gangster moan out: ‘Mother of Mercy, is this the end of Rico?’"