The Movie Waffler Pre-Code Retrospective - Little Caesar (1931) | The Movie Waffler

Pre-Code Retrospective - Little Caesar (1931)

Directed by: Mervyn LeRoy
Starring: Edward G. Robinson, Douglas Fairbanks Jr, Glenda Farrell, William Collier Jr, Stanley Fields

The violent and ruthless rise of gangster Caesar Enrico Bandelli (Robinson).
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.