The first big gangster production of the 1930's, Little Caesar reinvented the genre. Directed by Mervyn LeRoy and based off the novel written by W.R. Burnett (who was also co-scriptwriter of 1932's Scarface), Little Caesar turned away from the 1920's gangster focus on detectives and victims of crime, and onto the life and development of the gangster himself. In this case, the implied gangster was Al Capone. Particularly fresh after the 1929 Saint Valentines Day Massacre orchestrated by Capone, the film, which took the majority of its plot from Capone's life, well surpassed the receipts of Warner Brothers' two earlier gangster films.
The plot revolves around the quick rise and quicker fall of Rico Bandello (Edward G. Robinson) and his association with his friend Joe Massara (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) who wants out of the gangster business. The first scene opens with a long shot of a gas station. The audience sees a car drive up, and watches as the attendant is shoved back into the store and three gun shots are heard. The next scene cuts to Rico (Edward Robinson) and Joey (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) in a dinner. They turn the clock back for an alibi, and discuss the success of a gangster known as "Diamond" Pete Montana who recently had a banquet given in his honor. Rico wants to be just like Pete. Joey talks about getting a girl and money in the city and then settling down and going back to his dancing career after his life as a gangster. He also reveals that he never would have gotten into crime without Rico. Rico dismisses Joey's dream saying that the important thing was not women or even money, but being somebody. He decides that they are going to the big city, "where things break big"
When they arrive at the unidentified city Rico wastes no time and joins a gang run by Sam Vettori (where he gets his mob name Little Caesar) while Joey gets a dancing job at the Bronze Peacock. His partner, Olga Strassoff (Glenda Farrell), falls in love with him quickly (in 1 minute of actual film time) and they embrace passionately. She discovers his gun and asks him to give up the gangster life. He replies that he could never get away with it. The audience next witnesses about a meeting at Arnie Lorch's gambling house where Sam Vettori and Rico (who has now become Sam's body guard) meet with "Diamond" Pete Montana. Rico is ordered to wait outside because of his itchy trigger finger. The gangsters discuss the new crime commission and the fact that the next hit needs to be victimless. Montana warns Rico to "take it easy with that cannon of yours" while Rico admires the expensive tie pin and ring that Pete is wearing.
Back at Vettori's club front the gang plans a robbery of the Bronze peacock and the audience sees Rico getting more and more ambitious. Tony the river says that he is scared and is accused by Rico of turning yellow. Joe arrives late and upon learning that the gang is to rob the Bronze Peacock, he pleads with Rico to get him out. A pained Rico replies, "You're gonna be in on this and you'll like it!"
When the robbery occurs, Joe acts out his part and the Peacock is robbed successfully, but as they are turning to leave Rico unnecessarily shoots the crime commissioner. Joe is noticeably shaken and Olga tries once again to turn him from the gang. Tony attempts to get rid of the car, but is too nervous and crashes it. Back at the hideout, Rico splits the money his way and takes over control of the gang from Vettori. The cops come and the gang is questioned about the crashed getaway car. Tony defaults from the gang and Rico shoots him down on the steps of the church before.
Time passes and Rico is given a banquet in his honor, just like "Diamond" Pete had. His picture is taken by the tabloids, and he gives a short awkward speech. The cops show up, but have nothing. The headline the next day is in reference to the banquet and Joe overhears Arnie Lorch talk about killing Rico, "and when they find him, it won't be no banquet that Rico gets. It will be a wake." He telephones Rico about the threat to his life.
Rico seems oblivious to the danger, he is next shown buying ten newspapers with his picture on the cover and then walking down the street with them in broad daylight with no protection a car speeds by the shots are heard. Rico is wounded in the arm and defiantly shouts that they are bad shots. After hearing about Joe's call he vows to pay Arnie back for the wound, and in the next scene accomplishes it, forcing Arnie out of town and taking over his business. The next day he dresses up to meet his new boss (Big Boy), now that he has displaced Arnie. Walking around Big Boy's house, Rico's love of material things is obvious, but he can't appreciate them, admiring a golden frame but not the more valuable painting and flicking cigar ash onto an expensive rug. Big Boy takes him in and offers him Pete Montana's territory. Rico shakes his hand and they seal the deal.
Time passes as illustrated by a title card that states, "Rico continued to take care of himself, his hair and his gun -- with excellent results." The audience then sees Rico in a mansion similar in opulence to Big Boys with a fancy tie clip and a ring like the one that he once admired on Pete Montana. Joe is invited over, and Rico tries to convince him to come back to the gang, offering him a partner position on the north side. Joe refuses and Rico is hurt. He accuses Joe of going soft and blames Olga threatening her life. Joe declares he loves her, and Rico becomes hysterical threatening them both. They are interrupted by a call from Big Boy. Rico assures his boss that Joe will be his partner, while Joe slips out the back and runs to Olga's apartment. She calls the police, and Rico and his right hand man burst in.
The henchman yells to shoot, and Joe implores Rico to get it over with. But he is unable to. The shot goes to a close-up of Robinson's face and pans in on his stricken expression. The henchman yells that Rico has gone soft and pulls out the gun, but Rico deflects the aim and it hits Joe in the arm. The police arrive and Rico and his man flee. Olga tells the police that Joe will testify, and the detective sends the men after the gang. Rico's right-hand man is killed, but he escapes. Rico reflects: "This is what I get for liking a guy too much." Rico hides in the house of an old woman who cuts a hard deal, and out of the ten grand he has hidden there, he only gets 150 dollars.
More time passes and another card reads, "Months passed -- Rico's career had been like a skyrocket -- starting from the gutter and returning there." He has started drinking and is sleeping in a 15 cent a night flophouse. The other transients at the house read aloud a newspaper article in which the detective insults Rico. He is visibly pained and calls up the police who promptly have the call traced. They find him walking down a deserted street and the detective shoots through a billboard, ironically of Joe and Olga's new dance routine, killing Rico.
A large part of Little Caesar's popularity came form the fact that it came at the right time, Gangster films had been popular all through the 1920's, but they focused more on the police who covered the cases and the victims of gangster crime. They portrayed gangsters as a social ill resulting mostly from prohibition, even though millions followed closely the sordid tales of gangster lore that appeared in the tabloids. With the crash of the economy, however, America's social value system was questioned right along side its government. Something seemed morally wrong in a country where people could starve while food was being destroyed to drive up prices, and breaking the law would earn more money than any honest job, especially since the government and private business owed millions in back payments to employees. The view on illegal activity changed; the line between right and survival became blurred. The old moralistic gangster genre was dying out when Little Caesar was released, and it became a smash hit.
Focusing on the making of the gangster Little Caesar is filled with suggestions that hard times and life have forced Caesar into this role. W.R. Burnett wrote that he had written the part to show that Little Caesar was, "no monsterůmerely a Little Napoleon a Little Caeser." (Yaquinto) Caesar could very well have been one of the members of the populace who read the gangster tabloids everyday. In fact, his impetus to go the big city comes from a tabloid article he reads about the fabulous banquet for Diamond Pete Montana. Throughout the film he fascinated with riches and opulence of his new lifestyle. The camera pans in close on paintings, jewelry, clothes, and a well designed dinner program for Caesar's banquet. His childlike awe in the face of the opulence that surrounds him and his great desire to become part of this richer class is something the audience could identify with in that time of economic turmoil.
Another reason that the gangster captured the minds and the money of the American public is because he was an individual. Gangsters were often portrayed much as old western heroes, as loners and misanthropes in an urban frontier. This was particularly timely with the huge industrialization and waves of immigration that happened around the turn of the century turning the urban landscape into a literal frontier. Caesar was no different in this respect. An odd looking man, Robinson had a degree of individuality just in his physical appearance, but it was his portrayal of Caesar that had the most affect. He is always apart from any group, standing out in clever blocking. His rebellion against society and his choice to live outside the rules also sets him apart. He chooses to drop out of society in the tradition of Thoreau and takes a separate path that is conveniently against the then hated government. Caesar is set even farther apart from the cold-hearted gangster of the 1920's film era by his love for Joe. The fact that he is unable to shoot his old friend endears him to the audience while leading to his downfall. His one moral act is the death of him, an ironic but also poignant ending in a time when so many American's felt as though sticking with the rules would lead to their downfall as well.
Caesar's pursuit of the American dream as well as his failure to obtain it, made him as made him as endearing to the populace as the doomed Gatsby. In the very beginning of the film he laments about his lack of opportunity, "I could do all the things that fella does, and more, only I never got my chance." The only thing that he quests after more than wealth is fame. He wants to, "be somebody." Saying that popularity is even more important than money in his initial speech. The American dream to Caesar the is opportunity to achieve the fame and fortune he reads about in the tabloids but can not see in his small town life. Gangsters in the 1920's when Caesar was beguiled to head to the city were, "revealed as an enviable hero, quick and intelligent, refined, influential politically and powerfully financially" (Yaquinto). Though morally wrong, the gangster world was Caesar's way to achieve his dream. The tragedy of his death in the face of his dream only, "served to guild his legend," rather than demolish it (Yaquinto). And indeed Caesar was a tragic hero. Showing the hard facts to an America that was becoming steady disillusioned over the dream.