The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies
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The movie was rightly cited for its accurate depiction of the underworld of the 1930s.William Wolf said it concisely in an essay in the 1979 book Landmark Films: “Even when measured against today’s more demanding standards, [Little Caesar] is extremely well made. It is taut, brittle, and involving. The violence crackles with realism and produces a sense of terror with its matter-of-fact killing. A vivid recreation of Chicago’s underworld,it remains one of the best crime films ever made.”


Early in the movie, Rico and Joe rob a gas station and then walk into an empty diner. Rico moves the clock back to 11:45 p.m. from midnight in order to set an alibi. When the diner owner enters from the kitchen, Joe orders two plates of spaghetti and two cups of coffee.

No way!

There isn’t an Italian in America who’s going to order coffee with his spaghetti. And there are very few Italians who will order spaghetti in a diner. And spaghetti isn’t the kind of comfort food you’re looking for around midnight. And when the plates are served (we never actually see what’s on them), there is a shot of Rico cutting whatever is on his plate with a knife and scooping it up with his fork. Italians twirl their spaghetti; there is no need for a knife. Enough said.


“From Little Caesar,W.R. Burnett’s much-admired novel about the rise and fall of a homicidal gang chieftain, comes the truest, most ambitious and most distinguished of all that endless series of gangster photo plays which have been inundating us in recent years. So many pictures celebrating the adventures of America’s most picturesque banditti have been manufactured and their formula has become so stale that it is difficult to believe that a fresh and distinctive work on the subject is currently possible. But Little Caesar, by pushing into the background the usual romantic conventions of the theme and concentrating on characterization rather than on plot, emerges not only as an effective and rather chilling melodrama, but also as what is sometimes described as a Document. Chiefly, though, it is made important by the genuinely brilliant performance that Edward G. Robinson contributes to the title role.”—Richard Watts Jr., New York Herald Tribune


Several scenes and characters in the movie were taken from the Chicago underworld of the day. The banquet “honoring” Rico and an earlier reference to a similar affair stem from a party that received extensive and less-than favorable press coverage in which gangsters Dion O’Bannion and Sammy “Nails”Morton were feted by their underworld friends. Diamond Pete, the mob boss that Rico usurps,was fashioned after Big Jim Colosimo (who was rubbed out by Al Capone and Johnny Torrio). The Big Boy was believed to be a veiled reference to “Big Bill” Thompson, the corrupt mayor of Chicago during Prohibition.


While the storyline isn’t memorable, Robinson’s performance is. This is the kind of movie that you pop into the DVD periodically just to watch a scene. Any scene, as long as Robinson is in it.


The Library of Congress, citing the film’s cultural, historical and aesthetic significance, selected Little Caesar for preservation in the National FilmRegistry. And the American FilmInstitute in 2008 ranked it ninth on its list of Top 10 all-time gangster movies.


Clark Gable was considered for the role of Joe Massara but Jack Warner, the head of the studio, decided the young, untested actor wouldn’t do. Among other things, Warner thought Gable’s ears were too big. That didn’t seem to bother MGM, the studio that signed Gable and turned him into one of Hollywood’s biggest stars.


“Mother of mercy, is this the end of Rico?” Robinson’s last line in the film is one of the most quoted in the gangster genre. Ironically, the original line, in both the screenplay and the novel on which it was based, is: “Mother of God, is this the end of Rico?”Hollywood, ever conscious of the censors, opted to go with what was considered the less offensive line. Such thinking is hard to imagine today when, among other things, some movie websites track the number of “fucks” uttered in contemporary gangster films. (There were, for example, over 200 in Al Pacino’s Scarface.)


Lots of shooting, but as in all the films of this era, there is little gore and the gunplay is fairly antiseptic.


A censor-friendly six.

Copyright © 2011 by Running Press