You might think the contrast between the early gangster movies of the 1930's might be a stark contrast to today's swear-and-blood festivals. You would be quite right about that, too. Yet, going back and watching some of those early gangster movies shows that there isn't all that much of a difference between the classics of Lon Chaney and James Cagney as you might think. There is, after all, a reason why gangster movies are known as GANGSTER MOVIES. There is a lot more to do with it than just a few bad words and graphically violent scenes.
As far as the defining gangster movie of all time goes, Little Caesar is the motherload. On my Facebook profile, under the favorite movies section, I'm subscribed to the entire genre of gangster movies. The image standing in there to define the genre isn't Marlon Brando (The Godfather himself) or any of the many gangster characters played by Al Pacino or Robert De Niro. Instead, it's Edward G. Robinson standing there in his iconic dapper suit with the fedora and cigar in hand. Little Caesar birthed a large number of tropes that have been in the gangster movie canon forever; they've become so synonymous with the genre that we don't even realize we know what they are until we see them being parodied in some other work. Maybe you've seen those old Bugs Bunny cartoons with those two gangsters? Nearly everything about those characters is the influence of Little Caesar at work. We owe parodies like that a minor debt for keeping the works that spawned them aglow in attention.
What about Little Caesar itself? Well, the defining gangster movie of all time - yes, even ahead of The Godfather - definitely shows its age. It tells that timeless gangster movie dream tale, which is usually a very twisted form of the American Dream: The American Dream is the perception that anyone can get rich with a little hard work and perseverance. Gangster movies are about people who "make it" after getting impatient with the hard work and saving method and take over the criminal underworld. In the more recent gangster movies, they're not even done in by the law, but by a competing Mafia outfit. Little Caesar follows this same story.
When the movie begins, we immediately get acquainted with Caesar Enrico Bandello and his good friend Joe Massara. These guys are a pair of small-time crooks who rob whatever little stores happen to be out in the sticks. One night, during a post-robbery meal at a small-town cafe, they get inspired by a newspaper article and decide to head east to Chicago, where the money is. Joe, who has clearly been rethinking a few of his life choices lately, has cold feet about continuing an under-the-law career and makes a successful transition into the career he had always dreamed of: Dancing. Rico has no such reservations and joins the gang of mobster Sam Vettori as a personal hitman. The problem is that Rico has a habit of shooting before thinking, which causes him to become a real pain in Sam's side - especially after one robbery in which Sam's "no bloodshed" order comes through Rico's head as "blow the crime commissioner to kingdom come."
Eventually, Rico muscles in on every rival he has in Chicago. He wrestles control of his organization, wrestles control of other gang territories, and gets control of so much of the city that he tries to muscle Joe back into the gang. Everyone is forced to go along with him, because if they don't, he'll dismiss them (with bullets!) as "yella." Unfortunately for Rico, going back for Joe becomes his ultimate mistake.
Every stereotypical habit of the prohibition-era gangster can be traced back to Little Caesar. Rico is played by Edward G. Robinson, who came to embody everything about gangsters for decades: The "nyah, shee, nyah!" accent, the big cigars, fedoras and dapper suits, and an unmistakably villainous attitude. That's one of the big differences between the gangster movies of then and now: These days, gangsters tend to be portrayed as anti-heroes who happen to be close to the dark side. Back then, that gangsters were the bad guys, game, set, and match. We know these guys are bad news the minute they show up, and the gangster movies I see from that era always seem to be coming off as some kind of public service announcement. In Little Caesar, Rico didn't even drink! He might be brutal, but with his vices, he ain't Al Capone ordering up a batch of The Good Stuff.
That's something about Little Caesar that I found hard to accept, actually. Since Little Caesar was released in 1931, it's so sanitized that apparently no one wanted him to have a real personal life. He seems outright scornful of the fact that Joe gets a girlfriend while he isn't seen with any women at all. He doesn't drink. We don't hear him swear, either, but we can grant a free pass for that since no one in the 30's swore in movies. Little Caesar's scorn for drinking and women is actually written into his character.
Little Caesar looks and sounds primitive to the massive three-hour epics that gangster movies have become. And while Little Caesar is still a very compelling movie, it's also a template, which means you've seen pretty much everything in it before in some variation or another. These days, some of the interest in it comes from the fact that it's so influential. Besides, even if you don't like it, it's only 79 minutes long, so you won't have to endure interminable minutes waiting for it to end.