Monday Movie: Little Caesar, by David Bax

Every Monday, we’ll recommend a movie–it could be a classic, an overlooked recent treasure, an unfairly maligned personal favorite or whatever the hell we feel like–and we’ll tell you where to find it online.

Mervyn LeRoy’s Little Caesar is, in terms of plot, a pretty standard gangster picture, telling of the rise and fall of an underworld kingpin in similar ways to plenty of other films in its genre. Rico (Edward G. Robinson) and Joe (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) are small time hoods who move to the big city to stake their claim. While Joe falls in love and attempts to go straight, Rico climbs to the top of the crime game with almost comical efficiency; after all, the whole movie clocks in at under 80 minutes.

Little Caesar is pre-Code but, in multiple ways, serves as a reminder that such films were not exactly the amoral free for all we may sometimes assign to the era. Most notably, there’s Rico’s famous dying words, “Mother of mercy, is this the end of Rico?”, changed from W.R. Burnett’s novel, where he started with “Mother of God” in order to avoid offending our Christian sensibilities. Still, LeRoy got away with some stuff like suggesting to many viewers (including, reportedly, a very upset Burnett) that Rico is gay and pining painfully for Joe, whose interest in women clearly perturbs Rico to no end.

Still, the main reason to seek out Little Caesar is its position as a defining and trendsetting work. One of the first major, successful gangster pictures, it would define the genre for decades to come. More importantly, it was the breakout role of Robinson’s great and enduring career. It’s also 100% responsible for everyone’s boilerplate gangster impression including the words, “Yeah, see?”

Little Caesar is available to rent on Amazon.

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