Made in late 1930 and released in the same year as Universal’s Dracula, like Bela Lugosi’s vampire count, Little Caesar gives us an iconic early sound performance. Here it’s Edward G. Robinson providing a template for innumerable on-screen gangsters and impressions of the archetype. Robinson plays Caesar Enrico "Rico" Bandello, a small-time hood with big aspirations. Rico’s best pal is Joe (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) who has fallen in with his friend's crimes but really wants to be a dancer.
Both men move to Chicago where Joe finds success at a nightclub and Rico picks up work for a gang boss. When Rico uses his friend to gain access to the club and knock it over, it starts a chain of events that takes Rico to the top of the criminal world and finds Joe trying to find his way out with the help of girlfriend and dance partner Olga. In a punchy 78 minutes Rico goes from a cheap thug doing jobs on gas stations to the crime boss of Chicago before his inevitable decent to the gutter. It’s a decent, tough thriller that makes good use of the limited music to ramp up the sound of gunshots and general brutality, and was strong stuff for audiences of the time.
Robinson is great as Rico and it’s no wonder his performance struck with cinemagoers leading to stardom as various tough guys. It’s the little physical tics he gives Rico as well as the bundle of emotions throughout that mark this out as still a very fine show by Robinson. The film comes across as a little stodgy these days, and despite some good sequences the direction by Mervyn LeRoy is somewhat flat. Strong performances all round plus a good, classic gangster narrative maintains its reputation. It’s also remarkable for a studio picture of the time to have what appears to be such a blatant homosexual subtext in the relationship between Rico and Joe, as well as his men. Certainly, it's an interesting and often exciting film.
As for this release (dual-format being a HMV exclusive) it’s fine. The transfer doesn’t match up by any standard to say, the Universal Monsters set, but it’s relatively damage-free and detailed enough. The soundtrack is clear which is vital for a film that relies on dialogue and sound effects to such a degree. Warner has always supported their gangster classics with a decent ‘Night at the Movies’ set of features, plus a commentary and a roughly 20-minute featurette. All of these have been released before so there’s nothing new for those who own a previous release, but nevertheless still nice to have out on Blu-ray.
LITTLE CAESAR / CERT: PG / DIRECTOR: MERVYN LEROY / SCREENPLAY: FRANCIS EDWARD FARAGOH, ROBERT LORD, DARRYL F. ZANUCK / STARRING: EDWARD G. ROBINSON, DOUGLAS FAIRBANKS JR, GLENDA FARRELL / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW