Late one night, a car drives into a lonely gas station. A figure emerges holding a gun and enters the payment office. Shots are heard, the figure reappears, and the car accelerates away. In the next shot a hand furtively resets a clock in a roadside diner to read 20 minutes earlier.
The hand belongs to Cesare Enrico 'Rico' Bandello (Edward G. Robinson), who is tired of a life of small-time holdups and wants to move into the big leagues of organised crime. He decides he and friend Joe Massara (Douglas Fairbanks Jr) will head east to Chicago to be taken up by a real 'mob'. Joe, however, has doubts about a life of crime and wants to return to working as a professional exhibition dancer. Rico jeers at him about living a soft life surrounded by emasculating women.
In the big city Rico's taste for violence becomes both the key to success and the cause of his downfall. In short order he takes the place of Sam Vettori (Stanley Fields) and Diamond Pete Montana (Ralph Ince) until the 'Big Boy' (Sidney Blackmer) gives Rico control of the entire East Side.
Rico's only worry that his old friend Joe knows too much. At first he tries to force Joe back into working for him, then unsuccessfully tries to kill him. Joe's girlfriend Olga (Glenda Farrell) persuades Joe to turn State's evidence and Rico's fall is as swift as his rise. Finally cornered and machine gunned by police, Rico utters his final words: “Mother of mercy... is this the end of Rico?”
This film single-handedly kickstarted the Warner Brothers “gangster cycle” of the 1930's which would make stars of James Cagney, George Raft and (after more than his fair share of false starts) Humphrey Bogart.
Like so many of the 1930's gangster films, Little Caesar tries to have its cake and eat it: graphically portraying on the screen what it claimed to condemn, in terms of violence and the gangsters' disdain for the law and its enforcers. (There is an early version of the classic gangster motif, a character gunned down on the steps of a church when trying to seek redemption.) When the film was re-released it carried a heavily moralistic written prologue to ensure audiences got the message. In fact, although we know Rico is undoubtedly involved in organised crime, nothing is said specifically about what his outfit does. They rob a nightclub at one point, which is hardly a sustainable business. Nothing is ever actually said about Prohibition, gambling, protection rackets or (God forbid) prostitution.
The most notorious aspect of the film is the implication that Rico is, in fact, a repressed gay man. This is hinted at by his sidekick Otero's rather too enthusiastic admiration of Rico, Rico's great affinity for Joe (his disappointment when Joe doesn't appear at a special banquet, and inability to kill Joe in cold blood) and Rico's complete lack of interest in relationships with women. Particularly noteworthy is a scene where Otero (George E. Stone) is dressing Rico in evening clothes and Rico sashays in front of a mirror, admiring his own reflection with a handkerchief in one limp-wristed hand. Novelist W. R. Burnett wrote to Warners complaining specifically about this aspect of the film.
The film shows some of its age in its filming technique, with almost all of the scenes interiors, but it is remarkable how sound technology was already improving and camera movement was returning to cinema, and a modest use of montage showed the rise and fall of Rico's career. Although now over 80 years old Little Caesar still packs a punch as a crime melodrama and the star performance of Edward G. Robinson retains its power.