For Criterion Consideration: Mervyn LeRoy’s Little Caesar


Within the DNA of Ruben Fleischer’s new film, Gangster Squad, is held strands of many classic gangster pictures that came before it, and will most certainly come after it. More a look at the life of a cop, and his crew, as they take down the gangsters in their way more than the standard rise and fall of the bad guy lead character, Squad sticks onto much of the gangster film template rather strictly. Grey ideology, violence without much, if any, remorse and criminals hell bent on making the world theirs, Gangster Squad holds with it much of the history of the genre it sits firmly within. However, the disappointment held by anyone who sees the picture is so great, that the only way to recoup is by watching an exponentially better classic. Thankfully, there are a handful of brilliant American-Dream skewering crime films in the ether, and one in particular, may have more influence on the genre and its rise in the US than any.

And there is one pre-Code crime/gangster film, from none other than WB, that may be the blueprint for any and every gangster film that followed in its giant, Edward G. Robinson-sized footsteps.

Little Caesar comes to us from the likes of Mervyn LeRoy, and this 1931 film follows the story of a gangster who tries to work his way to the very top of this crime world. After moving to the big city to find his fortune, Caesar Enrico Bandello joins the gang of Sam Vettori, only to break away from his do-gooder partner, Joe, who becomes a dancer. When things go wrong during a heist of the nightclub wher Joe works, their worlds change entirely, and it is this journey that we follow in the brilliant character study that is Little Caesar.

When looking at Caesar, one can’t help but look at the influence the film’s narrative and structure has had upon the gangster picture. From the unquenchable thirst for power and respect found in our tragic hero, to the fact that once you join “the gang,” you can’t leave, ever, Caesar is in retrospect far from a mold breaking feature film, but instead a mold creating. The narrative described above could be the same said for a film like Scarface, or certainly, if it were told from the point of view from Gangster Squad’s Mickey Coehn, I’m sure he had to step on a handful of people to get his way to the top.

Performance wise, this is where the film breaks new ground. The heaviest of cinematic heavies star Edward G. Robinson would not only become the epitome of the filmic bad guy, but this performance would be definitive for a generation. Released a handful of years prior to the ending of prohibition, Robinson’s charisma and power turned him into an absolute juggernaut, and the face of an era that spent much of its time glorifying violence, crime and the men who would become the embodiment of those ideas. It’s his career defining performance, and something that is never to be forgotten.

Directed by Mervyn LeRoy, the film is a solid visual picture. Featuring contrast heavy black and white photography, Caesar is an early sound picture unsure of how to go about crafting itself. Including title cards featuring expository dialogue and narrative set up, the film does also find itself using various close up shots that were a staple of silent cinema, and one can’t help but find Robinson’s mug as much a relic as the physical days of silent filmmaking as it was a gift from the Gods of crime cinema. Hazy photography abound, this isn’t the ground breaking bit of filmmaking like a Gun Crazy (whose bank heist sequence may be one of the greatest scenes in all of crime cinema), but as the mold from which crime films are crafted to this day, its influence is felt across the board.

Now, could Criterion release this film? Yes. They have gone on record saying that they have the home video rights to a pre-code film from Warner Brothers, and this of course fits that bill. Is it likely? Maybe. There is no Blu-ray released, but with a rather extensive DVD release of this film (a WB “Night At The Movies” release) out there, one has to imagine that it’s something else. Freaks has always been bantered about, and that seems likely, but I’m holding out hope that it’s one of these gangster films. The world of American gangster films is one Criterion hasn’t really mined from, and their 2013 horror slate seems filled up (I mean, Scanners seems like a 2013 Halloween release), so who knows. There is a commentary on the DVD, and its solid, but I’d sure love to see a good booklet and other supplements.

Joshua Brunsting

Josh is a critic, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, a wrestling nerd, a hip-hop head, a father, a cinephile and a man looking to make his stamp on the world, one word at a time.

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