At a small greasy spoon, Caesar Enrico “Rico” Bandello (Edward G. Robinson) and his best friend Joe Massara (Douglas Fairbanks Jr) eat spaghetti, drink coffee and chit chat. While reading a newspaper Rico notices a headline about a Chicago gangster named Pete Montana (Ralph Ince) and realizes that he wants to be famous too. He goes to see Sam Vettori (Stanley Fields) a crime boss who works out of the Club Palermo. Vettori can see Rico is one tough mug so he introduces him to the boys, who’ve all got colorful nicknames like “Kid Bean”, “Killer Peppi” and “Scabby”. Meanwhile, Joe is more interested in the entertainment business and becomes a dancer with his pretty blonde girlfriend Olga (Glenda Farrell).
One of the the other bosses in town is “Little Arnie” Lorch (Maurice Black) and he’s paid a visit from Vettori and Rico at his gambling house. Soon after they arrive, Pete Montana shows up with his bodyguards. Montana conveys to Arnie and Vettori that they need to quiet down awhile due to the threat of McClure (Landers Stevens) the crime commissioner. After the meeting, Montana and Arnie tell the hotheaded Rico to cool it down or else he’ll be in trouble. Vettori and his gang decide to plan a robbery of the swanky New Years Party at The Bronze Peacock club to make some extra cash. Joe, who works there, reluctantly agrees to help them by being a lookout. The robbery goes over but when none other than McClure, a guest at the party suddenly enters the front of the club, Rico shoots him in cold blood.
When Sam finds out that Rico has killed McClure, the very person who they were told not to mess with, he knows they’ll all be in big trouble. To complicate matters more, their getaway driver Tony (William Collier Jr) has a crying fit while trying to park the stolen car which has hit a pole. The cops, led by the slow, deliberate talking Sgt. Flaherty (Thomas E Jackson) pay a visit to Sam’s place where they ask if he knows about the car or who drove it. Of course Sam says he has no idea and the coppers leave but it’s clear they are suspicious. Rico who has been listening/hiding in an adjacent secret room decides to make his move to be head of the gang, taking Sam’s spot with the other guys’ support. The next day one of Rico’s soldiers Otero (George E. Stone) sees Tony on the street and tells him to come by to take his split of the stolen cash but Tony refuses, going to the priest to confess what he’s done instead. Rico hears about this and has Otero drive him by the church where he shoots Tony on the front steps.
After the funeral for Tony, Rico’s gang hold a big banquet at the Club Palermo and present him with a nice watch as a show of their loyalty. During the celebration Rico’s paid a visit by Sgt. Flaherty who lets him know they’re watching him and the gang. When Little Arnie hears about Rico’s new status he becomes upset, and plans to get rid of him. Luckily, Joe is walking by and overhears Arnie’s ranting and immediately calls Rico’s guys informing them he’s marked for death. Rico, who is out on the town, doesn’t get word in time and is shot as a milk truck drives by. After he recuperates, Rico and his men go to see Arnie and send him on a little out of town vacation. Rico is even praised by the main boss in town known as “Big Boy” (Sidney Blackmer) who tells him Pete Montana has been demoted and that he will be the new boss of the city’s Northside from then on.
When Joe drops by to see Rico, he is ordered to get rid of Olga and join back up with the gang but he refuses. With Rico now a danger to both of them, Joe lets Olga know they’ve got to leave town right away. Olga is convinced they won’t be free unless Rico’s gone for good, and she calls the cops. Before they can get there, Rico arrives with Otero ready to off his old pal and his girl but can’t bring himself to do it and leaves. The police are given all the information on Rico’s organized criminal activities which begins his downfall as king of the crime world.
Little Caesar was the film that made Edward G. Robinson a star, and if you watch it you’ll see why. He’s really a ball of fire in this movie with an attitude and ego the size of the moon, spitting out the dialogue like Rico’s gun does bullets. The film is tautly directed by Mervyn LeRoy and the supporting cast are all excellent. It’s one of those classic crackerjack crime pictures that may have been made in the 1930s but will stand out forever.
You can see the direct influence this film had on Oliver Stone’s script for Brian DePalma’s SCARFACE, which it seems to actually be closer to storywise than Hawks’ original 1932 film. First are the similarities in Rico and Joe’s friendship which mirrors Tony and Manny. Then there’s Little Arnie and Frank Lopez (Robert Loggia) and the hit on Rico. Rico can be seen visiting Little Arnie with his gang, his arm in a sling just like Tony has when he confronts Frank at his business. Most prominent is the personalities of Rico and Tony, who are both very ambitious men that make it to the top and then fall to the bottom quickly.
4th Academy Awards: Adapted Screenplay ‒ Nominated