An allegory of the Depression, naturally, but also The Frog and the Ox cracked open as a vision of gangsterism and dandyism, opposite poles touching in the middle: "We don’t want no softies spillin’ things." The structure "starts from the gutter and returns there," the first glimpse of Rico "Little Caesar" Bandello (Edward G. Robinson) finds a squat figure scurrying into a gas station, turning out the lights and shooting the place up (long shot, single take). Moving to the big city is a hoodlum’s dream, with Rico taking over the dirty business at the Club Palermo while his mate (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) goes for the ballrooms of the Bronze Peacock. The goal is the comprehensive sanding down of the gangster tropes from Underworld until the feathers and flow of the Twenties give way to the grime and abrasion of the Thirties, the rise and the fall are sketched via arthritic setups broken up by the occasional eye-tugging visual coup: An overhead view of a spinning roulette, the camera’s semi-circular turn around a poker table as each racketeer is introduced, the robbery of a New Year soiree stated as a series of brusque dissolves. Elsewhere, Mervyn Leroy’s gagwriter touch gives you bullets prayed out of the cow face on the milk truck, the procession of hearses going much too slowly, and the cigar ash flicked on the marble floors of the Mr. Big (Sidney Blackmer). Clocks, diamond stickpins, Robinson’s "Oh yeahs," the implacable Law (Thomas E. Jackson’s over-enunciated stiffness attains a hypnotic sardonicism), all the pieces of the gangster genre in nascent, talismanic form, not the least of which is its homoeroticism: "This game ain’t for sissies," Robinson’s Napoleonic capo grumbles, yet when it's time to off his best pal, he approaches with erect pistol and retreats with watery eyes. Faded bronze to The Public Enemy’s silver and Scarface’s gold, but an enduring bedrock formation all the same. From W.R. Burnett’s novel. With Glenda Farrell, William Collier Jr., Ralph Ince, Stanley Fields, and George E. Stone. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce