The first "talkie" gangster movie to capture the public's imagination, Mervyn LeRoy's Little Caesar started a cycle of crime-related movies that Warner Bros. rode across the ensuing decade and right into World War II with titles such as All Through the Night (1941). At the start of the picture, Caesar Enrico "Rico" Bandello (Edward G. Robinson, made up to look a lot like the real-life Al Capone) and his friend Joe Massara (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) are robbing a gas station -- later on, at a diner, they're looking over a newspaper and see a story about Diamond Pete Montana (Ralph Ince), a gangster so well known that he gets headlines and stories written about how powerful he is. That's what Rico wants, more than money or anything else: to be czar of the underworld and "not just another mug." Joe admits that sometimes he just thinks of trying to become what he wanted to be when he started out: a professional dancer. They head east to Chicago (which is never named, but with the talk of the north side and the territories, you know what city it is) and Rico talks his way into the local mob run by Sam Vettori (Stanley Fields). The leader has his doubts over how quick Rico is to go for his gun, but also thinks he might be useful if he is as fearless as he says and can be kept under control.
Soon Rico is Sam's top enforcer and bodyguard, but it isn't long before he starts acting like the boss, questioning other members' loyalty and bravery and pushing into Sam's role as leader. He also commands the loyalty of the gang through his resourcefulness at planning and pulling jobs that are tough and risky, and getting away with them; the only exception is Joe, their respectable "front man," who has found romance with an actress (Glenda Farrell) and a career, and wants out of helping the gang. Rico won't let him leave, and pushes him to help them on a brazen New Year's Eve robbery of a restaurant, during which the new crime commissioner is shot dead by Rico. Now the heat is on, but instead of keeping a low profile, Rico seizes control of the gang from Sam and secures his power by ruthlessly rubbing out the only member (William Collier) who seems likely to squeal, gunning the man down on the steps of a church. Before long, Rico is the first among equals among the local mob chieftains, sharing a dais at a dinner honoring him with his nominal boss and one-time idol Diamond Pete. He's also making enemies by the bushel -- Flaherty (Thomas E. Jackson), the cop heading the investigation into the murder of the commissioner, won't let up and makes it his personal business to nail Rico, and the rival chieftains don't like the publicity Rico's getting or the attention it brings to all of them. Rico survives attempts on his life and consolidates his hold on the streets, and is suddenly on the edge of achieving his goal -- the "Big Boy" (Sidney Blackmer), the wealthy social Brahmin who really controls crimes in the city, invites him to a meeting to tell him that Diamond Pete is finished. Rico is going to be in charge of the rackets across the entire city and making sure the local bosses stay in line. He is at the pinnacle of his career, and then Rico overreaches -- he can still be nailed for the murder of the commissioner, and is paranoid enough not to trust Joe, even though Joe helped saved Rico's life and insists that he'll never squeal; Rico also plans on supplanting the Big Boy. His rise to power unravels as fast as it happened, in an outburst of violence that drives him underground. But with an ego as big as his, Rico can't stay hidden for too long, and Flaherty is waiting for him.
The violence in Little Caesar may seem tame by today's standards -- although seeing a proper print of the movie, such as the 2005-issued DVD, does restore some of that impact -- but it was shocking at the time, and proved riveting and even seductive, especially because it was tied to a very charismatic performance by Robinson. Between his portrayal and the sounds of pistols and Thompson submachine guns, the movie was a sensory revelation and literalized the violence that had been suggested purely by visuals in such silent gangster classics as Josef Von Sternberg's Underworld (1927), itself yet another telling of a version of Capone's story. The language was also something newly coarse and bracing in movies, at a point when talkies were only a couple of years old. There's also a slightly homoerotic undertone to aspects of the character relationships that managed to get past the censors: Rico doesn't drink and seems uninterested in women; his fixation on Joe Massara, and his seeming competition for Massara's loyalty with the latter's fiancée, are couched in what seem like almost romantic terms; and his feeling of betrayal when Massara says he wants to leave the mob to get married seem almost more appropriate to someone caught in a romantic triangle. This is all made especially vivid when Rico laments not having killed Massara, admitting that he's been undone over "liking a guy too much." It's all nearly as striking as some of the more pointed psychological elements in subsequent gangster movies, including Tony Camonte's incestuous fixation on his own sister in Scarface (1932) and, at the far end of the cycle, Cody Jarrett's mother-fixation in White Heat (1949).