You can tell a lot about a gangster film by its dialogue. Ideally it should be terse, quotable, make poetry of profanity and bristle with barely-below-the-surface aggression.
"I'm a mook? Wassa mook? You can't call me a mook." - 'Mean Streets'
"Now go home and get your fuckin' shinebox." - 'Goodfellas'
"Never have anything in your life that you can't walk out on, in five seconds flat, if you feel the heat coming round the corner." - 'Heat'
Now here's a line from 'Little Caesar':
"What a fine pickle we're in."
Excuse me?!? A fine freakin' pickle? Did these tommy-gun-toting bad boys all of a sudden astrally project from the gin joints and shadowy back alleys of Chicago to the less-than-mean-streets of a Noel Coward play? A spot of robbery and murder before we break out the cucumber sandwiches, what ho, chaps? More tea, Rico? What next? Tony Montana saying, "Allow me to introduce you to my diminutive companions"? Michael Corleone opining, "I say, old bean, it doesn't do to trust anybody outside of the family"?
A fine pickle, indeed! Okay, I wasn't expecting "mook" and "shinebox" and "motherfucker" every other line, but this was 1930 and pre-Hayes Code and the dialogue could have been edgier.
So, moving on from Francis Faragoh's stilted screenplay (an adaptation of William R. Burnett's novel), how does 'Little Caesar' stand up nearly 80 years after it debuted?
I'm loathe to badmouth the acting - allowances have to be made for films of a certain era where performance styles still carried over a lot of baggage from the artificiality of theatre and the exaggerated expressivity of silent movies - but it has to be said: with one honourable exception, the acting in 'Little Caesar' is as creaky, stilted and generally shoddy as the script. Leaden, inelegant line readings. Awkward physicality. The scenes between Rico's lily-livered friend Joe Massara (Douglas Fairbanks Jnr) and his twinkletoes girlfriend Olga (Glenda Farrell) are nauseatingly melodramatic.
So what makes 'Little Caesar' a classic? It's not as if it were the first gangster film, or the first to elevate villain to protagonist. It does, however, represent the first example I can think of where a gangster film charts a rise-and-fall narrative arc. Director Mervyn LeRoy shoots for the moon in terms of structure, incident and narrative development, a scant 77 minutes taking small time thug Rico (Edward G. Robinson) from gas station stick-up merchant to right-hand-man to an established Chicago mob boss, a man whose rule he deposes. The gang now his, Rico unflinchingly despatches one of his own when the dumb shmuck in question develops a bad case of moral conscience and takes himself off to see the priest. His death, gunned down on the cathedral steps in what is perhaps cinema's earliest depiction of a drive-by, is as iconic as it is shocking.
Rico also finds himself at daggers drawn with Joe, once his buddy and partner in crime, now gone soft and more interested in establishing himself as one half of a dance act with Olga. But while Joe and Olga are knocking the crowds dead at flashy hotspot The Bronze Peacock, Rico has designs on knocking the joint off.
The robbery itself is another reason 'Little Caesar' endures. The heist was still a-ways off being a veritable genre cliche back in 1930, and no-one would have faulted LeRoy for filming it straight: gunmen bursting in, shots fired, crowds subdued, cash grabbed, tyre-squealing escape made. But no; he does it differently. As differently as I've ever seen a heist scene done. He films both the gang's modus operandi and the reactions of the patrons as a sequence of almost abstract tableaux and effects a series of dissolves between them. It's like watching the bank job set-piece in 'Heat' redone in the style of Chris Marker's 'La Jetee'.
And, ultimately, 'Little Caesar' earns its status as a classic because of Edward G. Robinson. He swaggers, sneers, backstabs and browbeats his way through the story, even maintaining a full-on contempt for authority figures, rival hoods and average joes when his empire crumbles and he goes to ground. He's as unmalleable a character as Edward Fox's Jackal; he presupposes the line in 'Goodfellas' where Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) says of Tommy de Vito (Joe Pesci) that if you beat him with your fists he'd come at you with a knife, if you beat him with a knife he'd come at you with a gun and if you beat him with a gun you'd better finish the job because he'd just keep coming back at you till one of you were dead.
Rico is the gangster genre's original fedora-wearing badass mo' fo'. There's hardly been a single gangster down the decades and under the direction of anyone from Coppola to Scorsese to de Palma who doesn't owe Rico a debt of honour and quite possibly a share of the profits.