Movie Cycles: Crime Gangster Films of Early 1930s, Launched by Little Ceasar to

The first cycle of crime-gangster films benefited from the introduction of thee sound technology, in the late 1920s.

One of that era’s most influential gangster films, Little Caesar, was made by Mervyn LeRoy at Warner Bros in 1930.  Though it was not the first gangster film of the talkies era (that was Lights of New York (1928), it’s considered to be the prototype of future gangster films due to its critical reception, commercial success, and impact in and outside the film world.

Taut, fast-moving, and well-acted by Edward G. Robinson, Little Caesar set the genre’s thematic and visual conventions, which were followed by other films of the era, specifically The Public Enemy, starring James Cagney, and Scarface with Paul Muni. Clearly modeled on Al Capone, the rich part saw Robinson as Caesar Enrico Bandello. The film depicts his rise to fame and then decline and demise—on the steps of a church.

This seminal gangster film arrived around the same time as a few other prison-crime films, such as MGM’s The Big House (1930) with Wallace Beery, LeRoy’s own Numbered Men (1930) and I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), Howard Hawks’ The Criminal Code (1931), and The Last Mile (1932).

Little Caesar reflected that era’s technically primitive filmmaking, with a straight-forward, blunt narrative (composed of tableaux), yet its hard-hitting gritty realism gripped audiences. Unlike other gangster films, the film did not feature graphic bloodshed, depict violence on-screen, or sensationalize street language, but its tone was somber and tough. Its cheap, sleazy atmosphere added to the film’s impact. The film’s black-and-white cinematography was provided by Tony Gaudio.

W. R. Burnett, the author of the novel on which the film’s screenplay (by Francis Faragoh and Robert N. Lee) was based, was also co-scriptwriter of Scarface, another major gangster flick.

The impact of the crime film cycle at the start of the sound era was remarkable. Its box-office popularity spawned many similar features (mostly from Warner Bros).

The gangster films made indelible stars out of urban “tough guys,” such as Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney, and Humphrey Bogart.

The movies also elevated the stature of their producers, Darryl F. Zanuck, Hal Wallis, Mervyn LeRoy, the director.

However, after 1934, the hard-hitting, violence-prone gangster genre was curtailed by the restrictive Hays Production Code.

As a result, Little Caesar and The Public Enemy were withdrawn from mass distribution and were not allowed to be screened until 1953.

Major Films:


William Wellman’s The Public Enemy
Money, with Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney in their sole teaming),

Quick Millions, with Spencer Tracy

The Finger Points

City Streets, with Gary Cooper as a racketeer known as The Kid


Scarface: The Shame of the Nation


Lady Killer

Manhattan Melodrama


The Petrified Forest


Angels with Dirty Faces (end of the cycle)