Is the thirst for power more consuming than the thirst for money? Money is vanilla, everyone wants it. But only the true gangster craves pure authority and clout–power for its own sake. And when that guy comes along, he’ll do whatever it takes to get it. This is true for Caesar Enrico “Rico” Bandello (Edward G. Robinson) in Little Caesar (1931) directed by Mervyn LeRoy. In the beginning of the film, Rico sees a newspaper article about a Chicago gangster, Pete Montana (Ralph Ince), and then decides to head east to pursue that same power and recognition. “I could do all the things that this fella does and more,” he says to his partner, Joe Massara (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.). Massara agrees that he wants to head east to Chicago, but for him it’s the “money, girls, and clothes” and the chance to purse a career in dancing. That’s not why Rico’s in it: “Money’s okay, but it ain’t everything. Be somebody. Look hard at guys and know they’ll do anything you tell them.”

The newspaper article that sets off Rico is the timeless anecdote of temptation, a theme that dates as far back as the Bible and Shakespeare, and that has endured into gangster film history. “When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left him until an opportune time.” Luke 4:13; the witches who tempt Macbeth; the cocaine deal and opportunity to usurp the boss that initiates Tony Montana in Scarface (1983). The allure of power insights the evil acts. Rico recognizes that, in his town, power is attainable for those who are willing to kill. So that’s just what he’ll have to do.

Little Caesar is a great film to watch if only for historical context. It’s a seminal piece in the gangster genre and it transports the Macbethian greed-archetype to the big screen and onto the dark streets of 1930s Chicago. But it sets up other conventions too, like the Boss who goes soft and is usurped by a tough hood from the trenches. The shark smells blood in the water (see: Scarface (1932 and 1985), et al.). And, of course, there is the inevitable downfall of the villain, who dies by the sword after having risen by it.

Historical relevance aside, the film is great because of the performance of Edward G. Robinson, who stands above the rest. He is more convincing and dynamic than his colleagues, and it makes the movie all the more compelling. He’s brash, confident, and even at 5’5” he dominates the screen. His tilted fedora leaves just enough room to reveal his pointed eyebrows and malevolent stare. His grin is sharp and wrathful, and he talks the talk: “If anybody turns yellow and squeals… my gun’s gonna speak its piece.”

Robinson is the ultimate tough guy; he embodies the criminal who couldn’t care less about the money and toys. In one scene, he gets fitted for a suit–the symbol of moving of up in the world–but he scoffs at the style and the way it fits. No, he just wants power–to put the fear of God in the men around him. You believe it to when you see him on screen, too. That’s why he’s an Original Gangster, and up there with the best of his contemporaries: James Cagney from Public Enemy (1931) and Paul Muni from Scarface (1932), in particular. He’s the type to “shoot first and argue afterward.” If you’re into this tradition, this is a must-see. If you’re “yella” you better run and hide.