“Little Caesar” — Rico’s Delusional Superiority As Seen In Our Society

by Virginia Craft

An Analysis of Mervyn LeRoy’s film Little Caesar

The film Little Caesar, directed by Mervyn LeRoy, presents an insightful look at issues of insecurity, irresponsibility, and immorality through Edward G. Robinson’s character Rico, a.k.a. “Little Caesar”. Rico’s motives of becoming a ‘famous’ gangster depicts aspects of some of our motives in society (void of gangster-involvement, in this case).

As Rico’s character develops from a lowly hoodlum to a big-shot gangster, we are able to see more clearly his degenerating individuality. He loses his sense of Self in his deadly lust for superiority. His motives are firmly embedded in rising to a level of fame through belittling others and mimicking those which he admires. Since his lack of social and conversational ease persists, he opts to rob others of their humanity (and some of their lives) as a means to achieve the selfish ends he desires atop the hierarchical ladder of the underworld. In this way, his gun serves as his source of rising success; it cowardly asserts his dominance.

Rico states that he never got the chance to “be somebody” when he was living in the hood as an unrecognized ‘nobody’. In his pursuit for recognition, he resists taking responsibility for who he is and where he came from—he does not want to come to terms with himself, so he chooses to ingenuinely establish himself by creating and adopting an identity that better suits his motives. He intentionally mirrors many aspects of Diamond Pete Montana’s and Big Boy’s lifestyles (both dominant forces in the underworld) in hopes of projecting a similar, superior reflection.

We can perhaps empathize with Rico on account of his general motivation to scamper out of the streets and make something of himself, but empathy is quickly stolen and replaced with pity, disgust, and aversion when we recognize his cowardly intent. Failing to take the time and make the efforts to genuinely establish himself within the context of society and even the underworld, his created ‘Self’ quickly falls through the weak, flimsy materials in which it was fabricated. Cowardly enough, Rico seems more satisfied with dying than confronting the reality of what he has become.

Without pointing fingers, it is evident that Rico-like characters can be found in our society (with the exclusion of guns and gangs, in this case). Even in the smallest of social situations, some people cower away from taking responsibility for themselves. They, essentially, make others into something in order to evade any attempts to courageously make themselves. This is precisely Jean-Paul Sartre’s claim regarding Anti-Semites’ motives to create their own identity as ‘superior’ by creating one they deem as “inferior”; namely, the Jews’. This is also apparent in the film The Battle of Algiers by simply replacing the colonizing French with a character such as Rico—an utter denial of the others’ humanity by imposing one’s motives on them is a result.

In our society, it is also evident that many people look to the “Big Boy” (the media, fashions, trends, societal ideals, etc.) as an easy way out of taking the responsibility to make themselves through themselves and not through “the gaze of the other”, as Sartre said. Ironically, as Rico marveled over Big Boy’s and Diamond Pete Montana’s lavish jewels and expensive material goods, he assumed an inferior position through trying to rise to superiority by creating his life as a reflection of their’s. However, his superficial efforts were rewarded by none other than a warped reflection similar to that of a carnival mirror’s.

Rico’s ounce of humanity fights the powerful current of immorality and comes up for air in his lack of ability to be able to shoot Joe. However, Rico’s love for Joe is, essentially, nothing more than a love for himself and the identity he strives to create. In the book Dreams and Dead Ends, Jack Shadoian says, “Rico’s self-assurance is dependent on Joe’s allegiance.” Moreover, his immorality contributes to the ever-increasing debt he soon pays for at the end of the film, proving the quote LeRoy included in the film to be true: “All they that take the sword shall perish with the sword” (St. Matthew).

LeRoy’s use of minimal cast members keeps us attentively focused on the prominent characters presented. Similarly, the simple yet precise framing presents only what is relevant. Lack of diegetic sound, aside from conversation and the few instances of dance-related music, centers our attention to every moment and allows us to feel every moment as it naturally occurs in the characters’ actions and interactions. These elements (but obviously not limited to these) create a very distinct mood that echoes the serious and ponderous nature of the film.