Al Capone was a famous gangster who dominated bootlegging in Chicago during much of the Prohibition era in the 1920s, despite a multitude of rivals whose opposition led to open warfare in the streets, culminating in the infamous “St. Valentine’s Day Massacre” in a Clark Street garage in 1929. I have stills from three different movies about Capone, so I decided to watch all three to compare the portrayals and then consult a book I have on him to see how accurate the movies were. I don’t have DVDs of the films, only VHS copies, so I didn’t get any screen grabs. The films are: AL CAPONE (1959), THE ST. VALENTINE’S DAY MASSACRE (1967), and CAPONE (1975).
First up is AL CAPONE (1959), starring Rod Steiger in the role. It covers the broad arc of Capone’s career, starting with his arrival in Chicago in 1919 to apprentice under Johnny Torrio and ending with a scene of Capone at the mercy of other prisoners in Alcatraz sometime in the 1930s. Steiger was always known for overacting, but when tempered by a good director, he turned in some striking performances, such as that of the small-town Mississippi police chief in IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT (1967), for which he won a well-deserved Best Actor Oscar. Here, he plays a larger-than-life character with volatility to spare and makes him a consistently believable human being rather than a stock movie gangster. He’s got desires and appetites and a zest for the good things in life. He’ll do whatever he has to do to get them. He listens to opera and even sings along when Big Jim Colosimo breaks out in an aria (just before Capone’s accomplices enter the room and shoot Big Jim to death). He lashes out like a hurt child when he’s thwarted or doesn’t get what he wants. Most importantly, Capone is hungry and Steiger, who had only recently become a leading man, expertly captures that quality of the character. The only other portrayal of Capone I’ve seen that conveys the hunger of the man was Paul Muni’s performance in SCARFACE (1932) as Tony Camonte, a fictionalized version of Capone.
Directed by Richard Wilson, AL CAPONE was actually the first Hollywood feature film to portray Capone by name as a character. Any previous films about him, e.g. SCARFACE and LITTLE CAESAR, changed the name. Four months before AL CAPONE, there was a television drama on “Playhouse 90” called “Seven Against the Wall,” about the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, in which Paul Lambert played Capone. I’m guessing the TV play was put into production after news of the feature film was announced. A month after AL CAPONE hit theaters, the pilot episode of “The Untouchables” appeared on television on the series, “Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse,” with Neville Brand in the role of Capone.
Roger Corman’s THE ST. VALENTINE’S DAY MASSACRE (1967) stars Jason Robards in the role of Capone. Robards was considerably taller and thinner than Capone and doesn’t look anything like an Italian gangster. He looks and moves more like a dapper WASP tycoon who dangles in some illegal side activities. He has his volatile moments and Robards indulges in them by yelling at the top of his lungs, making Steiger look sedate in comparison. (The above still displays one of those scenes.) I suspect that director Corman, notoriously hands-off with his lead actors, simply let Robards do it the way he wanted. Sure, Robards is having fun with it and the critics at the time went along with it, giving him rave reviews, but it’s not Capone. I remember liking this film a lot when I saw it as an adolescent when it played on a double bill with Mario Bava’s PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES, and it remains an impressive film in many ways, but it was the first Robards performance I ever saw and I have to say I grew to appreciate him more when he played in a lower key, as in his portrayal of Doc Holliday in HOUR OF THE GUN, also 1967, or two years later when he played the outlaw Cheyenne in Sergio Leone’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST. Also, as I’ve gotten older and read more history, I tend to prefer my historical dramas to err on the side of accuracy. Capone’s real-life character was compelling and cinematic enough without having to embellish it. Curiously, ST. VALENTINE’S featured quite a lot of bloody violence, yet aroused no controversy upon its release. BONNIE AND CLYDE, on the other hand, released a month or so afterwards in the same summer, raised quite a stir with its scenes of violence that were considered quite graphic for the time.
CAPONE (1974), produced by Corman and directed by exploitation director Steve Carver (BIG BAD MAMA), starred Ben Gazzara and was plainly inspired by the success of THE GODFATHER films, going so far as to stuff cotton in Gazzara’s cheeks and have him do a line delivery not unlike that of Brando’s Don Vito Corleone. I’m sorry, but Capone was quite verbose and easily understood by the reporters he frequently spoke to. Here, we can hardly make out what he’s saying. This is a much cruder film than the others cited here and includes more R-rated elements, including much more bloodshed and a couple of nude scenes featuring Susan Blakely. There’s a car chase through 20th Century Fox’s New York backlot (representing Chicago) and it’s so sloppily done we can see the Hollywood Hills in the background in one shot.
I did some checking on the ages of some of the actual gangsters involved in these goings-on. They tended to be young men in their 20s and 30s. Capone was 20 when he went out to Chicago and 30 when the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre occurred. Steiger was 33 when he portrayed Capone. Robards and Gazzara were both 44, so Steiger was closest in age to the character. Gazzara plays Capone from 1918 to 1946, so he’s seen in the role as a teenager in his first scene! When Robert De Niro played Capone in Brian De Palma’s THE UNTOUCHABLES, he was 42 or 43. Neville Brand was 38 when he first played Capone on “The Untouchables.” Short and rounded, Steiger also looks more like Capone than most of the actors who’ve portrayed him.
Actually, I’ve always thought that Bob Hoskins would have made the best Capone, if you stuck strictly to actors who might have resembled him. In fact, he played a Capone-like mobster in the film that first made him famous in the U.S., THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY (1980):
Howard Browne wrote the screenplays for both THE ST. VALENTINE’S DAY MASSACRE and CAPONE. His novel formed the basis for the aforementioned TV drama, “Seven Against the Wall.” In the one book I have on Capone, Mr.Capone, by Robert J. Schoenberg (New York: William Morrow, 1992), Browne, who evidently lived in Chicago during that period, is quoted a number of times but is never identified in any way in the book.
I’d probably need to read more books on the subject, but it seems to me that none of the films I’ve seen on Capone are particularly accurate in terms of history. Both the 1959 and 1974 versions follow the generally accepted arc of Capone’s career, but fill it in with lots of fabrications, particularly when it comes to Capone’s alleged presence at the scenes of various murders and in the area of his romantic relationships. None of the films feature Capone’s Irish-American wife Mary, or “Mae,” who was with him from 1918 right up to his death in 1947. The heavily-narrated ST. VALENTINE’S DAY MASSACRE focuses chiefly on the buildup and execution of the title slaughter, in which a team of gunmen working for Capone raided an outpost of rival George “Bugs” Moran. It methodically charts the planning and preparation of the raid and introduces, one-by-one, each of the seven victims. The basic facts of the massacre are depicted fairly accurately, although the actors portraying the victims didn’t quite look like them, at least judging from the photos supplied in Schoenberg’s book. But there are a few fabricated scenes in the 1967 version as well, including Capone’s personal handling of the killing of Joe Aiello, who had betrayed Capone, on a train, something that didn’t happen that way at all.
I think AL CAPONE deserves the highest marks for the most semi-accurate portrayal of Capone, at least as far as I can determine, and for including much more of the social and political context of the era, including the bootleggers’ stake in various mayoral elections. ST. VALENTINE’S DAY MASSACRE is beautifully put together and has a large and varied cast of superb character actors both old (Ralph Meeker, Reed Hadley, John Agar, Alex D’Arcy, Dick Miller) and new (George Segal, Bruce Dern, Alex Rocco). Jack Nicholson is even spotted in a bit part. However, its focus on the one incident leaves out a lot of the context, creating more of a hermetic world than the subject demanded, and puts us in the unusual position of not having anyone to root for. (AL CAPONE had a crusading honest cop, totally fictional, as one of the chief protagonists.) CAPONE is the oddest of the three, with the least interesting portrayal of Capone, but it compensates by bookending it with more of Capone’s life in the early and late stages, including a memorable final scene of the brain-damaged, syphilis-ravaged Capone at poolside in Florida just months before his death. It also gives us more of a “hero” in Frank Nitti, Capone’s foresighted protégé and successor, who plans well ahead for a Chicago without Capone or the accompanying gang warfare. He’s played by Sylvester Stallone just a year before his success in ROCKY. Curiously, when Nitti visits Capone in Florida in the film’s finale, it occurs in 1946, three years, in fact, after the date of Nitti’s death.
All three films were shot on studio backlots, the latter two at 20th Century Fox.
None of the films romanticize Capone nor try to cast him in a positive light. He’s an unrepentant criminal and killer from beginning to end, with loyalty frequently giving way to expedience. However, he was not without a certain amount of crude charm and charisma and the first film, AL CAPONE, is the one that best captures this, while not stinting on his brutality and bursts of viciousness. It shows him holding court at a political gathering and among the local swells at his hideaway in Florida. He was gregarious and liked to talk to the press, an aspect of his character best reflected in a late scene in ST. VALENTINE’S where Capone entertains a group of reporters in Florida after the title massacre. I’ve never seen any newsreel footage of Capone, if there is any, so I can’t comment on his mediagenic qualities. (I’m guessing that John Dillinger had him beat in that area.)
In terms of cinematic appeal, the best film about Capone, in my opinion, remains the aforementioned SCARFACE (1932), directed by Howard Hawks and starring Paul Muni, then aged about 35, as Tony Camonte, a fictionalized version of Capone who was, of course, commonly known, but not to his face, as “Scarface.” Muni’s powerhouse performance and Hawks’ establishment of the grammar of the modern action film remain compelling 70 years later.