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The gangster picture that thrived in the early thirties lost much of its dark glamour and visceral power with the imposition of the Production Code, which forbade producers to glamorize the lives of the criminals that were still very much part of the landscape. It took a couple of decades - and a loosening of Production Code rules - for the gangster genre to return, and when it did, it was almost exclusively the domain of independent producers and second-tier studios using the notoriety of the forbidden characters, which had previously only been fictionalized incarnations of real criminals, as an exploitation hook for their low-budget films. Dillinger was made in 1945 but the floodgates opened in the late fifties with such films as Don Siegel's Baby Face Nelson (1957), Roger Corman's Machine Gun Kelly (1958), the gangster/JD drama The Bonnie Parker Story (1958), Budd Boetticher's The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond (1960), Pretty Boy Floyd (1960) and King of the Roaring Twenties (1961), with David Janssen as Arnold Rothstein. Practically every gangland leader and violent hoodlum of the era was given a film of their own.
Al Capone (1959), starring celebrated Method actor Rod Steiger as the most notorious mobster in gangland history, was the most ambitious entry in the genre. Produced by Allied Artists, a small but ambitious studio specializing in lurid, punchy low-budget genre pictures, and efficiently directed by Richard Wilson, a former assistant to Orson Welles, this B&W film is not lavish by the standards of the glossy Hollywood spectacles but it delivers period recreations and bustling scenes on a small budget. The visual approach owes as much to television and the semi-documentary style of the popular TV series The Untouchables (which also had a significant hand in the gangster revival) as to the old studio gangster pictures. The spectacle is not in the scope of the sets or locations, but in the brutal blasts of violence and the larger-than-life incarnation that Steiger brings to Capone on his rise from loyal, ambitious, opera-loving thug to the top dog in the Chicago syndicate, ruling the South Side with fear, intimidation and machine gun diplomacy.
The stocky, serious Steiger had a fortuitous resemblance to Capone but it's his volatile performance that defines the character. The real life Capone was a celebrity gangster, living and working openly, proclaiming himself "just a businessman," and was always in the media lens. Steiger plays him as a thug dictator, putting on a show of power and money and social ambition as if trying to prove himself to the world while resentment seethes beneath the tailored suits and mannered public front. "He was, to me, a showman, an actor," Steiger explained in an interview with New Yorker writer Helen Ross. Robert De Niro's Capone in The Untouchables (1987) has echoes of Steiger's performance.
Steiger brings an almost affable quality to Capone even as he coaxes his boss and mentor, Chicago gangster Johnny Torrio (Nehemiah Persoff), to knock off his avuncular boss and take control of the rackets as prohibition gives them the biggest money-making opportunity of their lives ("It's a big, thirsty town and I love it," he smiles). But his ferocious temper flares up whenever someone dares to make a play for his territory and he takes an attack personally, ready to lash out immediately until cooler heads, in particular the cheerfully corrupt newspaper reporter Mac Keely (Martin Balsam) who feeds Capone information and advice, talk him down. Along with his ego is an almost pathological need to be liked, or at least respected, notably when it comes to the widow (Fay Spain) of one of his victims. He puts almost as much effort into wooing this woman, immune to his animalistic charms, as he does to building his syndicate.
"I turned the picture down three times," Steiger told an interviewer during the production, and agreed to play the role only after the producers agreed to rewrites. Critics have noted the Shakespearean dimensions of Capone, from Iago-like figure pushing Johnny Torrio to take control of the rackets to an underworld Macbeth murdering his own boss to a kind of tragic king brought low by his own hubris. It may be no coincidence that director Richard Wilson worked on Welles' Macbeth (1948).
Al Capone is framed with narration by James Gregory, who plays the dedicated and honest Chicago cop Sgt. Schaefler, to provide the moral censure of the violent spectacle. Scenes of Capone murdering an inconvenient boss and his thugs gunning down competitors, including a tightly-constructed recreation of the Valentine's Day Massacre (intercut with Capone establishing his alibi in Florida with a society party), are accompanied by the official outrage at Capone's ruthless tactics and brutal violence. Most curiously, the role of Elliot Ness and the FBI is underplayed; it is little more than a mention in the narration, to make Chicago cop Schaefler the hero: the stalwart policeman whose patience and persistence finally beats Capone, sending him to Alcatraz and an inglorious death ("his mind half gone," describes the narration, which leaves out the detail that his illness was a complication of syphilis). Yet, despite the fictional characters played by Fay Spain and James Gregory, the broad strokes of the film are largely historically accurate, from the manipulation of municipal elections through brazen intimidation at the polls to the gang wars with North Side boss Bugs Moran (played by Murvyn Vye).
Capone's story has been told many times, from the veiled (and largely fictionalized) portrait in Howard Hawks' Scarface (1932) (which was Capone's nickname) to the TV series The Untouchables (1959) and Roger Corman's The St. Valentine's Day Massacre (1967) to Brian De Palma's 1987 feature version of The Untouchables (with Robert De Niro as Capone). Nevertheless, this is the most comprehensive film portrait of the notorious racketeer and mob boss who literally ruled Chicago for years.
Producer: Leonard J. Ackerman, John H. Burrows (producer)
Director: Richard Wilson
Screenplay: Malvin Wald, Henry F. Greenberg (writers)
Cinematography: Lucien Ballard
Music: David Raksin
Film Editing: Walter Hannemann
Cast: Rod Steiger (Al Capone), Fay Spain (Maureen Flannery), James Gregory (Schaefler, narrator), Martin Balsam (Mac Keeley, reporter), Nehemiah Persoff (Johnny Torrio), Murvyn Vye (George 'Bugs' Moran), Robert Gist (Dion O'Banion), Lewis Charles (Earl Weiss), Joe De Santis (Big Jim Colosimo), Sandy Kenyon (Bones Corelli).
by Sean Axmaker