Film Review: Al Capone (dir by Richard Wilson)

The year is 1919 and a brutish young man named Al (played by Rod Steiger) has just arrived in Chicago.  He’s got a new job, working for the city’s top mobster, Johnny Torrio (Nehemiah Persoff).  Torrio is the second-in-command to Big Jim Colosimo (Joe De Santis) and is impressed enough by the young Al to take him under his wing.

It’s an exciting time to be a gangster in Chicago because prohibition is about to become the law of the land.  Alcohol is about to become illegal, which means that there will soon be an unregulated underground of people smuggling booze into the United States and selling it in speakeasies across the land.  Those speakeasies are going to be need men to watch the door and to toss out troublemakers and it turns out that’s a perfect job for someone who isn’t afraid of violence.

Someone like Al, for instance.

It’s while Al is working as bouncer that he receives a long and deep gash across his face.  When the wound heals, it leaves him with the scar that will come to define him for the rest of his life.  As much as he hates the nickname “Scarface,” it’s what Al Capone will be known as.

The 1959 film, Al Capone, follows Capone as he works his way up the ladder of the Chicago underworld until he eventually finds himself sitting atop an empire of corruption and crime.  Along the way Capone kills the majority of his rivals and finds the time to fall in love with Maureen Flannery (Fay Spain), the widow of one of his victims.

Well, perhaps love is the wrong word.  As played by Rod Steiger, Al Capone isn’t really capable of loving anyone but himself.  This film does not provide us with the superslick or diabolically clever Capone that has appeared in other gangster movies.  Instead, Steiger plays Capone as almost being a caged animal.  Capone comes to power through violence and betrayal and he uses the same techniques to hold onto power.  The film suggests that the secret of his success was his complete lack of conscience but that the same arrogant stupidity that makes him so fearsome also leaves him doomed to failure.  There’s really nothing subtle about Steiger’s performance but then again, there was probably nothing subtle about Al Capone, either.  Steiger’s tendency to overact every moment works well in the role of a man who constantly seems to be striking out at anyone who makes the mistake of getting too close to him.

Though many films had featured characters based on Capone, Al Capone was the first biographical film to actually be made about the infamous leader of the Chicago Outfit.  (Up until the mid-50s, the Hollywood Production Code expressly forbade anyone from portraying a “real” gangster in a movie.)  With the exception of the character of Maureen Flannery (who was a heavily fictionalized stand-in for Capone’s then-living widow), Al Capone is fairly faithful to the know facts of Capone’s life.  The film not only includes most of Capone’s violent acts (i.e., the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre) but it also explores both how Capone was protected by Chicago’s corrupt political establishment and how prohibition actually enabled the activities that it was meant to prevent.  Director Richard Wilson directs in a semi-documentary style and the film’s harsh black-and-white images capture the idea of a shadowy world hidden away from “respectable” society.  It’s a fast-paced film and fans of classic character acting will be happy to see James Gregory as an honest cop and Martin Balsam as a not-at-all honest reporter.

If you’re looking to put together a quick cinematic history lesson about the origins of the Mafia before you watch Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman later this year, Al Capone is a worthwhile addition to your curriculum.

30 Days of Noir #25: Gangster Story (dir by Walter Matthau)

The 1959 film, Gangster Story, holds the distinction of being the only film ever directed by the Oscar-winning actor, Walter Matthau.

That’s right, this low-budget film about a bank robber and the people who want to kill him was directed by TCM’s favorite curmudgeon.  The man who would later be nominated for multiple Oscars and who would star in numerous Neil Simon adaptations only directed one film and that movie was a low-budget, 68-minute, black-and-white movie about cops and robbers.

(And no, Jack Lemmon is nowhere to be found.)

Walter Matthau not only directed this film but he starred in it as well.  He plays Jack Martin, a career criminal who pulls off a daring bank robbery.  How does he do it?  Well, first, he rents an office in the same building as the bank.  He gets to know everyone at the bank.  He wins their trust.  No one can resist the charms of Jack Martin, which I guess is the advantage of getting to direct yourself.

On the day of the robbery, Jack approaches the cops who are hanging around outside the bank.  He tells them that he’s from Hollywood and he’s going to be shooting a scene in which he pretends to rob the bank.  He assures them that it will look realistic.  They might even see a rather flustered bank manager leading him into the vault.  But it’s just a movie and therefore, it’s very important that the cops not rush into the bank with their guns drawn or anything silly like that.

Of course, the cops fall for it.  While Jack is busy robbing the bank, the cops are just hanging around and shooting the breeze outside.  When Jack walks out of the bank, he thanks the cops for not ruining the scene and then promptly leaves.  Needless to say, the cops are humiliated when they realize how they’ve been tricked.  For them, tracking down Jack isn’t just about upholding the law.  It’s about vengeance.

Meanwhile, the local mob boss is upset because not only did Jack rob the bank without permission but he also failed to shared any of the stolen money.  Not only does Jack have the cops after him but he also has all the local gangsters!

What a mess!

However, Jack isn’t worried.  He’s happy because he’s met and fallen in with a local librarian, Carol (played by Carol Grace).  Will Jack find love or will his criminal past find him?

It’s always a bit strange to watch a film that’s been directed by an actor with a firmly entrenched persona.  Matthau was famous for playing urban misanthropes and, when watching Gangster Story, your natural instinct is to look for signs of that curmudgeonly worldview.  There are hints of it in the scene where Jack tricks the cops outside the bank but, for the most part, there’s really not much personality to be found in any of the film’s scenes.  Matthau’s direction is workmanlike but never particularly memorable.  For reasons that will soon become clear, as a director, Matthau seems far more interested in the unlikely love story between Jack and Carol than in the film’s criminal-on-the-run storyline.  After making this film together, Walter Matthau and Carol Grace married.  It was her third marriage and Matthau’s second and it lasted for 41 years, ending only with Walter Matthau’s death in 2000.

Not surprisingly, the scenes between Jack and Carol are the best in the film.  As for the rest of it, it’s pretty much a standard crime film.  As a director, Matthau struggles to keep the story moving at a steady pace and the film’s low-budget certainly doesn’t help.  Watching the film, you can tell why Walter Matthau devoted the rest of his career to acting as opposed to directing.  It’s hard not to feel that he made the right choice.