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.