July 19, 2009


Throughout the twenties and thirties of the last century, a monster ruled Chicago. Al Capone was a brutal murderer and convinced criminal- so much so that though the films of his day pointed to him they (like for instance Scarface) did not directly mention him. Only after his death were films made about him himself. Such was the late 50s' Capone, starring Rod Steiger. The film is a drama based on real events- most of them, save for a romantic moment, actually happened in Capone's life. A journalist was shot who had links to the mob, the Valentine's Day massacre happened, Capone got his break when an associate retired and the wars of the gangsters of the south side and north side did happen. The film, as is common with gangster films of a similar date, is narrated by a police officer who supplies the moral vision that the Capone character lacks and a kind of ironic wit, commenting knowingly on the end to which Capone is sure to come. The film's accuracy influenced the portrait of Capone as performed by Steiger- he based his portrait on reading newspaper articles and books about the gangster- by attempting to ask the question what did Capone want, and attempting the answer through his performance.

And what a performance? The point of this film is the performance by Mr Steiger. All the other characters throw themselves onto and off Mr Capone and express various attributes of him or his life. Ultimately he is the centre of the film- the heart of darkness in the modern urban landscape and that darkness spreads, as the character Howard Hughes puts it in the film Nixon, to find the other darknesses. Steiger's Capone is charismatic- when he is on the screen he seems physically bigger than any other character- his vast flabby face fills the screen with a coarse jocularity and careful intelligence. His muscled stomach and arms are instruments that he manipulates with bravery and thuggery, without scruple or hesitation from the first moment he dives upon the task at hand- whether it is bloodying a rival and filling his face with sand or constructing (that ultimate metaphor of gangster movies) a criminal business in Chicago.

But what is it all about, what is it all for? Mr Steiger's performance is powerful but what is its point. When we consider Capone I think we need to consider a couple of things. Firstly Steiger's Capone is a man who likes the good things of life- he likes opera, beautiful women and power. He likes to give orders, likes to give them in style. Secondly he is loyal- ultimately this is a man whose loyalty to his boss is paramount and, though he is willing to councel disloyalty, he himself is not disloyal to his life long patron. Thirdly he desires to be somebody- it is not nothing to say that Capone in the film is a man with desires to be admired, to be seen to be someone. Steiger's performance also plays off what is effective about Capone- he is craftier and cleverer than the gangsters he opposes, the cheerful O'Banion, the morose Malone, those who wish to give up, those who don't wish to even start in the business. In a sense he exploits a world in which the costs of gangsterism have risen but also the gains have risen: he brings brutality and reward to that kind of life.

The film is clearly a film of condemnation- Capone is condemned. And because of that it cannot show us too much of his charisma- but it works in that it offers a brief view of the personal tyranny of the super gangster- the tyranny that turns Sejanus into Tiberius, Capone from the whisperer beside the throne into the man upon it. The fact that Capone cannot stay on that throne disproves Andrew Marvell- the same arts that gained it are not those that maintain it- but the argument of the film is about the unstable world of the new corporate crime. As everyone battles to the top, literally, and the world looks increasingly like a baronial court in the French middle ages, a man like Capone is the ultimate success and the ultimate failure. He rises so high that he illustrates how low he can fall.


James Higham said...

It took a man of equal ego in Eliot Ness to help in nailing him.