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Al Capone’s film legacy

“I think it’s a good social document. It shows how an unscrupulous man can prey on society.”

Capone Cries A Lot: One of the more contemplative moments in this otherwise batty film.
Capone Cries A Lot: One of the more contemplative moments in this otherwise batty film.

I have a hood on my back. No sooner do I finish Capone, Hollywood’s latest footnote to the legacy of the Prohibition-era crime lord, than our trustworthy friend Jon over at Rarefilmm.com posts what is easily the wildest, most reliably undependable conjuration of the notorious racketeer ever set to film. That led to two more variations on a theme by Scarface — and this week’s column.

Capone Cries A Lot (1985)

Umiemon (Kenichi Hagiwara) is a naniwa-bushi, a warbler of “sob stories.” Convinced that his brand of narrative singsong will blossom in the States, he and the missus (Yûko Tanaka), a sex worker with a bright future in brothel management, sail to San Francisco and arrange a meeting with Al Capone (Chuck Wilson), who, for reasons known only to himself, Umiemon thinks is the President. (Well, Capone was the President of the night, if not the United States.) If a broken line narrative is your opiate du jour — cutting off a song in mid-tune only to pick it up a few bars later, piercing virtually every scene with discomposing jump-cuts — meet your newest pusher, Seijun Suzuki (Tokyo Drifter, Branded to Kill). The hairstyles, sets, and costume design don’t come close to capturing the era; only in Suziki’s deep space surreality can a depression-era jazz band appear to share the same haberdasher as Kool and the Gang. An aggressively oddball, dazzlingly detailed showpiece that, not surprisingly, never made it to American screens. If one can get past the racial naivete that’s meant to reprove prejudice but instead acts to reinforce it, this is one of the damnedest things you’ll ever see.

Video:

Al Capone (1959) trailer

Al Capone (1959)

A resourceful low-budget rise-and-fall gangster saga; this was also the first Hollywood biopic to call out the mob boss by name. Prohibition was the best thing a gangster could ask for — what better sign that one’s arrived than a guy on the payroll whose job it is to hand over your next cigar? — and Rod Steiger the best bet to cast in the lead. Of all the actors to wear their top coat like a cape, thickset Steiger bore the closest physical resemblance. You can hear the sweat crackle like bacon grease across the Method actor’s brow as his tongue trips over every syllable of dialogue with all the delicacy of a seismograph needle in mid-quake. Years in the making, the ratings board wasn’t alone in voicing displeasure over the manner in which early versions of the script glamorized Capone’s lifestyle. Steiger stood equally steadfast; it took three rewrites before both parties agreed to sign off on the picture. Steiger later told the Chicago Tribune, “I think it’s a good social document. It shows how an unscrupulous man can prey on society.” Any hint of glamorization is quickly put to rest by Fay Spain’s performance as Capone’s fictionalized girlfriend. (Most biopics gloss over Capone’s family life.) Spain’s blood-curdling realization of betrayal at her lover’s hands catapults the film in the direction of tragedy. Once Capone is sentenced to 10 years for tax evasion, the picture shuts down; Capone’s later life and his death from an “incurable disease” is hurriedly dispatched. Directed with steadfast efficiency by Richard Wilson, a filmmaker who began his career as a radio actor for Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre. (The two remained friends and loyal confidants up until Welles’ death.) Some of the reporters seen questioning Capone in the film were actual newspaper columnists: it was the custom of the day for ambitious “B-plus” studios (in this case, Allied Artists) to give members of the press walk-on roles in exchange for coverage ad nauseam in their various outlets.

Video:

The Scarface Mob (1959)

The Scarface Mob (1959)

Eliot Ness (Robert Stack) gathers together a special squad of the bureau’s seven most irreproachable agents — forthright cops incapable of going on the take — to bring down the Capone syndicate. Originally presented as a two-part pilot of The Untouchables, produced for the Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse, the segments were combined for immediate worldwide theatrical distribution. (Not looking to go into direct competition with the series, the film didn’t hit American screens until 1962.) Producer Desi Arnaz was smart to hire Phil Karlson, one of Hollywood’s most active directors, who specialized in intricate film noirs (Kansas City Confidential, Hell’s Island, The Phenix City Story). From stills to breweries, from Frank Nitti to Jake Guzik, the Roaring Twenties mobster milieu is vividly brought to life. Al Capone (Neville Brand) spends the first hour or so of the picture in jail, serving 9 months for carrying concealed deadly weapons. Steiger’s reading of the character is far more relatable than Brand’s. At 5’ 10”, the greasy, pock-marked Brand brings far more brute menace to the role — if-a one can-a get-a past the Chico Marx dialect. Walter Winchell’s authenticity-enhancing narration, providing colorful backstory in addition to the precise times and locations the events took place, became one of the show’s staples. The cast is a veritable rogues gallery of misshapen mugs associated with the genre, starting with Sig Ruman as a cynical brewer who views Prohibition violation as a victimless crime. For the gals in the audience, there’s virginal Pat Crowley playing Ness’s rape-bait fiancee, while Barbara Nichols adds sizzle as a connected Burly-Q dancer who parades her every conquest past an eager-to-please slimeball of a husband (Joe Mantell). The fountain of bullet spray (and Nichols’ provocative striptease) makes one wonder how this material made it to television, let alone the big screen. The Scarface Mob is available on DVD as a stand-alone, or on The Untouchables — Season 1, Volume 1.

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Capone Cries A Lot: One of the more contemplative moments in this otherwise batty film.
Capone Cries A Lot: One of the more contemplative moments in this otherwise batty film.

I have a hood on my back. No sooner do I finish Capone, Hollywood’s latest footnote to the legacy of the Prohibition-era crime lord, than our trustworthy friend Jon over at Rarefilmm.com posts what is easily the wildest, most reliably undependable conjuration of the notorious racketeer ever set to film. That led to two more variations on a theme by Scarface — and this week’s column.

Capone Cries A Lot (1985)

Umiemon (Kenichi Hagiwara) is a naniwa-bushi, a warbler of “sob stories.” Convinced that his brand of narrative singsong will blossom in the States, he and the missus (Yûko Tanaka), a sex worker with a bright future in brothel management, sail to San Francisco and arrange a meeting with Al Capone (Chuck Wilson), who, for reasons known only to himself, Umiemon thinks is the President. (Well, Capone was the President of the night, if not the United States.) If a broken line narrative is your opiate du jour — cutting off a song in mid-tune only to pick it up a few bars later, piercing virtually every scene with discomposing jump-cuts — meet your newest pusher, Seijun Suzuki (Tokyo Drifter, Branded to Kill). The hairstyles, sets, and costume design don’t come close to capturing the era; only in Suziki’s deep space surreality can a depression-era jazz band appear to share the same haberdasher as Kool and the Gang. An aggressively oddball, dazzlingly detailed showpiece that, not surprisingly, never made it to American screens. If one can get past the racial naivete that’s meant to reprove prejudice but instead acts to reinforce it, this is one of the damnedest things you’ll ever see.

Video:

Al Capone (1959) trailer

Al Capone (1959)

A resourceful low-budget rise-and-fall gangster saga; this was also the first Hollywood biopic to call out the mob boss by name. Prohibition was the best thing a gangster could ask for — what better sign that one’s arrived than a guy on the payroll whose job it is to hand over your next cigar? — and Rod Steiger the best bet to cast in the lead. Of all the actors to wear their top coat like a cape, thickset Steiger bore the closest physical resemblance. You can hear the sweat crackle like bacon grease across the Method actor’s brow as his tongue trips over every syllable of dialogue with all the delicacy of a seismograph needle in mid-quake. Years in the making, the ratings board wasn’t alone in voicing displeasure over the manner in which early versions of the script glamorized Capone’s lifestyle. Steiger stood equally steadfast; it took three rewrites before both parties agreed to sign off on the picture. Steiger later told the Chicago Tribune, “I think it’s a good social document. It shows how an unscrupulous man can prey on society.” Any hint of glamorization is quickly put to rest by Fay Spain’s performance as Capone’s fictionalized girlfriend. (Most biopics gloss over Capone’s family life.) Spain’s blood-curdling realization of betrayal at her lover’s hands catapults the film in the direction of tragedy. Once Capone is sentenced to 10 years for tax evasion, the picture shuts down; Capone’s later life and his death from an “incurable disease” is hurriedly dispatched. Directed with steadfast efficiency by Richard Wilson, a filmmaker who began his career as a radio actor for Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre. (The two remained friends and loyal confidants up until Welles’ death.) Some of the reporters seen questioning Capone in the film were actual newspaper columnists: it was the custom of the day for ambitious “B-plus” studios (in this case, Allied Artists) to give members of the press walk-on roles in exchange for coverage ad nauseam in their various outlets.

Video:

The Scarface Mob (1959)

The Scarface Mob (1959)

Eliot Ness (Robert Stack) gathers together a special squad of the bureau’s seven most irreproachable agents — forthright cops incapable of going on the take — to bring down the Capone syndicate. Originally presented as a two-part pilot of The Untouchables, produced for the Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse, the segments were combined for immediate worldwide theatrical distribution. (Not looking to go into direct competition with the series, the film didn’t hit American screens until 1962.) Producer Desi Arnaz was smart to hire Phil Karlson, one of Hollywood’s most active directors, who specialized in intricate film noirs (Kansas City Confidential, Hell’s Island, The Phenix City Story). From stills to breweries, from Frank Nitti to Jake Guzik, the Roaring Twenties mobster milieu is vividly brought to life. Al Capone (Neville Brand) spends the first hour or so of the picture in jail, serving 9 months for carrying concealed deadly weapons. Steiger’s reading of the character is far more relatable than Brand’s. At 5’ 10”, the greasy, pock-marked Brand brings far more brute menace to the role — if-a one can-a get-a past the Chico Marx dialect. Walter Winchell’s authenticity-enhancing narration, providing colorful backstory in addition to the precise times and locations the events took place, became one of the show’s staples. The cast is a veritable rogues gallery of misshapen mugs associated with the genre, starting with Sig Ruman as a cynical brewer who views Prohibition violation as a victimless crime. For the gals in the audience, there’s virginal Pat Crowley playing Ness’s rape-bait fiancee, while Barbara Nichols adds sizzle as a connected Burly-Q dancer who parades her every conquest past an eager-to-please slimeball of a husband (Joe Mantell). The fountain of bullet spray (and Nichols’ provocative striptease) makes one wonder how this material made it to television, let alone the big screen. The Scarface Mob is available on DVD as a stand-alone, or on The Untouchables — Season 1, Volume 1.

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