Three portrayals of Capone: Rod Steiger, Stephen Graham and Robert De Niro
On Cinema

The mobster and the Method

Al Capone’s relationship with the movies goes back a long way, writes Christopher Silvester

Before embarking on his next Venom and Mad Max movies, the English actor Tom Hardy has found the time to portray the Prohibition-era gangster Al Capone, only this time it’s late Capone, post-Alcatraz, when he was living in retirement in Miami. Drooling, and demented, his face ravaged with syphilitic sores, and chomping on a carrot instead of a cigar, Hardy’s Capone is haunted by fever-dreams of guilt while his family look on aghast and an FBI surveillance team eavesdrops in the hope that he will reveal the whereabouts of a $10 million stash.

Hardy is drawn to intense characters and has played three iconic British criminals on screen: Michael Gordon Peterson, Britain’s most notorious prison inmate, who took the name of the movie star Charles Bronson, in Bronson (2009); and both Reggie and Ronnie Kray in Legend (2015). Unfortunately, the critical reaction to Capone (2020) has been dire. Hardy may look the part — he has Capone’s bulbous lower lip — but his make-up has the starring role, since the part, as written and directed by Josh Trank, is a dramatic cul-de-sac.

Al Capone’s relationship with the movies goes back a long way. He was the model for the ambitious Chicago gangster in Howard Hawks’s Scarface (1932), although his character was called Tony Camonte and played by the Jewish actor Paul Muni (born Frederich Meshilem Meier Weisenfreund). While Capone was on a visit to Los Angeles, Howard Hawks invited him to see the rushes of Scarface, and when Hawks visited Chicago Capone reciprocated by holding a party in his honour and presenting him with a miniature machine gun.

We had to wait until 1959’s Al Capone, directed by Richard Wilson, for the first attempt to depict the real gangster on screen, with Method actor Rod Steiger in a chilling performance. Wilson had been Orson Welles’s assistant on Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, but none of his mentor’s stylistic flourishes rubbed off on him. He was also associate producer of Welles’s Macbeth, which may explain the portrayal of Capone as a Shakespearian tragic hero. Wilson’s film follows Capone to Alcatraz, but not to Miami.

Neville Brand played Capone with an Elvis-like profusion of hair and an Italian accent in The Scarface Mob (1959), a made-for-TV movie about Treasury agent Eliot Ness’s war against vice in Chicago. At one point Brand’s Capone smashes a bottle down on a table in front of his underlings and utters the line, “And thatsa whatsa gonna happen ta Ness!” This movie was the pilot for the TV series The Untouchables, which ran to 119 episodes between 1959 and 1963.

The real Capone was a ruthless gangster, but also a dandyish showman, and even witty

Next up was Jason Robards in The St Valentine’s Day Massacre (1967), which was directed by Roger Corman, master of the low-budget exploitation pic. Corman had wanted Orson Welles to play the role, but he was already too obese by then, while Robards was cadaverous in comparison. It is from this source that Martin Scorsese filched the device he used so well in last year’s The Irishman, whereby a gangland figure’s ultimate fate is spelt out as he first appears on screen, although here it is done by means of a stentorian voiceover rather than the visual text Scorsese used. The day of the notorious massacre itself is depicted in a suspenseful manner, including the narrow escape of its intended target, “Bugsy” Moran.

But Capone’s character has no depth and Robards’s snarling performance seems more like a bad audition for the more complex, stand-out role of his career, as paranoid President Richard Monckton (a thinly-disguised Nixon) in one of the best TV drama series of the 1970s, Washington Behind Closed Doors.

Probably the worst Capone movie was Capone (1975), this time produced by Roger Corman and directed by Steve Carver, with an Italian-American cast. Ben Gazzara, another Method actor, plays Capone as a psychopath, with a young Sylvester Stallone as his right-hand man, Frank Nitti. The body count is dizzyingly high, and it is the first biopic to show Capone languishing in retirement in Miami. Historically inaccurate, since Stallone’s Nitti visits Capone in Florida in 1946 whereas the real Nitti had committed suicide in 1943, Capone nevertheless has one claim to fame, being the first Hollywood movie to contain a shot of female genitalia (a naked Susan Blakely as Capone’s fictional moll).

Stephen Graham was the first English actor to play Capone, this time with a Brooklyn accent, in the magnificent TV series, Boardwalk Empire (2010-14), his pent-up menace and feral capacity for violence balanced by his tenderness towards his deaf son.

The real Capone was a ruthless gangster, but also a dandyish showman, articulate, media-savvy, and even witty. “Public service is my motto,” he once said. “The country wanted booze and I organised it. Why should I be called a public enemy?” And on another occasion: “You accomplish more with a smile, a handshake and a gun than you do with just a smile and a handshake.” The actor who came closest to his true persona was Robert De Niro in Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables (1987), for which he received an Oscar nomination. It is a silken performance, even down to the silk underwear he wore for the role — supposedly Capone’s favourite brand. Now that’s Method acting for you.

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