There’s no place quite like Chicago. I grew up there…it’s “my kind of town.” One of my favorite things about Chicago is our unique crop of local celebrities. Personalities like Harry Caray, Bozo the Clown, The Empire Carpet Man…but, of course, the one everyone knows, all over the world, is Al Capone. The notorious gangster has been played on film many times, but one of the best performances came courtesy of the young Rod Steiger in 1959’s “Al Capone.”
The film tells the story of Capone’s rise to power in Chicago, all the way up to his incarceration in Alcatraz on tax evasion charges. Now, while I grew up in the Chicago area, that doesn’t make me automatic expert on Capone. While I’m sure the film does simplify many things, many seem to regard the film as being fairly accurate.
The film begins with Capone’s arrival in Chicago to work as a bodyguard for his friend, mobster Johnny Torrio (Nehemiah Persoff). The side of town Torrio operates in is controlled by “Big Jim” Colosimo (Joe DeSantis). With the arrival of prohibition, Torrio and Capone find ways to exploit the situation. Soon, Capone begins to think that eliminating “Big Jim” would be to everyone’s advantage. He spearheads an operation to assassinate Colosimo, which also results in the death of one of Colosimo’s servants. Torrio ends up racked with guilt, while Capone starts to put the moves on the deceased servant’s widow (Fay Spain).
Just like the rivalry between the Cubs and the White Sox, there is a north side / south side battle between the mobs. Capone and his gang in the south and Dini O’Bannon (Robert Gist) and Bugs Moran (Murvyn Vye) on the north side. The two sides are constantly battling. After an attempt on Torrio’s life, he decides to quietly exit the business, leaving Capone as king.
Capone soon starts a protection racket, getting a piece of every legitimate business in Chicago he can. He’s got the politicians in his pocket, and even has a crooked newspaper man (Martin Balsam) on the payroll to provide him with information. Even when he’s asked to leave town for a few months so his politician buddies can conduct their reelections, Capone orchestrates his “business” from Florida…including the planning of the famous St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. In the end, the straight-laced Sgt. Schaefer (James Gregory) leads the charge that gets Capone his day in court.
To try and cram Capone’s entire rise and fall into an hour and 45 minute film is quite and undertaking. It would’ve been easy for the film to become confusing and bogged down with too many characters. The filmmakers did a great job of making the story clear and giving the audience a good understanding of who Capone was. Stylistically, there are many interesting aspects of the film. The lighting, especially, sets a great tone and really brings you into the whole gangster world.
Of course, the highlight of the film is Steiger’s performance. I can’t say that I’ve seen tons of Steiger’s films, but I think every role I’ve ever seen him in involved him spending a large portion of the film angry. He is the ultimate “angry actor,” which makes him born to play Capone. There are moments where Steiger’s Capone is cool and calculating and others where he is an absolute bottle of rage. It’s a pretty scary performance. Some have accused Steiger of being somewhat over-the-top in this role, and I can see where that comes from. But having grown up in the city where Capone’s shadow still lingers, this is the way I always imagined him being. Steiger plays him as a truly imposing figure who if I had happened upon while walking down the street, I would’ve found the nearest rock to hide under.
There are a few aspects of the film which stumble, most notably the romance between Capone and the widow of one of his early victims, but most of the film works as a great film noir and an intriguing portrait of a real-life monster.