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Savant has always been drawn to gangster films, and like many fans takes a special interest in seeing how different films made at different times treat the same historical events. I got started on this kick as an outgrowth of Jim Kitses' westerns class at UCLA, where we watched Jesse James and Co. develop as folk heroes from the 1930s to the 1970s. Chicago racketeer Alphonse Capone was enshrined as a bigger-than-life outlaw in the '30's classics Little Caesar (Edward G. Robinson) and Scarface (Paul Muni). He disappeared from screens when the Production Code forbade any representation of real gangsters by name, and didn't reappear until the late 1950s, with Al Capone (Rod Steiger) and the TV show The Untouchables (Neville Brand).
Roger Corman contributed a couple of gangster efforts of his own in the late 1950s (Machine-Gun Kelly and I, Mobster) but his 1967 The St. Valentine's Day Massacre (Jason Robards Jr.) offered an even more realistic version of the gang wars of the 1920s. In 1975 he produced another Al Capone movie, apparently hoping to ride the wake of the Godfather movies. The fast-paced screenplay is by Howard Browne, a prolific TV writer whose only theatrical credits beyond this movie are The St. Valentine's Day Massacre and a Dutch Shultz gangland bio, 1961's Portrait of a Mobster.
Released, like Massacre, by 20th Century Fox, the handsomely produced Capone can boast an interesting name cast; it was directed by Steve Carver, a promising talent in Roger Corman's stable who did not continue to a stellar career. Despite the fancy cast and the on-screen titles giving us exact dates for each violent murder, Capone is at heart an exploitation show. The dramatic scenes are just a higher grade of filler between machine-gun violence and the now-acceptable screen nudity.
The story begins when Al Capone (Ben Gazzara) moves to Chicago to work for Big Jim Colosimo (Frank Campanella) and Johnny Torrio (Harry Guardino). The city is already firmly under the corrupting influence of the mob. When Colosimo is deemed too slow to take advantage of Prohibition, Torrio and Capone push him out of the way and try to make peace with the other gangs. Mobsters Dion O'Banion (John Orchard) and Hymie Weiss (John Davis Chandler) are only the first of many to make trouble. Torrio uses Capone's preference for violence to good effect. With their lieutenant Frank Nitti (Sylvester Stallone), the mob bosses keep up the fight, but as the decade winds down the public gets fed up with the wholesale killing. Just as Capone betrayed so many others, some of his own men set him up for a fall.
Capone spans ten years of Chicago history, although we need those date titles to let us know -- the briskly paced show jumps from ambushes to killings to betrayals without much of a break. The production mostly looks good, although we recognize the Warner Bros. Main Street lot from over-use, and some of the action scenes reveal the Griffith Park Hills in the background of Chicago, between the buildings. Almost all of the Capone movies feature a famous drive-by shooting in which Al was forced to dive to the floor of an Italian restaurant as a line of cars fired machine guns through the front window. Corman recycles footage from Massacre to cover much of this scene -- it looks very grainy converted from 2:35 Panavision to 1:85 widescreen.
Capone is never dull despite a mechanical script that's content with presenting famous personages without examining them. Corman and Carver assemble a cast of pros that work well together and add spice whenever they can. Ben Gazzara isn't short and stout like Al Capone, but with some kind of appliances jammed into his mouth to make his cheeks fatter, he gives a decent impression of the famous gangster. He's also given a very effective scar makeup. Gazzara can definitely be intimidating, without overdoing the emotional yelling and screaming traditionally associated with the role. Harry Guardino is solid backup as Torrio, the only partner that worked with Capone without one of them betraying the other. Newcomer Sylvester Stallone is acceptable as the cool customer Frank Nitti, who gains Capone's trust by "saving" his boss from a car bomb that he himself planted just for that purpose. Capone used a similar trick to meet Colosimo -- he got the hood's attention by "rescuing" a pair of Colosimo's hoods, after first tipping off the cops to facilitate his heroism.
John Cassavetes shows up in one of the first scenes, momentarily giving the show an extra boost of class. Also making an impact are John Davis Chandler, the star of the friendless gangster movie Mad Dog Coll, and Corman's good luck charm actor Dick Miller, who plays a cop who lives to regret an attempt to shake down Capone.
The talented and apparently fearless Susan Blakely is Iris Crawford, Capone's main girlfriend. Although the historical Alphonse later died of the effects of syphilis (or so they say), we don't hear too much about his love life. The Iris Crawford subplot seems included as a break from shooting and yelling, and to inject a couple of fairly racy sex scenes. Gazzara and Blakely almost look too good together -- we just can't picture the real Scarface being such a gallant Romeo in bed. To its credit, Capone doesn't throw in topless gun molls every ten minutes; Corman was indeed aiming higher than some of his New World Big Bad Mama- type rural bandit T&A shows.
Leonard Maltin listed Capone as a BOMB but I think gangster film fans will find it more than entertaining enough. Director Carver gives the action scenes a hard edge, and the name actors are fun to watch as tough guys. Moviegoers with limited knowledge of gangland history will be intrigued to find out just how violent those years were in Chicago ... even if the body count in many of our modern-day cities is much higher.
Shout! Factory's DVD of Capone is an acceptable transfer of a film that was probably shot under pressing conditions. Most of the interiors look fine but a few inky alleys and dark streets get grainy or show digital artifacts. Whenever an optical is at work -- those day and date titles, for instance -- the grain gets pretty bad. David Grisman's music track comes across fine on the clear audio tracks. Ben Gazzara manages to make himself understood, even when mumbling, with his cheeks stuffed with the aforementioned makeup trick.
The main extra is a good commentary by Steve Carver, who talks about filming the show and working with the actors. When commentary host Nathaniel Thompson asks about his interest in gangster films, Carver prefers to call the movie an historical drama. I really wish that Thompson could have replied, "Oh, so your Big Bad Mama is a picture about women's emancipation?" But Carver remembers the film well and with Thompson's urging gives us plenty of interesting anecdotes from the set.
Shout! Factory has been releasing a bounty of Roger Corman titles from the 1970s, like a DVD of Joe Dante's exciting and funny Piranha. Capone is definitely one of the producer-director's more prestigious productions.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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T'was Ever Thus.