Capone on Screen
Even after committing 180,000 words to Al Capone (edited down to a mere 130,000) the son of a bitch still won’t leave me alone. In part this is because of his dismal, enduring charisma but also because Trump keeps reminding me of him. A great many actors have tried and, with few exceptions, failed to portray Al Capone. Most looked nothing like him, which shouldn’t matter that much except that one of Capone’s major assets was his menacing physicality. In some cases it was as if the producers figured any overweight actor who looked “ethnic” could play Capone. But these three actors were able to do him a kind of justice despite differences in age, build, and temperament.
Robert De Niro
The closest any actor has come to embodying the Al Capone of my imagination is, not surprisingly, the great Robert De Niro in Brian DePalma’s The Untouchables (1987). • Though the movie was a melodramatic distortion of Capone’s history with Eliot Ness, and De Niro was technically too old to play Capone in his twenties, he stepped into Capone’s skin so naturally, so authentically, that in a few short scenes he was able to convey Capone’s mixture of charisma, self justification, and animal brutality. He also had the benefit of David Mamet’s judicious drawing on Capone’s own words and tortured syntax. • His portrayal of Don Corleone derives brilliantly from Brando’s; and his subsequent criminal portrayals, ranging from Jimmy Conway in Goodfellas (1990) to Victor Tellegio in American Hustle (2013) (a role based on Vincent Aio but evoking, for me, Sam Giancana), have been nothing short of phenomenal. • Note: If the famous Untouchables scene with the baseball bat is based on anything, it is the 1929 execution of three Sicilian turncoats not long after the St. Valentines Day massacre. In other words, the real Al Capone may have splattered the brains of not just one of his boys at a roadhouse banquet table, but three, which would have been too much, I think, even for DePalma.
Edward G. Robinson
On a par with DeNiro is the amazing Edward G. Robinson, who, over the years, took several swings at the ball. His sneering, pipsqueak Rico in Little Caesar (1931) was a role undoubtedly inspired by Capone. Robinson was said to have attended Capone’s tax trial to prepare for this assignment, but it seems unlikely since the picture was released in 1931 and Capone was tried in October of the same year. • If Robinson did come to court, it must have been to prepare for his other Capone-inspired roles in Two Seconds (1932), The Little Giant (1933), Barbary Coast (1935), and Bullets or Ballots (1936). • In The Last Gangster (1937), his portrayal of Joe Krozac as a vicious, self-pitying narcissist represents a great leap forward in capturing Capone. Portions of the plot parallel Capone’s life with sometimes startling accuracy, and the production goes to some pains to be authentic, all the way down to its depiction of Capone’s trip to Alcatraz, complete with the prison cars riding across the bay on a barge, and his anguished visits with his wife and son. • But it’s in his portrayal of Johnny Rocco in Key Largo (1948) that Robinson finally masters Capone. Having developed by then into one of America’s finest actors, his soliloquies, delivered within the confines of a seaside inn besieged by a hurricane, are replete with pertinent references to Capone’s career. Somehow Robinson’s short stature — a hindrance in his previous portrayals — proves no handicap here.
As Nick Benko, the match-fixing crime boss in The Harder They Fall (1956), Rod Steiger came closer to capturing Capone than in his title role in Al Capone. (1959) For one thing, The Harder They Fall was a major production and the script was well written by Philip Jordan, working from a book by Budd Schulberg. • Steiger was a great method actor and always fascinating to watch. But his portrayal of Capone four years later was hampered by a poor script, a rushed production, and his own Germanic humorlessness as an actor. He captures Capone at his fiercest, at his most impatient and exasperated, but his portrayal lacks the merry, hail-fellow-well-met manner that made Capone all the more terrifying when he turned on you.