In this unusually accurate biography, small-time hood Al Capone comes to Chicago at the dawn of Prohibition to be the bodyguard of racketeer Johnny Torrio. Capone’s rise in Chicago gangdom is followed through murder, extortion, and political fraud. He becomes head of Chicago’s biggest “business,” but moves inexorably toward his downfall and ignominious end.
An eerily compelling Capone . . .
Many actors have portrayed Capone over the years. It’s virtually a “cottage industry,” guaranteeing that yet another Capone flick will hit the screens before the collective audience has quite recovered from its yawn at the last one. And yet, for me, no one has ever come quite so close to nailing the role as Rod Steiger in this 1959 black-and-white low-budget effort.
As a matter of fact, using the term “low-budget” does this film a disservice, calling to mind as it does the run-of-the-mill output of producer/distributor Allied Artists (usually on the scale of “Attack Of The 50-Foot Mummified Woman Meets Godzilla’s Teenage Werewolf Son”). For this film, however, the studio assembled a strong acting ensemble which includes Martin Balsam, Nehemiah Persoff, Murvyn Vye, and James Gregory, all of whom deliver standout performances.
Yet it’s Steiger whose performance holds this film together. His Capone is a monster whose mood swings defy the term “mercurial,” yet his psychopathy seems somehow strangely — disturbingly — human. You can sense the demons deep within him, and how they drive him, but you’re never allowed to glimpse them, not even momentarily, lest you lose sight of the fact that this man truly is a monster. Eerily compelling, even hypnotic (particularly as he woos — and wins! — the widow of a cop he’s previously murdered), Steiger invests his characterization with the bravura of the opera which the real-life Capone professed to admire. Alternately wheedling and bullying, bellicose and scheming, he assumes a larger-than-life mythos which resonates all the more uncomfortably due to a sense of plausibility, the feeling that such men do continue to exist among us.
The storyline itself is more or less factual, save for Gregory’s character (which isn’t even really a composite of any particular real-life law enforcement personnel), as well as a decision to re-name Balsam’s character rather than use the identity of the real-life Jake Lingle, upon whom the character is based. Certain incidents have been fictionalized as to the way they happened, but that’s to be expected in the interest of dramatic effect.
Overall, the film achieves an almost documentary effect. Steiger’s performance makes it a very chilling documentary, indeed.