Mar 21, 2011

Capone (1975)
Director: Steve Carver
Writers: Howard Browne
Starring: Ben Gazzara, Susan Blakely and Sylvester Stallone

The Plot: Al Capone (Ben Gazzara) begins our film as a petty hoodlum who manages to finally catch the eye of mob boss Frankie Yale (John Cassavetes) and his right hand man Johnny Torrio (Harry Guardino), and begins to sneak his way into the organization. When he is given the opportunity to wipe out the boss by Johnny Torrio, Capone finally steps into the role of a kingpin and begins to muscle his way into the Chicago underworld. His biggest enemy however is Hymie Weiss, and the two gangs begin to clash almost immediately. Capone begins to see Johnny Torrio as being weak when the boss doesn’t want to run head first into a gang war with Weiss, and thus Capone has his right hand man Frank Nitti (Sylvester Stallone) slip Weiss’ gang information on Torrio’s location and the boss is nearly killed. Torrio at this point decides to leave the gang and the blood thirsty Capone takes over the operation. Will anyone cool this savage or will his own love affair with violence bring his downfall?

The Review
The gangster genre has seen its ups and downs throughout generations past, but it still seems to be one of the most dramatic and successful of all film cycles. Here in America, where we make heroes out of our most notorious of criminals, it is especially popular. Although there have been many post-modern renditions of the gangster-mythos, there is still an underlying view that outlaws are somehow very alluring. With gangster films we allow ourselves to see a point of life that we would never attempt to experience personally. It is a cathartic vacation from the mundane, in a way that we know is entirely real. However, we as a society often take things to their extreme. This an unfortunately common thread for we Americans, and the thousands of Charles Manson posters that have adorned the walls of college dorm rooms across the country can certainly attest to this. Before the age of the serial killer, however, we had the big mob bosses, and one name that still stands in infamy is that of Alphonse Capone. A larger than life figure within the Chicago theater of crime, during the prohibition era, he has been presented in numerous film renditions throughout time but there are few films that deal primarily with him as a character and a human being. Capone, our film today, looked to do just that.

A film that has been woefully left in the past, Capone shows a distinct, post-The Godfather (1972), era in Hollywood moviemaking. Produced by the brilliant schlock-meister Roger Corman, Capone takes inspiration from every facet of crime-cinema up until that point and tries its best to amplify its intensity along the way. The Godfather inspired an endless amount of interest in the mafia, in a way that the relatively simplistic crime-movies of the fifties and sixties never managed to do. More than just a series of gangs fighting amidst each other, all of a sudden la cosa nostra was on the lips of the average American. The fact that this was a true business enterprise for those involved, and not just petty squabbling amongst criminals, finally took hold within the American consciousness. Capone, in that manner, is a more fully realized vision of Al Capone, but with an over the top quality that is purely the inspiration of Roger Corman’s New World Pictures.

Roger Corman, who had a cameo role in The Godfather Part II and who directed The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (1967), certainly has a history with mafia related cinema. Always the opportunist, Capone may have been an attempt to capitalize on the popularity of The Godfather, but it is far from a duplication or simple cash-in. A more violent and antagonistic film that Francis Ford Coppola’s film ever attempted to be, Capone comes across as a delightfully eccentric piece of work that looks to try new and very different things with genre conventions. Ultimately, it acts as a piece based around a single run-a-way character in the form of Al Capone, played by the brilliant Ben Gazzara. We are never told directly whether or not Al Capone is a man to root for or against, and the movie takes a daring stand in that respect. The actions of Capone and his brutal behavior makes him seem like a madman, but due to Gazzara’s intimidating performance, you can read into this role in various different ways.

Everything about this film screams Ben Gazzara. You can watch this movie with any set of eyes you want, but at the end of the day what makes the movie everything that it is, is: Ben Gazzara. With a once in a lifetime role, Gazzara takes it over the top and ends up stealing the show with every scene he has. Similar to dominating performances from the likes of Al Pacino in Scarface or Jack Nicholson in The Shining, Ben Gazzara ends up defining this film. A tremendous actor who would later go on to star in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, under the direction of his fellow Capone castmate John Cassevetes, Gazzara has always been an actor that could be called on for an intense and intimidating performance no matter what. Even with roles such as his in Road House, Gazzara was able to steal the thunder from most of the cast due his sheer booming presence. With the character of Al Capone, Gazzara has the perfect vehicle for delivering his grit and intensity. Although the performance could be criticized as being one-dimensional (as much as Al Pacino was in Scarface), the entire production ultimately rests on his shoulders and everything that this movie does right almost always boils down to him. A very young Sylvester Stallone also puts in a worthwhile effort as Al Capone’s right hand man Frank Nitti, and although he isn’t called on for a lot of the dramatic moments, he is good as the physical bodyguard with ulterior motives. Susan Blakely stars as Iris, Capone’s girl, who makes for one of the more interesting roles in the film. A beauty with a vulgar mouth, her love affair with Capone is one of the larger detriments of the film, but Blakely remains quite ensnaring in her role.

The Conclusion
The previously mentioned love affair between Iris and Capone is shoe-horned into the story unfortunately, and marks some of the most boring sequences within the movie. An easier way for the audience to connect with the psychotic Capone, these sequences often drag the pacing for the film down a considerable degree. Although I generally liked the character of Iris, I began to wish she would leave the film a whole lot sooner. Regardless of pacing issues or forced drama, Capone is actually a very well made crime film and a jewel in the rough. Released through Shout! Factory, it is a movie worth tracking down.