The Cinematic Capone

We watch the new trailer for Josh Trank’s gangster epic and consider the various other Al Capones that have stalked the screen.
Capone Trailer Shot
Vertical Entertainment
By  · Published on April 23rd, 2020

Every day, our trust in the system weakens, and historical criminal figures like Al Capone gain more attraction. We may not reach for our guns, but our ability to empathize with their chosen lifestyle has increased. Peel back Tom Hardy‘s hairline, smash his face with a little latex, and jam his uncontainable persona atop the gangster’s frame and you’ve got yourself an irresistible proposition.

Not to mention, Capone is the return of Josh Trank after his brutal Fantastic Four affair and unceremonious ejection from the Boba Fett movie-not-to-be. As much as we love the tried and true rise and fall mob saga, we like an underdog story even better. Can the golden boy who gave us Chronicle return to his glory days? Trank’s comeback story begins with the trailer below.

Tom Hardy competes with a lot of actors who’ve worn Al Capone’s face. The first form the tyrant ever took on-screen was Paul Muni in Scarface. His name is never mentioned, but the Howard Hughes and Howard Hawks production was based on the 1929 Armitage Trail novel of the same name, which took its inspiration from the headlines Capone was dominating during prohibition. The real Capone wouldn’t be tried for tax evasion until 1931, and a year after he went behind bars, Hawks’ film was released in theaters.

By the time Brian De Palma reinvented Scarface in 1983, with help from screenwriter Oliver Stone and star Al Pacino, the film bore little resemblance to the crook who inspired the original. What remained was a performance screaming to the stratosphere, bending the line between recognizable emotion and caricature. It’s clearly a model Hardy happily adapts in his work and probably a big reason why he jumps at goons like Capone and the Kray twins (see Legend).

The Hays Code came into effect in 1930, but it wasn’t properly adopted by studios until 1934, giving Hawks his last opportunity to revel in depravity. For years, crime films following in the footsteps of the original Scarface and others of its ilk would have to be equipped with a serious finger-waving, making sure that no audience member left the theater with a lust for violence. The wicked were always punished.

While the ban on gangster biographies was lifted in 1950, from this mindset of just-deserts came the first, “authentic” biographical Capone flick in 1959. Rod Steiger turned down Al Capone three times before finally accepting the title character. He demanded rewrites that depicted a truly heinous end for the gangster, not only eleven years behind bars in Alcatraz, but also the condemnation of his lifestyle by his beloved moll Maureen (Fay Spain).

In 1975, director Steve Carver and star Ben Gazzara would take the damnation even further with Capone. The Hays Code was long dead, and producer Roger Corman was free to drag his antihero to deplorable depths never thought possible by past incarnations. However, just because Corman could happily titillate with unprecedented sex and violence (that’s where the money resides), he couldn’t escape the expected moral judgment.

Their Capone saw jail time (check) and contracted syphilis (oh no) with the promise of mental deterioration (yikes). When the prison doctor gives Al the bad news, he erupts in a rage, and the anger sweeps over the compound in the form of a hellish riot. The movie jumps ahead to 1946 and concludes with Capone out of prison but on the brink of insanity. He doesn’t recognize anyone around him, trapped in a past filled with hate and blood. This monster is utterly pathetic.

Capone as a captivating punching bag worked as the basis for the television series The Untouchables, which ran from 1957 to 1963. Based loosely on the memoir of Elliot Ness, the Department of Treasury agent cited for eventually bringing Capone to justice through his taxes, the show quickly put Al in his cell before spinning out into other fictional, episodic righteous pursuits. Square-jawed heroism always trumps balding dirtbags.

In 1987, De Palma returned to the world of Capone with his feature adaptation of The Untouchables. The film acts like a blockbuster version of the cops and robbers games many of us played in our yards as children. There are good guys (Kevin Costner, Sean Connery, Andy García), and there are bad guys (Robert De Niro, Billy Drago). As Capone, De Niro climbs nearly as high as Pacino does in Scarface. He’s a cigar-chomping, violent behemoth who finds his joy in bashing brains with baseball bats.

Not satisfied with having to stick to the truth and place Capone in a comfy jail cell, De Palma’s Elliot Ness at least gets his vengeful rocks off by chucking Capone’s right-hand henchman Frank Nitti from the roof of the courthouse. When it comes to truth, Capone must go to prison, but reality doesn’t matter for the less-famous Nitti, who actually killed himself a decade later when he was facing extortion charges (which involved many Hollywood film studios, including Paramount, the company behind The Untouchables).

Looking at the trailer for Josh Trank’s Capone, it appears that we’ll be spending plenty of time with the decrepit gangster as portrayed by Gazzara in 1975 with flashback sprinkles featuring a stogie-smashing demon once celebrated by De Niro. Hardy is standing on the backs of titans. He’s taking what they did with Capone and infusing the character with his special brand of exaggerated machismo.

Most importantly, his end is in sight, and we will gather to shake our fingers at a life spoiled by greed. Capone and crime sagas like it, give us ease for the life we’ve chosen. Following the rules is the way to go.

Crime doesn’t pay. That’s what mom and dad say, but it sure does look compelling during the first half of the movie. We keep returning to the gangster’s tale, reveling in their taboo-shattering behavior as they climb to the top via a staircase of corpses, and barely paying attention as they tumble down the other side and straight into jail or the grave.

When you praise Goodfellas, how often do you think about Henry Hill and his damnation by RAGÚ spaghetti sauce? The final shot is never the first scene to spring to mind. You’re too busy relishing Joe Pesci’s terrifying question of “Am I a clown?” No judgment, it’s brilliant.

What’s most fascinating about this latest Capone installment is how it seemingly embraces the inevitable destruction of these gangland characters. By beginning at the end, Al Capone’s doom hangs over everything. There is no will he/won’t he suspense. He’s done before he even starts. We sit comfortably and bear witness.

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Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)