The Film: 3/5
Throughout the late 1960’s and most of the 1970’s legendary B-movie producer Roger Corman had a serious mad-on for Depression-era gangster flicks; during that period he brought movies like Bloody Mama, Big Bad Mama, Boxcar Bertha, The Lady in Red roaring to brutal, butt nekkid life on drive-in screens all across the U.S. of A. Then again Corman felt the same way about bikers, nurses, barbarians, car thieves, and intergalactic mercenaries. The man was nothing if not a tireless chronicler of cinema’s most downtrodden, and readily exploitable, minority groups. Although Corman was accustomed to running his own independent production and distribution companies such as New World Pictures and Concorde-New Horizons, he did on several rare occasions take on some big studio money for one of his more ambitious projects. In 1967 he directed The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre for 20th Century Fox and eight years he would return to Fox to explore similar territory in Capone, only this time Corman was mostly retired from directing. He ceded those duties to Steve Carver, who had previously made The Arena and Big Bad Mama for Corman’s company along with a few of Chuck Norris’ better flicks. With the studio backing Corman and Carver were able to lure a few name actors to the production as well as some rising young stars and notable character actors.
Capone naturally tells the story of the notorious Chicago crime lord Al “Scarface” Capone (Ben Gazzara) from his humble beginnings as a cop-beating thug in 1918 Brooklyn who gets in the good graces of New York gangster Frankie Yale (John Cassavetes, in a one scene cameo) and his Windy City associate Johnny Torrio (Harry Guardino). Torrio takes Capone back to Chicago and becomes his boss and mentor in the early days of Prohibition when mobsters were making a fortune from bootlegging booze that would make the 21st gangsters on Wall Street squandering taxpayer-funded bailout money on gold-plated dildos drop a deuce in their Underoos. Torrio runs a tight enough ship but his organization is facing a bloody war with their Irish competitors who come heavily armed with tommy guns and “faith and begorrah” accents. Capone gets a taste of power and wealth and is soon muscling Torrio out of the big dog chair and assuming command, bringing the pain to his rivals and reaping the rewards. He also occasionally enjoys a romance with flapper Iris Crawford (played by Susan Blakely and her bare breasts) but that’s hardly important to the story. The movie glosses over Capone’s rise and fall as the boss of bosses to the point where just as the movie seems to be ramping up for action it peters out with Capone going to court, spending some time in the clink (where he gets to rough up a few fellow cons), and wasting away his final days suffering from syphilis-induced dementia and fishing out of a swimming pool while rambling incoherently about “the Bolsheviks” (a scene filmed at Barbara Streisand’s estate at the time).
Capone is an enjoyable flick with some good performances and plenty of naked female skin, car chases, and red Crayola blood splatter to appease both the cultured cineaste and the bloodthirsty horndog in me for a little while, but I’m not surprised that there wasn’t a little more meat on it. Corman and Carver were never good at making substantial films destined to be feted by the Academy Awards and the National Board of Review; they make entertaining schlock and they never shy away from that fact, and bless their heart for having the balls to not only admit that but be damn proud of it too. I will admit that Capone is probably the best of the movies made based on the infamous gangster’s life, and I don’t count The Untouchables since it’s focused more on a particular area of Capone’s life nor either version of Scarface since those movies were only loosely based on him. Working from a script by the late Howard Browne, the writer behind Corman’s St. Valentine’s Day Massacre as well as a great deal of series television, Carver injects the proceedings with enough energy and style to keep the viewer from getting bored without going over the top. The cast does very well too despite the lack of substantial acting opportunities. Ben Gazzara is terrific as the fearsome Capone, despite often being hampered by dental appliances he wore in his cheeks that makes most of his dialogue sound muffled (a trick borrowed from Marlon Brandon’s performance as Don Corelone) but is never afraid to mix in a little vulnerability with his tough guy act. Susan Blakely’s performance rarely rises above the role of the level of expendable love interest but she is pretty to look at and never grates the nerves. Harry Guardino, best known for playing Clint Eastwood’s humorless superior in two of his Dirty Harry movies, does fine yet unexceptional work as Torrio. John Cassavetes’ presence lends some weight to his single moment on camera but his acting reeks of “favor for a friend”, not surprising given that Gazzara appeared in two of Cassavetes’ greatest films (Husbands and The Killing of a Chinese Bookie). The standout in the supporting cast is Sylvester Stallone, still an acting rookie but well on his way to Rocky at the time he appeared in this movie, as Capone’s right-hand man Frank Nitti. Stallone gives invests his potential one-note thug with a healthy amount of intelligence and steely nerve, which is fitting given that Nitti often has to act as Capone’s brain on several occasions during the movie. Familiar character actors like Martin Kove (Last House on the Left), John Chandler (Adventures in Babysitting), Peter Maloney (The Thing), Royal Dano (The Right Stuff), Carmen Argenziano (Broken Arrow), and longtime Corman fixture Dick Miller add texture and weight to their brief scenes as a variety of thugs, politicos, and other corrupt scumbags.
Shout! Factory’s anamorphic widescreen presentation looks pretty good for the most part but some brief, worn portions look out of place among what is otherwise a fine restoration. That’s probably because those frames were recycled from The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre to pad out the scene. The English 2.0 audio track comes through very well. No subtitles are provided.
Director Carver provides a fine audio commentary, moderated by Nathaniel Thompson, full of interesting production information and behind the scenes stories. Two theatrical trailers and two television spots for Capone and a theatrical trailer for The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre round out the package.
Capone is a pleasing enough low-budget gangster flick with enough quality acting and directorial panache to elevate it from its drive-in origins, although it’s never shy about wallowing in those tried and true exploitation tropes like bloody violence and female nudity. Not a great picture by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s good fun for the goombah in everyone.