The Mafia. The Mob. La Cosa Nostra. Organized crime. The Roaring ’20s. Tommy guns. Speakeasy saloons. The Chicago Outfit. The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.
Mention any one and/or any combination of these elements and what comes to mind first and foremost is one name and one name (plus a famous nickname) only: Alphonse “Scarface” Capone.
The Windy City’s bombastic, frighteningly charismatic gangster overlord always looked sharp in his tailored silk suits and diamond pinky rings, running every major vice racket in the Midwest, and never more so than when he took to cutting down enemies — oftentimes, literally.
As such, few real-life sartorial supervillains lent themselves more naturally to cinematic glory to Capone. Here are seven of the most vivid depictions.
EDWARD G. ROBINSON in LITTLE CAESAR (1931)
So much of what we think of in terms of gangster movies, gangsters themselves and, in fact, the actual Al Capone arose from Edward G. Robinson’s sneering, snarling, cigar-puffing bravura performance in Little Caesar as Capone stand-in Enrico “Rico” Bandello.
As an early “talking picture,” the mighty Little Caesar’s primitive aspects only compound its power, and virtually every time Robinson appears on-screen the movie just explodes.
PAUL MUNI in SCARFACE (1932)
Even in Scarface, the first semi-official big-screen depiction of Al Capone, the main character’s name is changed to Antonio “Tony” Camonte. There’s no mistaking who Paul Muni is channeling, though, in every nuance of his electrifying performance. Similarly astonishing is George Raft as coin-flipping hitman Guino Rinaldo; from here, Raft would rule as one of Hollywood’s definitive go-to mob thugs.
Director Brian De Palma famously remade Scarface in 1983 with Al Pacino, and updated the setting to the Cuban crime scene of Miami. Many of that film’s most familiar elements come from director Howard Hawk’s original though, including Tony’s uncomfortable excess of affection for his sister, and electric billboard buzzing the ironic message: “The World Is Yours.”
ROD STEIGER in AL CAPONE (1959)
Burly, volcanic Rod Steiger makes for a nasty, palpably unsavory Scarface in director Richard Wilson’s almost documentary-like approach to the familiar story that highlights how despicable these criminals could be.
In fact, without Steiger, the movie might have been quite the opposite. He said, “I turned the picture down three times,” objecting to the original script’s supposed “romanticizing” of Capone and glorifying of the gangster lifestyle. Fortunately, producers knew Steiger was the right actor for the lead, and agreed to a more downbeat rewrite.
NEVILLE BRAND in TV’S THE UNTOUCHABLES (1959-63)
Produced by Desi Arnaz and starring Robert Stack as real-life gang-busting Prohibition agent Elliot Ness, The Untouchables ignited TV’s first Golden Age with pure gangland dynamite. One key spark in it all was Neville Brand as Ness’s arch-nemesis, the brooding, brutal Al Capone.
While wildly popular, The Untouchables also kicked off some major controversies.
First, moral watchdogs took issue with the show’s shocking violence and unusually frank acknowledgment of what actually went on in Capone’s brothels and backroom vice rackets.
Secondly, Italian-American groups organized to protest the show’s depiction of criminals with vowels at the end of their last names as singularly insane and animalistic — along with the fact that no positive Italian-Americans existed on the series.
Desi Arnaz, himself a Cuban immigrant, acknowledged the issue and took action. The show created Italian-American G-man character Rico Rossi (Nicholas Georgiade) and agreed to depict other Italian-American police officers and government officials in a positive light. Even better: The awesome violence and seamy atmospheres remained until the series’ end.
BEN GAZZARRA in CAPONE (1975)
Legendary New York thespian Ben Gazzarra pulls out all the stops and goes enjoyably way, way over the top in the very bloody, very profane, very sexually explicit and, as such, very mid-1970s Capone.
Gazarra delivers every line here like he’s machine-gunning an rival crime boss’s poker game. John Cassavetes, Gazzarra’s real-life best friend and longtime collaborator, similarly tears up his screen time as Capone’s original boss Frankie Yale.
Newcomer Sylvester Stallone also makes a deep impact as Frank “The Enforcer” Nitti. Later on, Stallone noted, “I particularly enjoyed working on Capone, because it was like the cheesy, mentally challenged, inbred cousin of The Godfather.”
ROBERT DE NIRO in THE UNTOUCHABLES (1987)
Just as Brian De Palma remade the 1932 Scarface as a grand, operatic symphony of ’80s cinematic overwhelm, he also did the same for the old Untouchables TV series.
Adapted from a killer script by Chicago native David Mamet, The Untouchables launched the A-list careers of Kevin Costner as Elliot Ness and Andy Garcia as Rico Rossi, as well as earning a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for Sean Connery as Irish beat cop Jimmy Malone.
As Al Capone, the villain at the center of it all, Robert De Niro appears on screen only sporadically. Every time he does, though, it’s mesmerizing and, more often than not, horrifying. De Niro gained about 50 pounds for the part and he puts that extra heft into each and every moment.
STEPHEN GRAHAM in BOARDWALK EMPIRE (2010–2014)
HBO’s popular post-Sopranos gangster series Boardwalk Empire focused primarily on the Atlantic City booze-running and overall law-breaking of local politician Enoch “Nucky” Thompson (Steve Buscemi), who was based on the real-life New Jersey crime figure “Nucky” Johnson.
Stephen Graham as Al Capone is more of a supporting figure, but the illegal kingdoms of Chicago and the Jersey Shore prove to be intricately — and lethally — connected.
Interestingly, Graham’s Capone is the vicious killer we know the actual man to be, but the show also delved into Scarface’s more human and even humane side, particularly in regard to his deaf child, Sonny. In real life, Sonny Capone caught an infection at age seven that rendered him partially deaf, and only for a relatively short time. Nevertheless, Boardwalk Empire, which is a fictionalized version of the facts, uses that circumstance most effectively.
Main photos: Al Capone mug shot [Miami Police Department]