13 April 2003 | telegonus
Down Memory Lane
This 1959 picture is yet another cinematic retelling of the life of mobster Al Capone, and is better than most I've seen. Rod Steiger as Big Al seems miscast at first but wins me over in the end. Steiger was a born ham, but a fine actor for all his Methodish mannerisms, and has moments in the movie in which he's almost hypnotically effective. Yes, it's a performance, I kept on telling myself, but so was Capone himself. Over the top, perhaps, but Capone was himself more than a little touched, and Steiger nails this aspect of Capone to perfection, and is more effective in capturing the big guy's capriciousness than Robinson or Muni before him. Steiger's Capone isn't merely a gangster, he's a man possessed.
Director Richard Wilson's keeps this fairly modestly budgeted film moving at a fast pace, and it's never boring. In supporting roles, Fay Spain, Martin Balasm, James Gregory and Nehemiah Persoff are all effective. The black and white of this film evokes the late fifties more than the roaring twenties, and the movie at times feels a little like an episode of The Untouchables, at other times like Some Like It Hot. The Jazz Age was itself hot as the Eisenhower era was drawing to a close. F. Scott Fitzgerald's novels were coming back into vogue. O'Neill revivals on and off-Broadway were becoming commonplace. Al Capone captures this nostalgic mood, but really makes me nostalgic for the fifties more than for the twenties, for a time when fairly recent history could still be viewed as larger than life, the stuff of serious art and contemplation, not just fashionable nostalgia. Al Capone the movie is more nostalgia than serious art, but it touches on important issues, concerning violence, friendship, the role of government and the press as they pertain to and often collude with the criminal element, that still resonate today.