[Originally published in Movietone News 46, December 1975]
While the gangster genre has its fair share of anti-heroes portrayed as psychotic delinquent types (perhaps a fair working definition of the cinematic hood), and while those types help define an aspect of the genre, they certainly aren’t confined to the set boundaries of its form and indeed have indicated new directions for movies that deal with organized crime and the people whose lives revolve around it. Not too surprisingly, then, Corman’s (and Carver’s) Capone is loosely related to Coppola’s Don Corleone (Gazzara even stuffs his jowls with padding), but he might, in conception at least, bear a closer resemblance to Scorsese’s Johnny Boy in Mean Streets—a “gangster” story that shares the traditionally mythic elements inherent in the genre while managing its own very personal working-out of the meanings of both violence and friendship. That Johnny Boy is comparatively peripheral in Mean Streets may suggest the uniqueness of Scorsese’s film in its relationship to movies in which the alienated hood stands in a position to manipulate perspective by ensconcing himself at the metaphysical core of his cinematic universe, but Johnny Boy’s gangland genealogy traces back in a psychologically straight line to Hawks’ Tony Camonte, and there is little doubt that Corman, Carver, and screenwriter Browne at least had Scarface in mind during the making of Capone.
Aside from character attributes (it’s hard and maybe just foolish to make a case for larceny in the realm of characterization), there is at least one fairly specific steal from Hawks. Early in the film, Carver engineers a long tracking shot that follows a mob leader through an almost empty cabaret where a lone clarinet player is practicing; as at the beginning of Hawks’ film, the camera tails the man to a telephone: we hear the clarinet music echoing through the room, and a figure (Capone) is barely glimpsed in a mirror. then appears back-to-camera and shoots the guy. The reference may be wishfully obvious, but it’s just as obvious that the shot in Capone is just a shot—a rather nicely choreographed one—without a foundation of Hawksian existentialism to rest upon; no door opens onto a cinematic universe predicated on the ideas of both human mortality and the parallel vulnerability of prolonged takes. Where both Hawks and Scorsese successfully invoke the tragic in their protagonists, Corman’s Capone, for all his mouthing off about immortality à la Scarface, lacks any metaphysical dimension that might place his life in a context of noir fatality.
Of course, Ben Gazzara is no Robert DeNiro, but that’s only part of the problem. In Godfather II the metaphors of generation and decline provided the cohesive stuff which allowed Coppola to mix the epic and the intimate and come up with a film that was still dramatically and narratively solid. In Capone, that larger, all-embracing context which encompasses and fulfills the story of the Corleones is reduced to a feeble sense of temporal unity couched in platitudinous references to usurpation and fear. Johnny (Capone’s boss) tells the story about coming up from poverty and a young Alphonse takes careful note; later he tells Capone that he (Johnny) doesn’t have the stomach for killing. Capone subsequently shoves Johnny out of place. then is shoved out by his righthand man (both use tricks to win confidence and then backstab their mentors); the movie ends miles from the center of the dramatically pertinent episodes of the Capone story with a crazed, syphilitic Capone yelling at invisible Commies from the edge of a swimming pool, but the theme is brought obediently to its conclusion: Capone’s successor relates the parable of power to his righthand man, but is apparently oblivious to any bearing it might have on their relationship.
Corman and Carver allow incidents separated by years to take form as a dramatic unit, but their approach, stepping easily through time from one date to the next, lacks any epic sweep. The temporal ellipses merely underscore a narrative weakness instead of suggesting tangential planes of implication. Carver’s glue is more that of the attention-grabbing cut whose frequent irony makes light of the interplay between violence and complacency, between the unacceptable bloodbaths the characters perpetrate and their familiar, workaday response to it. The result is an oddly humorous undertone: a sexual pun (not a very good one) precedes a cut to the waxen face of a dead man, a golf match is intercut with the machine-gun murder of a florist, hitmen develop a comic motif of inserting and removing cotton from their ears before and after doing a job (like brushing one’s teeth before and after meals), and a sleight of hand that shouldn’t really work in anybody’s movie almost comes off in Capone: a gun runs out of bullets at a crucial moment, before a thug can finish off Johnny, bringing Capone’s power play to its doublecrossing culmination and leaving Alphonse in control of the city. Sure it’s hard to swallow, but there’s been just enough interplay between genre-conscious comedy and straight-faced violence to incorporate that bit of incredibility into a pervasive tone of tongue-in-cheek. That’s not to imply that any sort of selfconscious genre renovation is going on, but Capone‘s quirky sense of humor must derive from some sort of guiding awareness, even if that awareness does little to modify our way of .looking at gangster movies or at movie gangsters.
Direction: Steve Carver. Screenplay: Howard Browne. Cinematography: Vilis Lapnieks. Editing: Richard C. Meyer. Music: David Grisman. Production: Roger Corman.
The players: Ben Gazzara, Harry Guardino, Susan Blakely, Sylvester Stallone.
Copyright © 1975 Rick Hermann