Films that you probably haven’t seen and definitely shouldn’t #3: Capone (1975, dir. Steve Carver)

"Fails comprehensively as a biopic"

You spend all your time beating people?

–  I take Sundays off.

Capone is exactly the type of film that is bound to disappoint, a forgotten exploitation flick whose odd casting and shady synopsis immediately brings to your mind rapturous images of forbidden cinema as you’re going over the wacky DVD jacket. A bit like when you were a kid and some obnoxious friend managed to stay up late enough on a school night to catch Basic Instinct or Scarface on TV and fill you in the next day on the graphic details that become the building blocks of your fantasy, until a belated vision of the actual film, years later, destroys the deviant masterpiece you created in your mind.

Last week, out of boredom and nostalgia, I started browsing 50 Years of American Cinema by Bertrand Tavernier (Round Midnight anyone?) and Jean-Pierre Courdoson, an absolute classic of francophone film literature and also my personal movie bible (sadly never translated into English). At the entry for the year 1975, my eyes were caught by the following description: Roger Corman manages to gather an interesting ensemble cast for his take on Capone: Ben Gazzara in the title role, John Cassavetes as Frankie Yale and a fresh-faced Sylvester Stallone as Frank Nitti.

What the fuck? How had I not heard of this before? Capone? Corman? Cassavetes? Stallone?!

Immediately, I started daydreaming, imagining a nonchalant, pre-David Chase take on the dullness of suburban thugism, floating fragments of drunken improvisation in true Noo Yawk tawk interrupted at carefully calculated intervals by the mandatory pear-shaped seventies tits and litres of fake bright-red blood that Corman required to guarantee the financing of his projects. Put simply, I saw Husbands with guns starring Rocky in the supporting role of the vicious enforcer; I pictured Ben Gazzara swaggering in leftover sets from The Godfather Part II in a tasty slice of exploitation cinema; I even dared to think I’d “discovered” an unfairly shelved Bloody Mama.

A quick look on Amazon informed me that it’s been reissued on DVD recently, and a week later so began my viewing of Capone, directed by Steve Carver; Carver who, instead of joining the rank of the New Hollywood royalty like his fellow alumni from the Roger Corman school (Scorsese, F.F. Coppola, Dennis Hopper, James Cameron, etc) went on to direct such gems as An Eye For An Eye with Chuck Norris. Remember the advice of Cassavetes (yes, that hypocrite again) to Scorsese after a screening of Boxcar Bertha, his only contribution to the Roger Corman’s catalogue? “Congratulations! You’ve spent a year of your life making shit!”. Well it appears no one was there to tell Carver…

The misleading VHS sleeve

So, how bad is Capone? Well, quite terrible, but not bad enough at the same time. Let me explain.

“After 45 years, the true story will be told!” promises the tagline. Hmm, I don’t know which story they were talking about, but Al Capone’s it ain’t. The film is so historically inaccurate that it makes De Palma’s The Untouchables look like an academic thesis in American Studies. To make things worse, Carver is completely ignorant of the rise-and-fall narrative convention that is the backbone of any gangster epic worth its salt. Where does Alphonso come from? How did he rise so fast? What caused the scars? Nobody seems to give a shit. In the first scene, the mafia top honchos call a greying Gazzara, easily in his forties, “kid” – that’ll suffice as an origin story, and if you’re not happy here’s some boobs! Look out, a machine gun!

Screenwriting was never the forte of Corman’s movies anyway. He would put half-baked concepts in production like he would tie his shoes, always rushing in to surf on the success of the latest box office hit – in this instance, quite clearly, The Godfather saga. Taking the time to write dialogue and a three-act structure would be a waste of time and money. Therefore, Capone fails comprehensively as a biopic – that was to be expected.

As a gangster flick, it fares no better. Carver fails to understand what makes mob fans tick: the tasteless bling, the lavish lifestyle, the “I’m just breaking baaaaaalls” banter, the impromptu bursts of violence. At some point, Capone seems to consist entirely of a succession of badly choreographed drive-by shootings and corny slo-mo. Sigh.

Moving on to the oddball cast, Ben Gazzara plays the mythic mobster with the same OTT approach favoured by Robert De Niro a decade later – arched eyebrow, big cigar in the corner of the mouth, bouncing shoulders, flashy dressing gown and loud “heeeeey, caaaaam’ooooon”s to punctuate every single utterance. John Cassavetes, the pope of American indie, appears half-heartedly in only ONE scene at the start (misleading advertising has always been the preferred marketing strategy of B-movies) and Sylvester Stallone is bafflingly miscast as a cool-headed, Machiavellian gangster (I shit you not), the brains rather than the muscle, lecturing the audience in the epilogue about the evil of violence (“Capone was stoopid yaknow, just killing people yaknow.”) Talk about a disappointment, and I was lucky enough not to see the fantastically fallacious VHS sleeve prior to researching this (Sly doesn’t fire a gun once in the film). So, if you’re looking for some snarky laughs at the WTF? assemblage of future stars and struggling auteurs in their starving years, Capone is kind of a let-down too. No one is downright awful, though you can almost hear the rumbling of the actors’ ravenous stomachs.

As with most exploitation films, however, its redeeming qualities are to be found in its inherent, dated cheapness. The vintage red fades, the Californian hills in the background of downtown Chicago, the gratuitous nudity (again), the glaring insertion of stock shots from an even worse-looking movie (The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre), the more-than-decent retro car chases (that’s probably where most of the micro-budget went), the ill-advised attempt at a stylish, dark photography, Coppola-style, during the sit-down scenes and a couple of off-colour improvised lines to be caught here and there. Capone’s blatant flaws are actually quite charming, but that hardly makes it essential viewing, even in a cheeky, postmodern way.

GG

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