Archive for the 'CHICAGO MOVIES' Category

“Al Capone: The Movie”

Al Capone was a celebrity in his time.  Even when he was alive they were making movies about him.  Little Caesar came out in 1931, followed by the original Scarface a year later.

Of course, since Capone was still around, the name of the lead character was changed.  Much of the storyline was fiction, too.  The film-makers didn’t want to be sued—or suffer more direct retaliation.


By 1959 Big Al was long dead.  Allied Artists, a second-tier Hollywood studio, felt it was finally safe enough to tell it like it was.  The result was a film simply titled Al Capone.

The movie opens without credits.  The camera pans slowly through a crowded, smoky saloon.  The off-screen narrator introduces us to “the incredible era” just after the First World War.  “It began in 1919,” we are told.  “The story of the bitter, ten-year fight that was waged between the rich and booming city of Chicago, and a ruthless, cunning criminal . . .”

Suddenly, the words “AL CAPONE” flash over the scene.  The soundtrack explodes with a disjointed jazz tune.  And here comes Rod Steiger, wandering in as a young, seedy-looking Capone.  He’s just arrived from Brooklyn.  Johnny Torrio (Nehemiah Persoff) has brought him to town to work as a bodyguard and all-purpose thug.

Capone goes to work for Torrio

Capone goes to work for Torrio

Within a short time, Capone is arrested for beating up a patron.  That’s when we meet our narrator, an honest cop named Schaefer (James Gregory).  He wants to send Capone back to Brooklyn.  But somebody downtown has made a phone call to Schaefer’s boss, and Capone is released.

So Schaefer goes back to narrating.  Prohibition is coming, and there’s big money to be made in bootlegging.  Now we move into the saga of Capone’s rise to the top.  We see all the familiar events of Chicago gangland in the 1920s.  Most of them are presented accurately.

The most glaring exception is the killing of Hymie Weiss.  He was actually gunned down in front of Holy Name Cathedral, but perhaps the film-makers of 1959 thought this would offend the Catholic Church.  Their substitute scenario is more comic than sinister.

Al and his pals

Al and his pals

Any movie titled Al Capone is obviously going to be a guy-movie.  The studio probably figured the wives and girl friends who were dragged along to see it might get bored, so they introduce a romantic interest named Maureen (Fay Spain).  She’s the widow of an innocent bystander who gets killed during one of Capone’s operations.

Al is attracted to Maureen.  She finds herself attracted to Al’s sensitive side.  The two of them become a couple.  The movie suggests Maureen is his one true love.  Nothing is said about the real Capone’s wife and son.

The saga moves on.  We witness the St. Valentine’s Massacre and more history.  By now, Honest Schaefer has moved up in the police department.  He’s the leader of a combined task force which is out to nail Capone.

In the end, Schaefer gets his man.  The movie concludes with Big Al in Alcatraz.

Al and his gal

Al and his gal

Al Capone was filmed on a Hollywood sound stage.  That was common practice in 1959.  The audiences didn’t seem to mind, and the movie got good reviews.

Rod Steiger chews into his role with great gusto.  He shouts a lot, but can also quote Shakespeare, and sing a bit of Rigoletto.  Like most actors who’ve tackled the part, he’s a few years too old to play Capone—who was just 20 when he went to work for Johnny Torrio.

It’s interesting to watch Nehemiah Persoff as Torrio.  His acting is very low-key.  That same year of 1959 Persoff played another gang chief, Little Bonaparte in Some Like It Hot.  His performance there is way over the top.  But of course, that was a comedy.

In our own times, historic gangster movies are coming back into style.  We’ve had Boardwalk Empire for a few seasons, and a new Capone movie is supposed to be in development.  And yet, I’ll always have a soft spot for the 1959 Al Capone.

Hey Mr. Drysdale! Where's your wig?

Hey Mr. Drysdale! Where’s your wig?

I was 12 when the movie premiered.  One thing puzzled me.  In the story, Capone and his crew are exiled to Cicero when Chicago elects a reform mayor named Dever.  So if Capone was so bad, why did Chicago vote Dever out, and bring back Big Bill Thompson?

My grandfather was a precinct captain and knew politics, so I asked him about it.  “Dever was honest,” Grandpa told me.  “He just wasn’t a very good politician.”  As if, in Chicago, the two qualities are mutually-exclusive.

After that I began to read anything I could find on William E. Dever.  I eventually wrote my doctoral dissertation about him.  It was later published as a book titled The Mayor Who Cleaned Up Chicago.

But back to the film.  It turns up on Turner Classic Movies from time to time, or you can probably view it on Netflix, or borrow a copy from your public library.  It’s worth seeing at least once.

And in closing—Happy 96th Birthday, Nehemiah Persoff!



“Continental Divide”

John Belushi?  Romantic comedy?  That name and that phrase don’t go together.  Unless you take the trouble to watch Continental Divide.

In 1981 Belushi was enjoying his first successes as a movie headliner.  He’d been playing over-the-top, gonzo roles.  Now he was trying something different.  Continental Divide is a film in the Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn Opposites Attract style.


We open with an establishing shot of the lakefront.  Move into downtown, then to the old Sun-Times Building on the river off Wabash.  Now into the newsroom, where we meet columnist Ernie Souchak (Belushi).

Souchak is patterned after Chicago icon Mike Royko, then writing for the Sun-Times.  Royko had been a close friend of the Belushi family for years.  The actor called him “Uncle Mike.”

Everybody in town knows Souchak–even a couple of muggers, who apologize for robbing him.  And this being Chicago, there’s a crooked alderman named Yablonowitz (Val Avery).  Souchak is out to nail Yablonowitz.

Souchak at work

Souchak at work

A beating from the alderman’s thugs puts Souchak in the hospital.  The editor (Allen Goorwitz, aka Garfield) decides to get his star columnist out of harm’s way for awhile.  He sends Souchak to the Rocky Mountains to track down reclusive ornithologist Nell Porter (Blair Brown).

All this action has taken up 15 minutes.  The great middle of the film is about Souchak’s adventures as a fish-out-of-water in the Rockies.  (Okay, it’s a mixed metaphor, but you get the idea.)

At first, Ernie and Nell can’t stand each other–“I’d like to get this chick in a bowling alley,” he mutters at one point.  But we all know what’s going to happen to their relationship.  And the way it’s handled is funny and gentle and believable.

Souchak eventually goes back to Chicago.  He has his showdown with the alderman.  His romance with Nell is also resolved, in a way that looks forward to a possible sequel.

Definitely better than a bowling alley!

Definitely better than a bowling alley!

Continental Divide opened to mixed reviews.  The box office was reasonably strong, and that sequel became a possibility.  But six months after the premiere, Belushi was dead from a drug overdose.

As an actor, Belushi is no Spencer Tracy.  Yet he’s surprisingly good.  Problem is, he’s up against his own persona–he’s not delivering what we expect from Belushi.  If Richard Dreyfus had been cast as Souchak and had given the same caliber performance, the film would have been better received, and more fondly remembered.

The Chicago location filming is limited to downtown.  As always, it’s interesting to see what the city looked like at a particular moment in the past, and to think about how much it has changed.  I do suspect that most of the Rocky Mountain scenery still looks the same.

Watching Continental Divide years after its release, one critic said the movie gave him one more reason to wish John Belushi had taken better care of himself.  I feel the same way.