The Best Al Capone Movies To Watch

by producer John Kelly, all opinions my own:

The era of American film production from the early sound era to the enforcement of the Hays Code in 1934 is denoted as Pre-Code Hollywood. The era contained violence and crime in pictures which would not be seen again until decades later. Although the Hays office had specifically recommended removing profanity, the drug trade, and prostitution from pictures, it had never officially recommended against depictions of violence in any form in the 1920s. State censor boards, however, created their own guidelines, and New York in particular developed a list of violent material which had to be removed for a picture to be shown in the state. Two main types of crime films were released during the period: the gangster picture and the prison film

*In an effort to gather all the movies, media, and T.V. about Al Capone, it was impossible to ignore the gangster genre as a whole:

Underworld (1927)

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Rotten Tomatoes: 87% 

"The film's influence on subsequent gangster films is indisputable" - TV Guide

Directed by: Josef von Sternberg.

Based on a story by Ben Hecht, a former Chicago crime reporter, and adapted for screenplay.

Paramount Pictures was initially cool towards the production, and predicted the film would fail. Ben Hecht tried to have his name taken off the writing credits, due to the dismal prospects for the film. He would later win an Academy Award for Best Original Story.

Contrary to studio expectations, the public response to the New York screening was so positive that Paramount arranged for round-the-clock showings at the Paramount Theatre to "accommodate the unexpected crowds that flocked to the attraction."

*THIS IS A SILENT FILM: Gangster 'Bull' Weed rehabilitates the down-and-out 'Rolls Royce' Wensel, a former lawyer who has fallen into alcoholism. The two become confidants, with Rolls Royce's intelligence aiding Weed's schemes, but complications arise when Rolls Royce falls for Weed's girlfriend 'Feathers' McCoy. (Great old-timey screen name)

Adding to Weed's troubles are attempts by a rival gangster, 'Buck' Mulligan, to muscle in on his territory. Their antagonism climaxes with Weed killing Mulligan and he is imprisoned, awaiting a death sentence. Rolls Royce devises an escape plan, but he and Feathers face a dilemma, wondering if they should elope together and leave Bull Weed to his fate.

Director Sternberg has been credited with "launching the gangster film genre." 

Critic Andrew Sarris: Underworld is "less a proto-gangster film than a pre-gangster film" in which the criminal world of the Prohibition Era provides a backdrop for a tragic tale of a "Byronic hero" destroyed, not by "the avenging forces of law and order" but by the eternal vicissitudes of "love, faith and falsehood."

Little Caesar (1931)

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Rotten Tomatoes: 91%, Audience Score: 75%

"Little Caesar achieves epic stature thanks to Edward G. Robinson's volcanic charisma, forging a template for the big-screen mobster archetype that's yet to be surpassed."

Directed by: Mervyn LeRoy

Written by: W.R. Burnett, who also wrote the 1929 novel. Considered the first of the classic American gangster movies

The character of Cesare Enrico Bandello is not, as widely believed, based on Al Capone. Instead, he is based on Salvatore "Sam" Cardinella, a violent Chicago gangster who operated in the early years of Prohibition.

Little Caesar is also known for its homoerotic subtext. From: Monday Movie Review

Gang member Otero (George E. Stone) gazes lovingly at Rico and gets into bed with him. Yes, indeed. Rico is laying down, Otero tells him how wonderful and tough and cool and fabulous he is, while laying down next to him. The next scene has Rico being fitted for a tux. He stands up on a table to see into the mirror, and Otero stands in front of him on the floor, so that his head is exactly in blowjob position. Otero grooms him while Rico preens.

The Public Enemy (1931)

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Directed by: William A. Wellman (who famously directed 'Wings,' the first film to win an Academy Award for Best Picture at the 1st Academy Awards ceremony. He also won the Academy Award for Best Story for his film: 'A Star Is Born.')

Quick aside on William A. Wellman: He joined the French Foreign Legion during WWI and was a fighter pilot. Wellman's combat experience culminated in three recorded "kills", along with five probables. He was ultimately shot down by German anti-aircraft fire in 1918. 

Jumping to 1927: Wellman was hired to direct 'Wings" - as he was the only director in Hollywood at the time who had combat pilot experience. The film is acclaimed for its technical prowess and realism, and became the yardstick against which future aviation films were measured, mainly because of its realistic air-combat sequences. 

The Public Enemy: Does not feature Al Capone, but the screenplay is based on an unpublished novel—'Beer and Blood', by John Bright and Kubec Glasmon—who had witnessed some of Al Capone's murderous gang rivalries in Chicago. 

James Cagney in The Public Enemy

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Scarface (1931)

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Rotten Tomatoes: 98% Audience Score: 86%

Directed by: Howard Hawks

Produced by: Howard Hughes (yes, that Howard Hughes) 

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Written by: Ben Hecht. (The same Ben Hecht who wrote Underworld.) - Based loosely on the 1929 novel by Armitage Trail (that's his actual name) which was inspired by Al Capone. - Seriously, this guys name was Armitage Trail:

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Howard Hughes wanted to make a film based on the life of gangster Al Capone superior to all other films in the genre. The names of characters and locations were changed only minimally. Capone became Tony Camonte, Torrio became Johnny Lovvo.

Writer Ben Hecht had met Capone and "knew a lot about Chicago." Capone sent two men to visit him in Hollywood to make sure the film was NOT based on Capone's life. Ben told them the Scarface character was a parody of numerous people, and that the title was chosen as it was "intriguing." Capone was imprisoned in Atlanta for tax evasion during the film's release.

As mentioned above, this is 1931, and is still considered "pre-code" era - however things were starting to change. This is known as one of the most censored films of all time. 

The Hays Office (enforcers of the code) were vehemently opposed to any kind of glamorization of crime and demanded criminals be punished or redeemed by the end of a movie. They wouldn’t have the power to censor movies for another two years, but the office had a specific vendetta against "Scarface." 

“Screw the Hays Office, make it as realistic, and grisly as possible,”  - Howard Hughes demanded. Some critics have named Scarface (1932) as the most incendiary pre-Code gangster film. 

Scarface provoked outrage mainly because of its violence, but also for its shifts of tone from serious to comedic. Dave Kehr, writing in the Chicago Reader, stated that the film blends "comedy and horror in a manner that suggests Chico Marx let loose with a live machine gun." If you don't immediately get this 1920's knee slapper:

Chico Marx was a vaudeville actor, known as a charming, crafty con artist

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Civic leaders became furious that gangsters like Capone were being applauded in movie houses all across America. 

One of the factors that made gangster pictures so subversive was that there already existed the viewpoint that the only way to achieve financial success was through crime. The Kansas City Times argued these films were: "misleading, contaminating, and often demoralizing to children and youth." Some cinema theater owners advertised gangster pictures irresponsibly, real-life murders were tied into promotions (what?!) and theater lobbies displayed Tommy guns. Studios had to ask exhibitors to tone down the gimmickry in their promotions.

Paul Muni As "Scarface" Tony Camonte 

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Baby Face Nelson (1957)

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Rotten Tomatoes: 56%

Directed by: Don Siegel

Written by: Daniel Mainwaring (Mainwaring also wrote Invasion Of The Bodysnatchers, 1956, directed by Siegel)

All-Star cast: Mickey Rooney (Lester M. 'Baby Face Nelson' Gillis), Carolyn Jones, Cedric Hardwicke, Leo Gordon (as John Dillinger), Anthony Caruso, Jack Elam and John Hoyt.

This is now post-code, and restrictions on depictions of gangsters had been lifted, which is why I included it. But apparently it stunk to high heaven. We could still use a good film on Baby Face Nelson, who became partners with John Dillinger, helping him escape from prison in Crown Point, Indiana. (shoutout Vibbs) I did always enjoy this one in 2009:

Did you know? Baby Face Nelson is played by actor Stephen Graham in Public Enemies. He would later portray Al Capone in HBO's Boardwalk Empire, and Anthony Provenzano in Martin Scorsese's: The Irishmen (2019)

When Baby Face Nelson (1957) was released, film critic Bosley Crowther panned the film writing: "Baby Face Nelson is a thoroughly standard, pointless and even old-fashioned gangster picture. The kind that began going out along with the old sedans."

Al Capone (1959)

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Rotten Tomatoes: 60%

Directed By: Richard Wilson

Written By: Malvin Wald, Henry F. Greenberg

"Rod Steiger plausibly portrays the late unlamented Chicago gang-lord in an interesting semi-fictional melodrama, corny in spots but no cornier than the Prohibition era it represents." - Clyde Gilmour

"The most comprehensive film portrait of the notorious racketeer and mob boss who literally ruled Chicago for years." - Sean Axmaker, TCM

From: The New York Times

"…it may seem a bit superfluous to have a brand new film about that character turn up on theatre screens, especially when the brand new movie doesn't come up with anything new. But there is this modest justification for Allied Artists' fresh "Al Capone": it has a strong documentary flavor and Rod Steiger is an odious skunk in the title role …"

Rod Steiger As Al Capone

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Al Capone's sister sued the filmmakers for $10 million for not securing permission to make the film. A judge ruled in the filmmakers' favor. Capone's sister, widow and son later sued the makers of 'The Untouchables (1987) for six million dollars and lost that suit too.

The St. Valentine's Day Massacre (1967)

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Rotten Tomatoes: 89% Audience Score: 65%

Directed by: Roger Corman

Written by: Howard Browne

The film stars Jason Robards as Al Capone:

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Robards went on to play Ben Bradlee in "All The President's Men," and Charles Wheeler in "Philadelphia." 

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Orson Welles originally was supposed to play Capone, but Fox vetoed the deal, fearing Welles would try to take over directing. 

A young Bruce Dern plays one of the victims of the massacre, and Jack Nicholson has a bit part as a gangster. Bruce Dern was awesome in "Nebraska" (2013), and once killed John Wayne in "Cowboy" (1972)

George Segal plays Peter Gusenberg, and was later nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? He is probably best known for his role as Jack Gallo on Just Shoot Me! (1997–2003) and as Albert "Pops" Solomon on The Goldbergs (2013–present).

The Saint Valentine's Day Massacre was the 1929 murder of seven members and associates of Chicago's North Side Gang that occurred on Saint Valentine's Day. The men were gathered at a Lincoln Park garage on the morning of that feast day. They were lined up against a wall and shot by four unknown assailants who were dressed like police officers. The perpetrators have never been conclusively identified, but former members of the Egan's Rats gang working for Capone are suspected of a significant role, as are members of the Chicago Police Department who allegedly wanted revenge for the killing of a police officer's son.

GettyImages-85877661.jpg Chicago History Museum. Getty Images.

The Man with The Golden Gun (1974)

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Quick Left Turn: There is a mention of Al Capone in this classic Bond film: 

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Rodney, a gangster from Las Vegas, travels to a private island off the coast of China at the behest of Nick Nack. Rodney hopes to kill master assassin Francisco Scaramanga for a fee. Rodney's first shot misses Scaramanga, and he finds himself lost in a funhouse. Inside the funhouse, he is shot and returns fire, but then realizes it was only blanks from more wax figures who are recreating the Valentine's Day Massacre scene. He realizes his shot has damaged the wax figure of Al Capone and offers apologies:

Rodney : [he's just shot a wax replica of Al Capone]  Hey, Al. Al, wherever you are, don't hold it against me! 

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Scarface (1983)

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Rotten Tomatoes: 81% Audience Score: 94%

Directed by: Brian De Palma 

Written by: Oliver Stone

Tony Montana (Al Pacino) 

Was based on real-life mobster Al Capone. Scarface is loosely based on a 1932 film of the same name, in which the main character, Tony Camonte, is inspired by infamous Mafioso Al Capone. Both Capone and Montana were major crime bosses in their cities, both had major hits put out on them, and, most notably, both had deep scars on their faces, earning them the moniker, “Scarface.” 

Quick Left Turn: Probably one of the most underrated directors in Hollywood is Brian De Palma:

Carrie (1976), Dressed to Kill (1980), Scarface (1983), The Untouchables (1987), and Mission: Impossible (1996), as well as cult favorites such as Sisters (1973), Phantom of the Paradise (1974), Blow Out (1981), Body Double (1984), Casualties of War (1989), Carlito's Way (1993), and Femme Fatale (2002).

Writer Oliver Stone had seen the original 1932 Scarface and didn't enjoy it. He talked to famed director Sidney Lumet (Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon) who was originally brought on to direct, but dropped out because he wanted to make it more of a political film about Cocaine coming to America.

Sidney convinced Oliver to write it since they agreed on transforming the film from a period piece to a contemporary film. Oliver said: "Sidney has this great idea to take the 1930s American prohibition gangster movie and make it into a modern immigrant gangster movie dealing with the same problems that we had then, that we're prohibiting drugs instead of alcohol. There's a prohibition against drugs that's created the same criminal class as (prohibition of alcohol) created the Mafia."

Stone also said: "I didn't want to do an Italian Mafia movie … We'd had dozens of these things. But then Sidney had a great idea — he wants to do it as a Marielito picture in Miami. I said, That's interesting! Sidney's idea was a good one."

The original release of Scarface was met with a negative critical response, and drew controversy regarding the violence and graphic language in the film. The New York Magazine defined it as: "An empty, bullying, and overblown B movie."

The Untouchables (1987)

Directed by: Brian De Palma 

Written by: David Mamet (received Tony nominations for his plays Glengarry Glen Ross)

All-Star Cast: Kevin Costner (Eliot Ness), Charles Martin Smith, Andy García (super young), Robert De Niro (Al Capone), and Sean Connery.

This is Large's favorite film on Capone.

De Niro's research for the role of Al Capone included reading about him and watching historical footage. He also wanted one extra scene written for his character, and time to finish his commitment to the Broadway production of Cuba and His Teddy Bear. Lastly, he wanted to gain about 30 pounds to play. According to De Palma: De Niro was "very concerned about the shape of his face for the part."

I watched this last night (producer John Kelly, 30-years-old) and found it took a little while to get used to the outdated good vs evil character depictions, and the ridiculous music. It wasn't 1930s period music and it wasn't 1987 music, just your classic 'mood' orchestra music. By the way, a very famous composer did the score, Ennio Morricone:

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) considered one of the most influential soundtracks in history, and was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. All Sergio Leone films (since A Fistful of Dollars), all Giuseppe Tornatore films (since Cinema Paradiso), The Battle of Algiers, 1900, Exorcist II, Days of Heaven, as well as The Thing, The Mission, The Untouchables, Mission to Mars, Bugsy, Disclosure, In the Line of Fire, Bulworth, Ripley's Game, and The Hateful Eight.

"The Chicago way" scene hints at all of the violence they will encounter if they take on Capone. I don't know why they made Connery's character a mentor figure for Costner. 

The bridge scene below is ridiculous. They prance around on horses and depict the Canadian mounties as morons. They conclude this shootout scene by having the accountant (rather laughably) become an action hero?

I also don't understand why they would set up so tactically far away from the bridge. Not police tactics, I mean film tactics. Made it rather difficult to shoot, hence the horses. It also looks like those Canadians are shooting each others' heads off with no regard for the guys in front of them!

Sorry for shitting on "The Untouchables" Large, I'll finish the rest tonight and report in Part II of this blog! - Sound off in the comments on anything I missed.

Part II:  

Road to Perdition 

Boardwalk Empire (HBO)

Capone (2020)

Listen to Large and Eddie run through their favorite Al Capone Movies:

Hoodies & T-Shirts

The Twisted History of Al Capone - Listen To The Rest of Large and Eddie's Take on Capone Movies: