Twentieth Century Fox, 1967, 100 minutes
Cast: Jason Robards, George Segal, Ralph Meeker, Jean Hale and Clint Ritchie
Screenplay: Howard Browne
Associate Producer: Paul Rapp
Producer: Roger Corman
Director: Roger Corman
Al Capone had been brought to Chicago from New York in late 1919 to help Johnny Torrio, his mentor, operate a network of brothels and gambling establishments. The introduction of Prohibition, which made it illegal to manufacture, sell or transport intoxicating liquor, on January 16, 1920 was a godsend to the numerous gangsters in Chicago. Capone’s willingness to employ violence combined with Torrio’s business sense and contacts in city hall ensured that their outfit became one of the dominant gangs. Torrio negotiated an agreement among the various gangs to cooperate, rather than pursue bloody and meaningless squabbles over territory, but it fell apart in late 1924.
The resulting Beer Wars drove Torrio to hand over the business to Capone, as open warfare broke out between Capone’s syndicate, supported by the Sicilian gangs, and the Irish gangs, loosely allied with Polish and Jewish gangsters. The war took a deadly toll on both sides, and Capone himself barely survived several assassination attempts. By late 1926, enough people had died that another truce was arranged. Capone’s syndicate had become the alpha gang, controlling half of the city, and he even played a leading role in ensuring the re-election of a mayor who could be relied on to ignore the astonishingly lucrative business of selling people alcohol. Embracing his fame, Capone became the symbol of the lawlessness in Chicago, which attracted the attention of the federal government.
By 1929, the gangs of Chicago operate more than 21,000 speakeasies, and Bugs Moran’s North Side Gang is slowly forcing speakeasies to switch from Capone to Moran. Capone is furious that his advisers believe that a war to stop Moran from moving into their territory would be bad business. Frank Nitti, Capone’s right-hand man, thinks that a hit on Moran would be difficult to arrange but rising young gun Jack McGurn has a plan, so he is given the job.
The North Side Gang had been in near-constant war with Capone for the past five years, and the two previous leaders of the gang, Dian O’Banion and Hymie Weiss, had both been killed by Capone’s men, so Moran wants revenge and more territory. Against the wishes of his advisers, Moran allies with Joe Aiello, a minor gangster who can help them assassinate Patsy Lolardo, president of the Unione Siciliane, which was a front for the Mafia. Meanwhile, McGurn is preparing a complex trap that will destroy Moran’s gang on St. Valentine’s Day.
The opening narration states that “The motion picture you are about to see is a factual rendition of the events leading up to and the results of one of the most violent days in American history. Every character and event depicted is based upon the truth.” This statement is a bit overdone. Unfortunately, American history is filled with bloody days that were much more violent than the massacre.
The narration explains that following the introduction of Prohibition, the underworld rose up and fought amongst itself. “Open periods of gang warfare are followed by peace treaties and attempts at consolidation and monopoly, each of which is shattered as new warfare erupts,” which is a good analysis of the real situation.
Capone is incorrectly described as having no criminal record, when he had actually been arrested a couple of times, and had avoided prison only because the witnesses all experienced unexplained memory loss. However, it is true that he had become the dominant gangster in Chicago by 1929, and the portrayal of his power is accurate, including the constant presence of intimidating bodyguards and the widespread corruption of City Hall and the police. Furthermore, Capone did associate with many of the city’s elite and he did have a mansion in Miami.
Jake “Greasy Thumb” Guzik was the real gang’s accountant, but he was a pear-shaped mass of blubber, not the tall, well-dressed, confident man in the movie. Liquor sales and distribution were the responsibility of Capone’s brother Ralph, who has been ignored by the script, not Guzik. Conflict between Guzik and Capone over the gang’s direction seems unlikely, since Guzik was one of Capone’s closer friends and Capone even killed a man who had humiliated him. The screen McGurn is a young brown-noser hoping to move up in the gang, but McGurn was already one of Capone’s top lieutenants by then.
Most important, the real Capone’s top men were not sissy business executives afraid to get their hands dirty. There is no denying that profit margins were their primary concern, but they accepted that violence was a key element in business negotiations with rivals who were trying to expand their market share. The idea that they do not know much about Moran is bizarre. Moran had been a right-hand man to both Weiss and O’Banion, so they had dealt with him for years.
The flashback scenes of the battles between Capone and the previous leaders of the North Side Gang are quite accurate but they are too brief to provide enough context. Although the screen O’Banion is killed in his own flower shop, it does not show that he was preparing the floral arrangements for the funeral of Mike Merlo, head of the Unione Sicialone. Merlo’s protection had kept O’Banion alive, since O’Banion had gone out of his way to start trouble with both the Genna clan and the Capone-Torrio Syndicate, his two main rivals. Contrary to the movie’s interpretation of the event, Capone had merely blessed the killing, which was actually carried out by the Gennas, who were embroiled in a conflict with O’Banion. Hymie Weiss’ hit on Capone where eleven cars filled with gangsters with Tommy Guns pass by the restaurant one by one, is presented with suitable violence, although the scene does not show that the experience had made Capone a convert to the Tommy Gun.
Unlike the fictional Aiello, the Aiello clan was quite powerful and did not need others to do their killing for them. Although Lolardo is killed in his living room, the screen assassination is much more complex than the real shooting, and Joe Aiello survived a year as president of the Unione Sicilione before Capone’s men put him six feet under ground, making him the fifth president to die in violent circumstances in six years.
Despite the script’s constant references to the Mafia’s power, Capone neither sought nor needed the Mafia’s protection, although he did try to control the powerful Unione Sicilione. However, Moran did ally with the Aiello clan, who opposed Capone’s candidate for the presidency of the Unione. Also, Lolordo was not independent, he served Capone and Capone did not personally avenge Lolordo.
The massacre took place pretty much as shown in the movie, including the use of gangsters from New York who could pose as policemen. The plan to get Moran in the garage at a specific time takes up a great deal of screen time, and was not really necessary since he usually went to check the shipments. The real Capone’s hit men realized before shooting that Moran was not in the garage but still had to go through with the hit since the trap would never work twice. It is a perfect representation of the real scene, and careful preparation by the actors ensured that they even fell in the correct positions, mimicking the actual victims. Gangster Frank Dusenburg’s actual last words were “nobody shot me.” No charges were ever laid because McGurn had made sure that he had an alibi. In fact, it is still unknown today who carried out the massacre even though Moran did say “only Al Capone kills like that.”
Jason Robards does not look much like Capone but he had clearly practiced his Italian. Despite the numerous alterations to the historical record, it could have been a really good movie without Robards’ unbelievable over-acting. This is especially frustrating given his subtle performance a year later in Once Upon a Time in the West.
The actors playing Anselmi and Scalise look nowhere near hard enough. The real men even intimidated other gangsters.
I must say that I have never seen a woman fight so hard for a fur coat.
When mobster Joe Valachi revealed the Mafia’s secrets to a Senate committee during televised hearings in 1963, the Mafia became a hot topic, so the screenplay is filled with references to the Mafia’s power, even though it had had little influence in Chicago.