[On January 25th, 1947 Al Capone died at the age of 48. So for the 75th anniversary of the end of that notorious life, I’ll AmericanStudy different cultural contexts for American gangsters & organized crime!]
On takeaways from three pop culture representations of the iconic gangster.
1) The Untouchables (1987): That hyperlinked clip sums up much of what I’d say about the single most famous pop culture portrayal of Capone: exactly what you would expect, both in satisfying ways (De Niro is never less than riveting) and in somewhat frustrating ways. As its title suggests, Brian De Palma’s film is much more focused on the men who took down Capone, and I’m fine with that; as I’ve written elsewhere, I’m no fan of films that glamorize despicable men like Capone. But De Niro’s depiction is so clichéd that, while it’s a fun over-the-top villain against whom we enjoy rooting, I would argue we learn nothing new about Capone, nor about gangsters overall, through this version of the character.
2) Boardwalk Empire (2010-14): A TV show that ran for 57 episodes across five seasons is of course an entirely different animal than a single feature film, and while the show’s main gangster character was Steve Buscemi’s Nucky Thompson, Stephen Graham’s Al Capone appeared (or at least was credited—I’m confess to not having watched every episode) in all 57 of those episodes as well. That sentence alone reflects a key difference in this portrayal of Capone (and of gangsters overall)—depicting him as part of larger communities and networks, as one gangster working with and alongside, as well as against, much larger organizations and conspiracies. While the show wasn’t immune to those aforementioned clichés, I’d say it broke significant new ground in depicting such iconic individuals and types, particularly as part of their historical and cultural moments and worlds.
3) Tintin in America (1932): Having never read the now-infamous Tintin in the Congo (1931; my younger son has read it and reports it’s as racist as you would expect), I didn’t realize until researching this post that Hergé had introduced Al Capone as a villain in that book before making him a chief antagonist of this 1932 sequel. Tintin’s Capone is one of two particularly mythic elements in a book full of them, with the other being Hergé’s sympathetic but still stereotypical depiction of Native Americans. The author had never traveled to America, so it stands to reason his representation would be based on iconic images; he did apparently do some research of his own, however, relying especially on a magazine article by journalist Claude Blanchard entitled “America and the Americans.” That makes the book’s Capone a combination of clichéd myth and actual contemporary figure, which sounds about right for this most iconic of American gangsters.
Next GangsterStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other gangster stories or contexts you’d share?