One hundred and one years ago, D.W. Griffith gave us "The Musketeers of Pig Alley," often credited as the first gangster film, and once sound came in, nothing hooked movie audiences during the early 1930s more reliably than Edward G. Robinson or James Cagney doing harm to their rivals and, for a while, eluding the law while enjoying the spoils of their own private wars.
We love gangsters. We love especially the old-school models, factual or fictional, whose presence in the movies guarantees the reckless high living and outlandish acts of retribution and outre cruelty that made Paul Muni in Howard Hawks' "Scarface" such an inglorious pip. Muni's Tony Camonte was based on Al Capone, Chicago's own. The more this town tries to disown Capone, the more Capone owns it.
With this week's release of "Gangster Squad," in which Sean Penn dines out and brings home the leftovers on the role of mobster Mickey Cohen, it's a good time to take another look at another Capone on screen: Robert De Niro's portrayal in the 1987 Brian De Palma picture, "The Untouchables."
A so-so movie such as "Gangster Squad" provides a public service, reminding us of better movies already part of the culture. Set in post-World War II Los Angeles, "Gangster Squad" follows the template of the David Mamet "Untouchables" script in its premise of an honorable but increasingly ruthless lawman gathering an elite team of gunmen to bring down their common enemy. Josh Brolin plays the super-square-jawed central figure in "Gangster Squad." As Elliot Ness, Kevin Costner dealt with the same archetype in "The Untouchables," and it's a miracle De Palma's film turned out so well, given the wood-pulp content of Costner's acting at that point in his career.
Casting De Niro as Capone (it was nearly Bob Hoskins) is almost too right, too perfect. But one of the enduring strengths of Mamet's screenplay is its sense of proportion. The film gives us just enough of Capone, and no more. The well-dressed sociopath's capacity for murderous bloodshed is always there, but he's not always there.
It's roughly the same strategy in "Gangster Squad"; Penn's Cohen is a supporting performance, popping in and out of the corpse-strewn story line. And it's a strong, witty performance. But the material is weak, and the film (subjected to reshoots and a tacked-on happy ending) exploits our memories of other, more interesting gangster bashes.
A generation ago, which was a generation after the TV series, "The Untouchables" satisfied a popular audience's desire for period duds and sardonic Mamet dialogue (it still holds up) plus De Palma's visual panache, never more striking than in the banquet sequence when De Niro's Capone caps a dinner speech with a few fatal swings of a baseball bat. (Talk about a PowerPoint presentation people remember!) Today "The Untouchables" seems almost quaint in its on-screen violence — more than enough, to be sure, to garner an R rating. But "Gangster Squad" is a different story, and its generically energetic style, its taste for blood sometimes makes it seem like Cohen himself directed it.
My favorite screen gangster of recent years comes from Corsica, and his movie confines the character, a bad man known as Cesar, to prison. In "Un Prophete," known in its U.S. release as "A Prophet," director Jacques Audiard cast Niels Arestrup as the Corsican underworld kingpin stuck behind bars but running quite a show regardless.
The venal man we come to know doesn't exist in movie-movie land, the way De Niro's Capone does, or Penn's Cohen does. Rather, he's human-scaled — a monster in many ways, yet a dimensional one. When Arestrup (best known to American audiences for his kindly French farmer in "War Horse") receives his comeuppance at the end of "A Prophet," it's a complicated moment for the audience. Arestrup does it all with a look: He's trying to get his former protege, the Algerian kid played by Tahar Rahim, to venture over to his side of the prison yard. But the kid has been mistreated too long, and he is now a kingpin himself. And the old man is left with a pleading look on his face that says: It's over.
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