Al Capone: His Life, Legacy, and Legend

Shehryar Fazli in the Los Angeles Review of Books:

AlcaponeIn a classic scene in Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables (1987), Robert De Niro’s Al Capone weeps to an aria from Pagliacci, and is interrupted by his main henchman, Frank Nitti, to inform him that an antagonist in the police has been executed. His face relaxes momentarily as he digests the news, then swells again toward euphoria. This counterpoint of refinement and violence seems essential to depicting Capone, in a way that it isn’t for other gangsters like, say, Bugsy Siegel or Dutch Schultz. In an earlier scene, after charming a roundtable of dinner guests with sharp one-liners and wisdom about teamwork, a tuxedoed Capone bashes one of the diners’ heads with a baseball bat until the man’s brains and blood spread over the rich white tablecloth. As his latest biographer, Deidre Bair, says, “He was so wildly charming, so blatantly outsized in everything he did, and so fully in the public eye that it was hard to believe such a good fellow and one so highly entertaining, he of the pithy quotation and catchy phrase, could be all that bad.”

And as bad as he demonstrably was, Capone tilted the axis of Prohibition-era high society as much as he did that of organized crime. No other gangster’s name — Siegel, Schultz, Luciano, Lanksy — summons as much cultural heft as Capone’s, his only possible rival being the fictional Corleone.

More here.