J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Gangster Night: Al Capone—Icon

Al Capone did not leave a lot of evidence lying around—particularly not in his vault, right Geraldo? Elliott Ness could also confirm the scarcity of Capone’s paper trail. Almost overnight, he became the original archetype of the sharp dressed gangster, but his glory days were relatively short-lived. Chicago’s most famous resident gets the biographical and sociological treatment in Al Capone: Icon (promo here), which airs this Tuesday during PBS’s “Gangster Night.”

He was Brooklyn’s native son, but he found his fame and fortune in the Windy City. It was a precipitous rise from a street barker hustling speakeasy customers to the boss of the Chicago Outfit. Prohibition made all the difference. As you might have heard, it never really took. In fact, it led to widespread acceptance of criminal behavior. Capone had a good run riding that wave. Unlike his gangster contemporaries, Scarface Al cultivated the media, who gave him rockstar coverage for a while. However, the carnage of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre turned opinion against Capone, even though he was never directly implicated in the killings.

Of course, most everyone should know Capone was never convicted for his gangster business (aside from a relatively minor weapons charge). Nevertheless, Capone sought to embody the gangster age, so he took the brunt of the public’s Valentine’s Day outrage. Frankly, most of Icon’s expert commentary is more concerned with Capone as a media figure and a model for countless gangster movie protagonists.

Many viewers will probably want to hear more about Capone’s operations, but frankly the Feds probably still do too. Regardless, there is an interesting cast assembled to discuss Capone as a cultural phenomenon, including a veteran Chicago Commander of Detectives Thomas Reppetto, Capone’s grand niece Deirdre, very former mobster Frank Calabrese, Jr., and several academics. Rather surprisingly, the great vocalist Cassandra Wilson also appears (quite stylishly), discussing Capone’s role as an early patron of jazz as the king of the Chicago’s nightlife.

While the talking heads are a bit uneven, Icon is still consistently informative in an entertaining, non-taxing sort of way. Arguably, there is better quality control for PBS’s lower profile one-off specials like this than some of their bigger marquee events. Recommended for those who enjoy gangster-watching, Al Capone: Icon premieres this Tuesday (7/22) as part of “Gangster Night,” along with the History Detectives’ investigation of the Jimmy Hoffa disappearance (which presumably fails since no indictments have been issued).

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