Allied Artists had such success with their 1959 picture Al Capone, starring Rod Steiger as the infamous mobster, that the studio teamed up again with director/producer Richard Wilson for another Italian mobster movie, this one set in early 20th Century New York City. Pay or Die! (1960) is based on the true story of New York Police Lieutenant Joseph Petrosino, an Italian American police detective who earned the respect of the immigrants in Little Italy and formed the Italian Squad of the police department in 1905 to battle the Mafia.
Ernest Borgnine plays Joe as a dedicated officer determined to win over the largely Sicilian immigrant population of his neighborhood, a group that brought its mistrust of the police with them from the old country, where police corruption was rampant. Though 17 years in America, he still speaks in stilted, somewhat broken English, a holdover from his self-taught American education, but he overflows with praise for the melting pot of America. Borgnine spoke fluent Italian and had no trouble with the Italian dialogue, which was peppered through the dialogue with the Little Italy locals.
The 1959 gangster biopic Al Capone, starring Rod Steiger as the man they called Scarface (but not to his face), plays on TCM this month as part of its “All-Stars of Prohibition” festival.
Al Capone (1959), starring celebrated Method actor Rod Steiger as the most notorious mobster in gangland history, was the most ambitious entry in the genre. Produced by Allied Artists, a small but ambitious studio specializing in lurid, punchy low-budget genre pictures, and efficiently directed by Richard Wilson, a former assistant to Orson Welles, this B&W film is not lavish by the standards of the glossy Hollywood spectacles but it delivers period recreations and bustling scenes on a small budget. The visual approach owes as much to television and the semi-documentary style of the popular TV series The Untouchables (which also had a significant hand in the gangster revival) as to the old studio gangster pictures. The spectacle is not in the scope of the sets or locations, but in the brutal blasts of violence and the larger-than-life incarnation that Steiger brings to Capone on his rise from loyal, ambitious, opera-loving thug to the top dog in the Chicago syndicate, ruling the South Side with fear, intimidation and machine gun diplomacy.
The stocky, serious Steiger had a fortuitous resemblance to Capone but it’s his volatile performance that defines the character. The real life Capone was a celebrity gangster, living and working openly, proclaiming himself “just a businessman,” and was always in the media lens. Steiger plays him as a thug dictator, putting on a show of power and money and social ambition as if trying to prove himself to the world while resentment seethes beneath the tailored suits and mannered public front. “He was, to me, a showman, an actor,” Steiger explained in an interview with New Yorker writer Helen Ross. Robert De Niro’s Capone in The Untouchables (1987) has echoes of Steiger’s performance.