by Mohammed Rahman, PhD Researcher and Assistant Lecturer in Criminology at Birmingham City University

On Monday, it was announced that British actor Tom Hardy is set to play Al Capone in a forthcoming film, focusing on the final years of the Chicagoan mobster.  Once on the FBI’s most wanted list, Al Capone’s criminal activities of bootlegging, protection rackets and the management of prostitution and illegal gambling rings, attracted the attention of President Herbert Hoover; who in 1929 asked his secretary of Treasury Andrew Melton, “Have you got this fellow Capone yet? I want that man in jail”.  Former President Hoover’s disdain of Capone reflects the official stance of gangsters.  They exploit people and the legal system.  They hurt and kill for money.  They torture and murder rivals.  They sell illegal commodities.  They traffic and exploit women for sex, and they terrorise communities.

Capone was also widely linked to the orchestration of the ‘Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre’, in which seven men from Chicago’s gangland scene were murdered.  In 1931, he was sentenced to 11 years in federal prison for tax evasion.  Contrary to the former presidents’ wishes of keeping Capone away from society, stories of the crime lord have appeared intermittently over the years.  Several books and movies have been written and made about his exploits.   

Indeed, when released, the movie will undoubtedly become a box office hit, and Hardy is no stranger to playing gangsters and criminals under the Hollywood spotlight.  Having played Alfie Solomon’s in the TV show Peaky Blinders and notorious prisoner Charles Bronson, in Bronson; Hardy was astonishing in a towering double performance when he played both Ronnie and Reggie Kray in the 2015 blockbuster, Legend.

But what is it about mobster biopics that make them so appealing and consumable? What makes them continue to fascinate the public?

Well first, we must consider the aesthetics of what we consume.  A good-looking actor often plays the lead role in mob based movies.  During the 1980s and 1990s, Hollywood actors Robert De Niro and Al Pacino starred in a swathe of ‘real life’ gangster movies as lead actors.  They were young(ish), good-looking men, who had swagger, oozed charisma, displayed an authoritative aura, and dressed fashionably well.  Seemingly, this torch has now been passed onto Tom Hardy and his fellow Hollywood colleagues, who continue to share De Niro and Al Pacino’s passion and characteristics when playing lead actors in ‘true crime’ gangster movies.

This brings me to my second point.  The fact that what we often watch is based on real life accounts means that we are revisiting, and consuming a period of history.  For instance, the movie Legend (Helgeland, 2015), made references to how the Kray’s trial and imprisonment came towards the end of London’s “swinging” [19]60’s.  It depicted how the criminal twins during this decade mixed with actors, boxers, politicians, and other society figures before their demise.

I have no doubt that the upcoming Al Capone movie will make references to Capone’s bootlegging enterprise, which is what contributed towards his annual fortune of $100 million, and of which took place during the United States Prohibition era (1920-1933).  Therefore, the nostalgic element of what we watch, contributes towards our fascination of understanding who these criminals were, what they represented, and the humble beginnings that they came from.

In regards to humble beginnings, scholars of film and television (Rieber and Kelly, 2014), discuss how the depiction of gangsters, coming from social economically deprived backgrounds, allows them to be portrayed “sympathetically as victims of circumstances as much as they are perceived as psychopaths or social misfits” (2014: 150).  Equally important, biopics often make references to gangsters fighting causes of social injustice and helping those socially deprived.

The crime thriller Narcos focuses on the life of Pablo Escobar, a Columbian drug lord, who at his criminality peak, made $60 million a day in the cocaine trade.  In the series, Escobar was illustrated as a crime boss who would often help the poor and needy.  Likewise, the Kray’s in their heyday funded local boxing gyms and youth initiatives, and even paid for Barbara Windsor’s drama school fees. When such examples are presented under the media spotlight, they instantaneously humanise gangsters as “lovable rogues”.  These ‘badass’ individuals act in a manner that is often incomprehensible to the general public (Katz, 1988), and for this, they are loathed, but also adored by many.


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