The Chicago Syndicate: Mafia Legends

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Mafia Legends

Friends of ours: Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, Bugsy Siegel

Biography Presents Mafia Legends is an iffy grab bag of Biography profiles on three of organized crime's most notorious gangsters: Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, and Bugsy Siegel. A bonus fourth disc, Mob Hitman comes from A&E's American Justice series. Quickly edited, with a nice selection of archival footage and stills, these glossy but essentially superficial bios certainly move well enough, and hit the highlights of these infamous mobsters. But there's a certain nagging sense of romanticism to two of the bios which makes this collection a questionable purchase.

There are quite a few genuine historians out there who have nothing but contempt for channels like The History Channel, A&E, and The Biography Channel – as I find out every time I praise one of their DVD box set releases. But I would imagine that most viewers of those channels and their programs understand that, as with all historical studies, interpretation of facts – and the crucial omission or inclusion of certain facts – largely determines the worth or value of such an exploration. Unlike the studied historians who may occasionally email me, chiding me for recommending series like Lost Worlds or Dogfights when even the tiniest factual errors are found, most viewers of Biography documentaries such as Biography Presents Mafia Legends understand that these are entertainments first, meant to gather an audience, and serious education second.

That being said, there still appears to be a slightly disingenuous slant to two of the docs presented here – Lucky Luciano and Bugsy Siegel – that make them less-than-stellar inclusions for this themed box set. Not being a big fan of romanticized tales of real-life thugs, criminals and murderers, the tone of Lucky Luciano and Bugsy Siegel left a somewhat bad taste in my mouth. It's not that the documentaries go out of their way to re-write history and say these psychotics were in reality good guys, but there's a persuasive feeling of almost grudging hero-worship, if you will, that illustrates a sloppy (and dishonest) approach to the filmmakers' (or the network who may have had final cut) vision.

While each documentary chronicles in full a wistful, almost fatalistic approach to these two vicious criminals, they spend almost no serious time chronicling their ugly crimes. Watching Lucky Luciano: Chairman of the Mob, one might get the notion that Lucky Luciano was really nothing more than a patriotic American businessman who helped keep the New York docks free of sabotage during WWII, and who gave the Army instructions on how to invade Italy safely – only to be "stabbed in the back" by the ungrateful U.S. government who deported him. Expert after expert testify to his brilliance and genius, while the documentary ends on a sad note, with Lucky's final, lonely days in exile in his fabulous Italian penthouse. The filmmakers even pull out a picture of Lucky with his dog to tug at your heartstrings – I guess if he was good to his dog, he was an okay guy, right? But almost no time is spent on the early part of his life, where he earned convictions for pimping, extortions, theft, and almost nothing is said about his role in numerous murders. As well, the dubious notion that Luciano "loved" this country above all else is put forth without any serious questions, such as perhaps, as some theorists believe, Luciano and the mob were behind the dock sabotages in the first place during WWII, and they used it as extortion against the government. As with almost any philanthropic endeavor that Luciano supported, it was usually to cover his illegal activities.

Watching Bugsy Siegel, the same kind of romanticized approach is used, with Siegel coming off as some kind of starry-eyed dreamer who should be remembered as the "inventor" of Las Vegas, and not for the psychotic killer who terrified those around him. Again, almost no time is spent documenting the actual crimes that Siegel committed, including murder, extortion, white slavery, and assault, that earned him his place in organized crime. But plenty of time is spent discussing his sartorial splendor, his charm, his good looks, his Hollywood connections, his "epic" love affair with Virginia Hill, and of course, his dream of the Flamingo Hotel out in the desert. For all purposes, Bugsy Siegel may as well be a documentary on a movie star, and not a real-life vicious thug and criminal.

The other two documentaries fare much better here in the Biography Presents Mafia Legends box set. Al Capone: Scarface is brought in straight down the middle. It's factual, and dispassionate in showing not only the fame that came to Capone, but also the unrelenting violence and murderous impulses that led to his downfall. It doesn't sugar coat his life, and it certainly doesn't glamorize or romanticize it. Capone is portrayed as he was: a well-organized criminal who murdered and extorted his way to the top of an empire, and who died insane from the aftereffects of syphilis, contracted from one of the many prostitutes he frequented. It's a sobering, insightful look at a criminal who's received far more "fame" than he deserves – and almost all of that fame for the wrong reasons (the final shots of a gift store in Chicago, which has an audiotronic Al Capone, speaking like one of the Presidents in Disneyland's Hall of Presidents, is pretty mind-blowing after seeing what the guy was all about).

Even more gritty and deglamorized, Mob Hitmen, the final bonus disc in the Biography Presents Mafia Legends box set, comes from the frequently compelling A&E series American Justice, hosted by Bill Kurtis. Featuring interviews with real mob killers, and using archival surveillance footage and audio samples, Mob Hitmen plays like a junior-league Donnie Brasco, and it's a welcome, if minor note contribution to this DVD box set. While it's an intriguing documentary, it's scope is somewhat narrow in conjunction with the oversized subjects of the previous three docs, so its inclusion is not the best fit here in Biography Presents Mafia Legends. If a bonus doc was needed with a more modern slant, perhaps one discussing a major mob figure from more recent days, such as John Giotti, would have been more appropriate. Still, the always professional, low-key, and most importantly serious delivery of host Bill Kurtis is a most welcome relief from the totally inappropriate, jovial, smiling smarminess of host Jack Perkins, who hosts the other three documentaries ("Bugsy, as he was known, liked to kill people!").

Here are the 4, one hour documentaries included in the four disc box set, Biography Presents Mafia Legends, as described on their hardshell cases:

Al Capone: Scarface
In the thrilling underworld of speakeasies, Tommy guns, and turf wars, Al Capone was the undisputed emperor of 1920s Chicago. "Scarface" -- a nickname born from the consequences of a violent encounter in his youth -- was many things to many people: a ruthless and vindictive murderer, a generous patron, and a glamorous impresario. Capone's legacy, however, will forever be marked by his role as the most notorious gangster in American history. In this in-depth biography, follow Capone's journey from the immigrant Brooklyn neighborhood of his youth to the glittering circles of Chicago's powerful elite, and finally to his years of imprisonment and his death at the age of 48. Al Capone: Scarface reveals rare photographs and exclusive interviews to paint an extraordinary portrait of the rise and fall of America's ultimate anti-hero.

Biography - Bugsy Siegel (A&E DVD Archives)
He was handsome. He was glamorous. And in a seedy underworld of ruthless murderers, he was the most vicious of them all. Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel first made his mark as a hitman on the gang-run streets of Brooklyn, New York. Yet, his fame was solidified amid the Hollywood hills where his unique gangster/playboy image made him a legend. In this fascinating portrait, see rare footage of the dapper mobster and witness exclusive interviews with acquaintances and enemies alike. Examine Siegel's greatest legacy as the founding father of glittering Las Vegas, Nevada, and listen as mob insiders reveal the details of Siegel's ultimate betrayal at the hands of his best friend.

Lucky Luciano: Chairman of the Mob
He wrote his name in blood and made himself the Boss of Bosses. Arriving in America at the age of nine and embarking upon a life of crime at 14, Charles "Lucky" Luciano rose through the ranks of the New York Mafia like a shot. By 34, Lucky ran the Sicilian mob like a major corporation: diversifying rackets, organizing gangs, and running his own political candidates. Lucky Luciano: Chairman of the Mob investigates Lucky's 30-year career as the CEO of Murder, Inc. through rare interviews and extensive archival footage. Listen as mob insiders reminisce about meetings held in Luciano's Waldorf-Astoria headquarters and witness the top-secret war efforts that earned Lucky parole from a 50-year sentence.

Mob Hitmen
They are the most feared figures in the business of organized crime -- the triggermen whose job it is to eliminate contentious witnesses, rivals, and fellow mobsters in accordance with their bosses' orders. Today, the modern mob hitman – or woman -- is a different breed than the Tommy-gun-toting stereotype of popular Hollywood gangster films. He or she may wear several different hats in the organization, killing when ordered, but performing more mundane tasks in the interim. In this chilling expose, American Justice ventures inside the bloody mob wars that have scarred Philadelphia over the past decade. In addition to interviews with some of the mob's most notorious triggermen and women, Mob Hitman features footage and news accounts of the city's recent brutal mob hits, and introduces viewers to the police and prosecutors who have devoted their lives to catching these shadowy killers.

Thanks to Paul Mavis

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