Ben Affleck in Live By Night
Having something of an interest in the assorted denizens of the underworld of the Roaring Twenties and Depression-era Thirties, I'm always in the market for a good Hollywood gangster movie. These days, gangster films of any kind seem to be few and far between, so I'm usually not even that particular when it comes to quality. Public Enemies, Gangster Squad - well, I think it's fair to say that things have taken a turn for the worse since films like Once Upon a Time in America and Miller's Crossing.
That being said, I saw a preview for Ben Affleck's new film, Live By Night, and - not being familiar with the novel- I thought the film looked like a decent 1950s film noir. Then someone mentioned to me that the film was set during Prohibition, at which point I was somewhat confused. I took another look at the preview and there it was again: big shoulders, wide suits,and lots of fabric that reminded me of something Robert Mitchum might have worn in Out Of The Past.
The broad-shouldered look, circa 1950s.
I ran a few searches around the Internet and found a few complimentary articles about the period wardrobe used in the film. Admittedly, I don't know anything about how the suits, jackets, shoes, trousers, and other clothing were sourced for the film - they may very well be genuine period pieces. However, the fit and cut of the clothes seems to have the missed the mark here.
Hollywood portrayals of the stylish racketeer begin and end with George Raft, of course. Jack Warner considered him the prototypical screen tough, and referred to him (somewhat) affectionately as his "magnificent hood." Throughout his life, the public was never quite able to discern where Raft the street tough from Hell's Kitchen and intimate of real-life gangsters like Owney Madden and Ben Siegel ended, and where Raft the actor began. Consequently, one was never quite sure whether Raft was setting the sartorial standard for just Hollywood, or the Underworld as well.
There is a scene from Raft's Night After Night, which I come back to again and again, which is informative on several levels. In the film, Raft plays a nightclub owner and bootlegger during Prohibition. The stills below are from a scene early in the film where Raft gets dressed before a meeting with rival bootleggers. Raft was known to provide his own wardrobe for his films, so this is how Raft would have dressed off-screen in 1932, as well. What jumps out here is the immaculate fit of his suit - from the high armholes of the suit jacket to the visible cuffs and high spearpoint collar of his dress shirt,
Raft has clearly paid attention to the details. The trousers are roomy but not disproportionately so. The trouser length is such that there is at most a slight or shivering break to the trouser leg, not the cascading rivulets of fabric that you see at the bottom of the trousers in the image below. Raft also wears the shorter tie, which was popular at that time, but because he's also wearing high-waisted trousers - another favorite of dandies of the era - the tip of the shorter tie still meets the waist of his trousers. Once Raft puts the suit vest on these details are rendered somewhat irrelevant, but Raft the dandy pays attention to them anyway.
It is these finer points,if you will, which seem to have gone unnoticed by the costume design team behind Live By Night. As the still above clearly shows, the clothing just doesn't appear to be worn in a way that is authentic for the period. The trousers are sitting at the waist, a decidedly late 20th-early 21st century touch borne from years of office casual. The pants appear to be far too baggy anyway, but as a result of the waist of the trousers sitting far too low, the bottom of the shirt is exposed under Affleck's vest and the cuffs appear to be dragging on the ground. As for the other actor in this scene - again, I know nothing about the film or the plot, so perhaps these things have been done with an eye toward character development. If that is the case, maybe the idea was to use subtle cues such as a man wearing a belt and suspenders to suggest that Affleck should be wary of this individual. After all, how can you trust a man who doesn't trust his own pants?
One would have thought well-dressed Prohibition-era gangsters were almost a given after the accolades heaped upon HBO's Boardwalk Empire for its attention to detail with regards to wardrobe. Unless I've missed a whole slew of writing that has been critical of the show's efforts toward authenticity, Live By Night should have done itself a favor and recognized the high bar set by Boardwalk Empire and then set out, if not to surpass, then to at least acknowledge and respect that such a level of attention to the details is necessary when dealing with a subject as sartorially aware as the American racketeer of the Roaring Twenties.
Boardwalk Empire showed that fit is key when interpreting the
underworld stylings of the Roaring Twenties.
Aside from the colorful fabrics and patterns employed by Boardwalk's costume designers, they hewed very close to reality - clearly, a well-cut wardrobe was the order of the day for the successful bootlegger. A quick Google search of any number of images of the more notorious figures of the era only confirms this:
Machine Gun Jack McGurn
Of course, the assumption here is that the creators of Live By Night were in fact seeking to follow in the tradition referenced above - namely, the romantic juxtaposition which has so captured the American imagination for the last 100 years: the debonair, well-dressed street tough, dressed in the finest silks and flannels from Oviatt or Sulka who is not above a little assault and battery, kidnapping or murder. Ironically, though, as I flipped through the stills of Affleck in his almost comically oversized suits (Is anyone else thinking zoot suit when looking at the images below?), I couldn't help but think of none other than Arthur Flegenheimer, known to the world in his day as Dutch Schultz, who may have been the only racketeer photographed in jackets almost as ill-fitting as Affleck's (I said almost). But all joking aside, even in the picture below (the Dutchman, left, across from his lawyer, the always nattily-attired Dixie Davis) one would be hard-pressed to argue that the fit of his suit is as offensive as Affleck's.
As I read on, I couldn't help but think of Affleck as I read a description of the poorly dressed Dutchman written by Meyer Berger in 1935. Berger, who covered the gangland beat for the New York Times during the golden age of style and vice, pointed out that despite all of his success, Schultz "still managed to look like an ill-dressed vagrant. He seemed to have a special talent for looking like a perfect example of the unsuccessful man." [It should be noted here that Berger wrote those words two days after Schultz expired in a Newark hospital.] Berger went on to point out that Schultz was "rather proud of that. When friends pointed out that a man in his position could afford tailor-made clothes such as the really big shots wore - suits at $200 with special linings for arm-pit holsters - he contended such display was vulgar. He never paid more than $40 or $50 for a suit and never had one made to fit his rather broad shoulders. His trousers were always baggy and his topcoats always backed away from his neck."
"His trousers were always baggy . . ."
" . . .and his topcoats always backed away from his neck."
It would seem that the Dutchman's excuse was that he was trying to dress poorly, almost as a point of pride. Ben Affleck, on the other hand, seems to have been trying his best to actually look good. A cinematic swing and a miss, sartorially speaking, if ever there was one.