The beach is universal. A shot of sea and sand looks the same whether it’s in Cuba or the Boardwalk Empire of Atlantic City. The opening shot of “Cuanto” has that natural ambiguity. Until the camera pulls back and we see young Nucky (Nolan Lyons) sweeping away the last grains of summer.
How could the Commodore not love little Nucky? The kid is smart and yet such a great foil. Their opening conversation begins with the Commodore complaining that he can’t hear the kid and then telling him to stop yelling. On top of that, after the future gangster gets the wind knocked out of him, the Commodore tells him to stop walking around like a walking question mark. The Commodore lets the kid assuage his ego over his, admittedly, visionary plans for the Atlantic City boardwalk. Then he pulls the rug out from under the kid by firing him and telling him to go to school for trying to parse the Commodore.
No wonder Nucky (Steve Buscemi) became a politician. No wonder he got out. Thompson is always on the move and it’s always upward. Seeing the world of swells through the eyes of the wharf rat explains why Nucky hasn’t thought about slowing down until this season. It also explains his love of family. Sure Nucky might shove grass in his little brother’s ears, but he did it to completely distract the kid from seeing too much. He’s also thinking about making another move. As the series winds to a close, the directors offer Nucky a way out.
Nucky and Margaret finally go out. All it takes is a little peasant red to turn Prissy O’Frowney (thank you again Rolling Stone magazine for the gift that never stops giving) into Hussy McGrinly. Who would have thought all Margaret needed was some booze to flush that stick from up her ass? Joe Kennedy has been going on and on about the drunken Irish problem to the point where I thought there were no Irish in America who didn’t drink in the twenties. Maybe that was why she’s been so obstreperous, she’s an Irish woman who’s never had a drink. Prohibition. What is it good for? At heart, Margaret has always been a gangster, not a moll. As Nucky says, “Partners in crime.” Twenty-five cents on the dollar sounds like a good deal. When it’s said in Brogue.
You don’t hear much Brogue lately in Chicago. Not since penny ante public enemy Al Capone started climbing up the hit list. Now Public Enemy Number One, he runs a loose ship. He earns, but he’s been at the top for a long time and he knows how to balance a rule of fear with a rule of love. Yeah, all that rough-housing in his headquarters might just put out an eye, I was wondering where the pointy end of the Empire State Building statuette wound up, but his men are loyal. No matter what they done.
The newsreel sequence was done expertly. They mixed vintage footage with new shots, newspaper photographs with staged stills and got the voice perfect. Because of the movie Barton Fink, I’ll never get the phrase “Wallace Beery wrestling picture” out of my head. But having gone back and watched Beery’s work since, it was a great and fitting reference that Luciano (Vincent Piazza) made. Beery was big and blustery and what’s not to like? He knocked guys down and crushed them. The guy was a champ. The Champ, if you want to get technical. He also played Long John Silver in Treasure Island, a character that kids in those days idolized. A lovable scamp you want to stow away with. My favorite film of his is Bowery, but I really like it for George Raft. Capone and Beery are competitors. Kids want to grow up and be like them. Capone was the same when he was in the Five Points Gang with Salvatore Luciano, who still has to answer to society guys. But that’s a secret.
All the subterfuge and all the double dealings that Boardwalk Empire gangsters traverse make them a little jumpy. When gangsters get jumpy, the audience gets jumpy and when an HBO audience is jumpy there’s always good reason. Luciano fingers Mueller as a federal cop. Them’s fighting words. Not just for the accused, but for the judge and jury. Capone is obviously going to make the maids earn their pay that night, no matter how it turns out. Without getting too film schooly, subtle hints and tricks let you know what’s coming. Michael Shannon plays so restrained that when Mueller says he might have soiled himself you almost remember when you heard the dam burst. And he even gets off a joke. Mueller gets a laugh. That stayed with me more after the scene than the visual of his lips around a pistol.
Sally Wheet (Patricia Arquette) has been a marvel for the past few seasons. Her quick repartee and sultry rejoinders have been a sock on the jaw for both Nucky and Mickey Doyle. Arquette has the patter down. She has the timing and the attitude and not for one second did it look like she was copying an old movie. When Wheet was first introduced on Boardwalk Empire, I thought I just might be disappointed. But she grew on me quickly, like she did on Nucky and Doyle and that’s the way it was planned all along. But HBO has to make the audience gasp, audibly, at least once every three or four episodes or they don’t think they did their jobs. They have mastered the sideswipe. The cameras and the music, the angles and the lighting, all do their part to warn her. We don’t really see it coming. Sally, at least, knows enough to grab a gun.
The pacing was perfect. Boardwalk Empire has a certain rhythm, each episode breathes, but even when it makes the audience gasp, it never loses its breath. A great episode even when compared to other great Boardwalk Empire episodes. This one had everything. From Margaret leaping into Nucky’s arms to give him a kiss after he said he was lonely, to the suspense of a sideways glance and a sidearm. It had romance, violence, the tiniest bit of sex (even though not the kind we usually want to see) and the promise of duplicity to come. Where is the Bacardi rum king headed anyway, with Nucky’s money?
“Cuanto” was directed by Jake Paltrow and written by Howard Korder, Cristine Chambers and Terence Winter.
Last week I went on and on about the character Buck, who escaped the chain gang with Chalky but got hammered. The only thing I left out was the name of the actor who played the doomed stripie. The actor’s name wasn’t listed on IMDb, Wiki or the official HBO Boardwalk Empire page. HBO does this intentionally because assholes like me geek out on this shit to leak spoilers. Just like we look to history to predict when characters will die on the show based on their obituaries. We can figure out who dies on the show based on how many episodes the actor is credited in. I’m happy to add it late though. The performance was stellar and the actor was Warner Miller who played in American Gangster.