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Boardwalk Empire Season 1, Episode 1

Season 1, Episode 1

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  • Courtesy of HBO
  • THE NAME 'NUCKY' WILL SWEEP THE NATION: Steve Buscemi in "Boardwalk Empire"

Steve Buscemi qualifies as the Peter Lorre of our time. Lorre was another pale, undersized, goggly-eyed actor who specialized in cringing criminals, and happened to be an undisputed movie star. Casting Buscemi as the lead of HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire," Martin Scorsese and “The Sopranos’” Terence Winter’s mob epic of Prohibition-era Atlantic City, is comparable to a Hollywood studio tapping Lorre for a Humphrey Bogart role. In “Boardwalk’s” 70-minute pilot, directed by Scorsese himself, Buscemi rises to the occasion while fitting the show’s counterintuitive vision for Enoch “Nucky” Thompson.

First, in his high-colored shirts and dapper suits, with pinstripes or huge checks, Buscemi looks exactly like the kind of person you’d see in silent newsreels of ribbon-cuttings and other civic events from a Ken Burns documentary. In “Boardwalk Empire’s” crooked context, at times he favors a Dick Tracy villain who’d have a name like “Snitchy.” In fact, Winter bases the role on a real person, city treasurer Enoch Johnson, a central figure of Nelson Johnson’s book Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times and Corruption of Atlantic City.

In part, the pilot follows Nucky from the New Year’s Eve passage of the Volstead Act, outlawing alcoholic spirits, as he tries to turn Atlantic City into the speakeasy capital of America. Nucky quickly establishes himself as a classic political figure, the kind of “fixer” in the background who makes the trains run on time, and in films, usually serves as sidekick or sounding board to a more charismatic and reckless (anti)hero. Buscemi proves equally persuasive while milking the sympathies of the ladies at the Temperance Union and then profanely joshing around in smoke-filled rooms with Atlantic City ward bosses.