Live By Night: Ben Affleck’s White Gangster Suit
Ben Affleck as Joe Coughlin, gangster and war veteran
Ybor City, Florida, Spring 1933
Film: Live by Night
Release Date: December 25, 2016
Director: Ben Affleck
Costume Designer: Jacqueline West
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
After years of memes picturing him in various states of Dunkin’-fueled despair, Ben Affleck seems to be doing pretty well for himself these days, recently married to Jennifer Lopez as they have evidently to put the past—including Gigli—well behind them. On Affleck’s 50th birthday, let’s explore one of his more stylish roles as the Prohibition-era protagonist in Live By Night.
Affleck had first achieved the trifecta of starring, writing, and directing with The Town in 2010, returning to the crime genre for his follow-up effort, a self-penned adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s novel Live By Night. The central character is World War I veteran Joe Coughlin, who—after more than three years in prison—seeks revenge on the ruthless Irish gangster Albert White (Robert Glenister) by volunteering his services to White’s rival, Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone), as the Italian Mafia’s enforcer in the central Florida rum wars.
Maso: I could use someone committed to putting an end to Mr. White.
Joe: You’ve found your man right here.
Joe’s work for Maso includes sending $11 million in annual revenue up to the boss, but the impending end of Prohibition and the failure of his gambling venture have resulted in the Pescatore crime family coming down by train from Boston to Florida to confront Joe in person. The meeting goes better than expected as Maso offers Joe the position of consigliere, “teach[ing] Digger to fish” once the hotheaded Digger (Max Casella) is installed as new boss of the territory. Unfortunately, surrendering his financial take isn’t a viable option for Joe, who otherwise agrees to share leadership of the criminal empire that he’s built in the region. It’s all moot once Maso and Digger reveal that they’re now partnered with erstwhile enemy Albert White, who emerges from the bedroom with a Tommy gun.
At the end of a brutal gunfight, White and Pescatore are left dead as well as much of the latter’s crew, aside from those that have agreed to defect to Joe—or, rather, his partner Dion Bartolo (a mustached Chris Messina), to whom Joe has relinquished control: “He runs things now.”
What’d He Wear?
“You’re not a killer, Joseph, you’re a bandit in a suit,” Maso tells Joe, who sits before him in a cream-colored silk three-piece suit, one of several light-colored suits that comprise Joe’s Florida-friendly wardrobe.
Of dressing the 6’4″ Ben Affleck in period suits, costume designer Jacqueline West told USA Today, “Ben has a superhero’s body with the best shoulders in the business and a narrow waist. The men’s suit cuts were inspired by the new superhero comic-book phenomenon of the ’30s. So they looked perfect on him.”
Set through the 1920s into the early ’30s, Live by Night depicts a range of men’s tailoring including two- and three-piece suits and single- and double-breasted jackets, with Joe dressed for this high-caliber climactic sequence in a then-common combination of a three-piece suit with a double-breasted jacket, a style that has fallen by the wayside in the decades since due to wartime fabric rationing, decreasing formality standards, and warmer temperatures.
The double-breasted jacket’s matching ivory-colored recessed buttons are arranged in a classic 6×2 configuration; two vestigial buttons are spaced at chest level, tapering down to a narrower “square” of four buttons, with two to fasten. Double-breasted jackets like this can be “correctly” worn with either both buttons or just the top button closed, as Joe does… perhaps to allow swifter access to the pistol in his waistband. Affleck’s already imposing silhouette is reinforced by the jacket’s straight, padded shoulders.
Front darts add some shape to gently pull in the jacket at the waist, though the jacket presents a full fit with its long, squared skirt and ventless back. The peak lapels are detailed with pick-stitched edges and a buttonhole through each. The jacket also has a welted breast pocket, straight jetted hip pockets, and four cuff buttons at the end of each sleeve.
Joe’s single-breasted waistcoat (vest) has six recessed ivory buttons, with the lowest button worn undone over the notched bottom. The waistcoat has front darts and an adjustable strap across the white satin-finished back.
The waistcoat has four welted pockets, with the outlines visible through the lightweight cloth. He keeps his gold pocket watch in the lower-right pocket, with the gold “single Albert”-style chain looped through the third buttonhole with a dangling fob.
The suit’s matching trousers have then-fashionable double forward-facing pleats that add roominess through the thighs, continued with a full fit through the legs down to the bottoms finished with turn-ups (cuffs). In addition to the side pockets, there are jetted pockets in the back as evident by their outlines visible through the cloth.
Joe keeps his waistcoat fastened throughout the suit’s screen-time, but behind-the-scenes shots reveal a redundant “belt and braces” trouser support system; suspenders (braces) are traditionally favored with three-piece suits to avoid the potential bulge created by belt buckles. Joe indeed wears peach-and-black woven suspenders, with black leather double-eared hooks connected to buttons inside the trouser waistband, but his trousers are also held up with a cream-colored belt pulled through the waistband loops and fastened through a silver-toned box-style buckle. Though “belt and braces” are oft derided as redundant, the belt would provide more stalwart support for keeping Joe’s pistol relatively secured in his waistband.
Joe wears a light peach-colored shirt, likely made from a high-twist cotton that presents a silky finish. He fastens the collar with a convex gold pin or clip that holds it in place behind the tie knot. Though many of the shirt details are covered by the jacket and waistcoat, we see that it has a front placket, a breast pocket (seen only in behind-the-scenes photography), and double (French) cuffs fastened with a set of chunky round gold links.
Joe’s soft woolen tie has a yellowed beige ground that coordinates with his shirt, though patterned in a series of narrow black stripes, shadowed on the left with a medium brown stripe.
Joe wears semi-brogue derby shoes in a shade of light brown leather often called “English tan”, detailed with woven-textured vamps but smooth toe caps, heel counters, and five-eyelet lace panels, all detailed with decorative perforations along the edges. Beige cotton lisle socks provide harmony with the deeper brown shoes and the lighter suit trousers.
Apropos the warm climate, Joe wears his usual white woven straw Panama hat with its distinctive “optimo crown”, a raised ridge across the center. The hat is detailed with a narrow band in plain black grosgrain.
Joe Coughlin’s standard sidearm is the relatively little-seen Colt Model 1903 Pocket Hammer, a John Browning design that resembles a precursor to the famous 1911 pistol series, though it had been initially introduced as a down-scaled variant of the Colt Model 1902. (For what it’s worth, Joe had carried the larger Model 1902 during a much earlier scene in Live by Night.)
As its nomenclature suggests, this semi-automatic pistol was introduced in 1903 and would be produced until well into the ’20s, though it never attained the popularity of contemporary Colt pistols like the Model 1903 Pocket Hammerless or the .45-caliber Model 1905 and M1911. Colt had intended the Model 1903 Pocket Hammer to be a contender for U.S. military usage, thus upgrading the rounded hammer to the more popular spur hammer in 1907, though it rarely saw any action beyond some limited secondary stocks.
A short-recoil pistol like the later M1911, the Model 1903 Pocket Hammer was plagued by chambering the relatively anemic .38 ACP ammunition, a semi-rimmed round that would be soon rendered obsolete by the more powerful 9x19mm Parabellum and .38 Super. To my knowledge, little more than 3,000 of these pistols were manufactured by the time Colt quietly ended production of the Model 1903 Pocket Hammer by 1927.
Once Joe’s trusty Colt pistol runs out of ammunition, he grabs a Browning Automatic Rifle stashed away in Maso’s hotel room, using it to cut down White through the wall. Also designed by John Browning, the BAR had been developed for the American Expeditionary Force and rushed into production in time to make an impression on the battlefield during the final months of World War I.
The BAR was intended to be a cross between a rifle and machine gun, carried by infantrymen and able to deliver devastating automatic rifle against the enemy using the Army’s standardized .30-06 Springfield ammunition, which remains a popular hunting round more than a century later. BARs fed from a 20-round box magazine, which—when loaded—added nearly a pound-and-a-half to the M1918 BAR’s already substantial 16-pound weight.
Through generations of improvements and upgrades, the BAR remained a trusted military long arm that saw action in the first two World Wars as well as in Korea and even some limited service in Vietnam. Of course, its blend of portability and power also attracted the criminal element and it became a favorite of ’30s desperado Clyde Barrow of “Bonnie and Clyde” infamy.
The same year that Colt began marketing the Model 1903 Pocket Hammer, it also introduced the Colt Model 1903 Pocket Hammerless, another John Browning design that considerable superseded the Pocket Hammer as far as contemporary and lasting popularity.
The original Colt Model 1903 Pocket Hammerless was chambered in the light .32 ACP caliber, which Browning had initially developed for the Belgian-made FN M1900 pistol. Five years later, Browning designed the larger .380 ACP (9x17mm) round for a new variant of the Pocket Hammerless pistol. Though dimensionally smaller and less powerful than the .38 ACP fired by the Pocket Hammer, the rimless .380 ACP was better-suited to smaller blowback pistols like the Pocket Hammerless, further rendering the .38 ACP obsolete as more blowback pistols like the German-made Walther PP and PPK appeared in the 1930s.
The pistol’s slide extends over the back, shrouding the hammer—which does exist, despite the “Hammerless” moniker—to allow the weapon to be effectively carried and drawn from concealment without snagging on clothing. This made it a favorite of both law-abiding citizens and criminals like bank robber John Dillinger, who reportedly carried one in his trouser pocket when he was cornered and killed by FBI agents in July 1934.
Live by Night illustrates the Colt Model 1903 Pocket Hammerless’ popularity among gangsters, both as Dion’s favored pistol and also seen—fitted with a suppressor—found by Joe Coughlin as he awaits Maso’s return.
How to Get the Look
Joe Coughlin dresses appropriately for the Florida heat during the waning days of Prohibition, standing apart from his colleagues in an off-white suit reflecting the early ’30s fashions of pairing a waistcoat with a double-breasted jacket and voluminously pleated trousers, naturally finished with a straw Panama hat rather than the warmer-wearing felt fedoras of the gangsters visiting from chillier Boston.
- Cream silk tailored three-piece suit:
- Double-breasted 6×2-button jacket with pick-stitched peak lapels, welted breast pocket, straight jetted hip pockets, 4-button cuffs, and ventless back
- Single-breasted 6-button vest/waistcoat with four welted pockets, notched bottom, and white satin-finished back with adjustable strap
- Double forward-pleated trousers with belt loops, on-seam side pockets, jetted back pockets, and turn-ups/cuffs
- Peach high-twist cotton shirt with pinned point collar, front placket, breast pocket, and double/French cuffs
- Gold round cuff links
- Beige, black, and brown vertical-striped wool tie
- Cream-colored belt with silver-toned box-style buckle
- Peach-and-black woven suspenders with black leather double-eared hooks
- Tan leather cap-toe semi-brogue 5-eyelet derby shoes with woven-textured vamps
- Beige cotton lisle socks
- White woven straw Panama hat with optimo crown and narrow black grosgrain band
- Gold pocket watch on gold “single Albert”-style chain with fob
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie.
Whoever wants to go back to Boston has my blessing—go ahead. If any of you wanna stay down here where the sun is warm and the girls are pretty, we got jobs for you.