SCARFACE (1932)

  • Director: Howard Hawks
  • Writers: Ben Hecht, based on the novel by Armitage Trail
  • Starring: Paul Muni, Ann Dvorak, George Raft, Karen Morley, Osgood Perkins, Boris Karloff, and Inez Palange
  • Accolades: 2008 Cahiers du Cinema Top 100 list (#98)
  • Where to Watch: Buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, and Apple TV

Scarface was one of a spate of gangster movies that were actually made during that Prohibition-era heyday of American organized crime, and it remains today probably the most famous of that group. It was not the first such movie (not least because the censorship office held up its release for over a year, ostensibly because they thought it made the gangster lifestyle look too glamorous and was therefore encouraging crime), but it did probably end up as the prototype. Today, most people are more likely to have seen the 1983 remake with Al Pacino (“Say hello to my little friend!”). That movie remains a particular favorite of rappers and various other guys who want to be seen as tough to this day. Perhaps that speaks to the original concern of the censorship office, which was that, no matter how hard the filmmakers of Scarface tried to emphasize that all this violence was bad and the excessive tastes of the lead character are gauche and hollow, that much of the audience would entirely miss the point.

The original version was the brainchild of Howard Hughes, who correctly surmised that a gangster movie would allow to make a movie with a lot of gun fights that would also feel “ripped from the headlines.” He hired the great Howard Hawks to direct, as Hawks had worked on a handful of crime movies before as both a writer and director. Scarface turned out to probably be the first of Hawks’ movies that is still watched frequently today, though not his first contemporary hit. The starring role of the cocky, up and coming gangster went to Paul Muni, whose scenery-chewing is a bit wild but always enjoyable here. 

The story of the movie is very loosely based on a 1929 novel of the same title by Armitrage Trail, which was in turn very loosely based on the life of the famous real-life gangster Al Capone, who was also nicknamed “Scarface.” The actual Capone was very much in business at the time, and apparently sent two of his goons to review the script as it was being written in order to make sure it was not actually based on him. Despite the title and the fact that the movie includes a very thinly veiled version of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, they were apparently convinced it was not. Hawks always claimed that Capone was a big fan of the finished product, but who knows if this was actually true (Capone would be imprisoned for tax evasion less than a month after the movie finally came out).

Muni plays Tony Camonte, a young, arrogant gangster, working for an Italian mafia boss, Johnny (played incongruously by a guy named Osgood Perkins), on the south side of Chicago. After working his way up the ranks by knocking off a rival boss, he attacks the Irish gangsters controlling the north side of town against his boss’ orders and starts a war with the newfangled “Tommy guns.” The leader of the Irish gang is played by Boris Karloff, though he gets very little to do. Johnny eventually realizes Tony only wants power for himself and tries to have him killed, but Tony and his friend Guino (George Raft) kill Johnny instead, leaving Tony the undisputed crime boss of Chicago. But his brutal rampages have drawn public outrage and the attention of the police, who eventually surround his penthouse apartment (an exercise in conspicuous consumption) and he dies in a final shootout with the cops.

All of this plays as much weirder than it might sound, because there is a lot of psychosexual strangeness going on in the meantime. The movie is interested in Tony’s ostensible love interest, Poppy (Karen Morley), as more of a plot device than a character. At first she is with Tony’s boss, and his interest in her is a sign of his naked ambition. In the end she is killed off-screen. Tony’s intense jealousy regarding his sister Cesca (Ann Dvorak), by contrast is at the center of the second half of the movie. The movie obviously never quite comes out and says he has incestuous feelings for her, but it doesn’t have to. She loves Tony’s friend Guino, but seeing them together causes Tony to fly into a jealous rage and kill Guino, not realizing that the two of them were just secretly married. She eventually comes back, planning to kill him, but instead decides to help with his shootout with police. Inevitably, she dies in his arms and Tony screams her name as his apartment fills with tear gas.

On a textual level, Scarface operates as a critique of Tony’s excess. He goes over the top in his violent killings, resulting in way more violence than necessary. At the same time, it is clear to everyone else in the movie that he has no taste, and his over-the-top apartment is clearly signatory thereof. The thing is, a lot of people would buy all the most expensive things if they had the money, too, and it looks like fun when Paul Muni indiscriminately blasts everyone with a machine gun while yelling. His naked ambition is symbolized by the lit-up billboard outside his window (famously a blimp in the Pacino version) that reads, “The World Is Yours.” After Tony is shot a bunch of times and collapses in the gutter, the camera pans back up to that billboard for the final shot.

One film historian recently called Scarface “the most censored movie of all time,” and while this is certainly subjective it was definitely subjected to more hassling from the “Hays Office,” still new at the time, than any prior movie. Howard Hughes always told everyone that this was because most of Hollywood didn’t like him and thought he was an outside, and to some degree this rings true to me (taking out the weird incest storyline, there isn’t that much here that wasn’t in other contemporary gangster flicks like Public Enemy or Little Caesar). The Hays office said the movie portrayed Paul Muni’s character too sympathetically and “revealed to youth a successful method of crime.” They forced numerous scenes to be deleted, as well as the ending re-shot to make Tony’s death seem less glamorous. Hughes also added an opening title card condemning crime and claiming that the point of the movie was to ask why authorities weren’t doing more to stop it (which it is not). Amusingly, the censors also tried to get the title of the movie changed to Shame of the Nation, though a compromise was eventually landed on and the movie was originally, officially released as Scarface, Shame of the Nation. Originally, Tony’s mother (Inez Palange) loved him unconditionally throughout, but these scenes were then re-shot so she would be constantly begging him to stop. I mean, the censors and I rarely agree on much, but it seems awfully petty for them to make so that if someone’s a criminal not even their mother is allowed to love them.

I found Scarface to be a more interesting movie than one might expect on its face, because of its slightly off-center approach to its on material and a handful of, um, unrestrained performances. But it somehow still wasn’t as enthralling for me as I wanted. I think it might just be that all of these plot beats and silly gangster dialogue have become so much a cliché today that it’s hard to see them as anything but. However, if you are a crime film aficionado, Scarface will probably be right up your alley.

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