Though most are more familiar with the Brian De Palma remake with Al Pacino (I plan on watching and reviewing it within the next week), Howard Hawks’ Scarface is the original. Released in 1932 and produced by Howard Hughes, the film is heavily based off of Al Capone’s rise to power in Chicago. The film was very groundbreaking at the time for its depiction of amorality and extreme violence. As such, it’s very interesting from a film history point of view, but it’s also a very enjoyable film.
Tony Carmonte (Paul Muni) is a gangster, and like most gangsters, he is ruthless and takes whatever he wants. The film shows his rise to power in Chicago, where he murders his own boss (Osgood Perkins) and shoots up rival gangs. He gains control of the bootleg liquor business and seems unstoppable, but he has an Achilles heel. He harbors incestuous feelings for his sister Cesca (Ann Dvorak), and when she takes up with his best friend and body guard Rinaldo (George Raft), his jealousy proves his undoing.
The Production Code in Hollywood technically began in 1930, but wasn’t widely enforced until 1934. As this film was released in 1932, you’d think it’d be safe from censorship, but that is not the case. Of concern to the censors was the way the film glorified the lifestyle, so Hawks had to shoot a new ending, change the title to “Scarface: The Shame of the Nation,” add cautionary text at the beginning of the film, and change certain plot details. The new version still didn’t get past the censors, so producer Howard Hughes released the original Scarface anyway, though he kept the added text at the beginning.
Even with all of this ignored oversight, the film still sends mixed messages. With gangster films in general, it’s really hard to make the movie fun to watch without glorifying the gangsters just a little. The film tries to dissuade us from identifying to closely with Carmonte, and some of its attempts are more successful than others. There is one scene showing concerned citizens that is particularly eye-rolling. A newspaper editor, a couple of policemen, and a few citizens sit in a room discussing the gang problem, and literally every line is directed toward the audience. It’s quite tiresome, but the Carmonte family dynamic is a little more convincing. He alienates his mother with his greed and she is even more dismayed that Cesca follows his example, thinking anything she wants is hers for the taking.
While the way the point of view of the concerned citizen and cops is shown is pretty wearing, the immoral half of the story is told quite well. There is a good bit of humor; for example Tony enlists one of his boys to come and get him when a play is over so he can hear the outcome, even though he is in the middle of a murder. When he and Rinaldo are getting shot at, he marvels at the new technology of portable machine guns. Even more interesting is the use of shadow and light. A murder is carried out by a shadow, and several shadows are executed, the actual actors are never shown. Another hallmark of the film is the x motif; nearly every time a murder is carried out, the letter x is shown somewhere. Rinaldo is killed right outside his front door, he happens to live in apartment X. One of the rival gangsters is killed while bowling a strike, signified with an X. A lit X is on the wall during another murder. Its significance is clear: in Scarface, X really does mark the spot.
Most gangster films in some way interact with the American dream. It wasn’t always extended to immigrants the way it was perceived to be. Scarface illustrates this perfectly with one reoccurring image; the sign outside of Tony’s apartment. It’s an advertisement for some type of travel company and reads: “The World is Yours.” Tony takes this a bit too seriously, and actually goes after it. He looks longingly outside of his window, believing that he is acting on the opportunity that society has given him. That doesn’t excuse him of course, but it explains him a bit.
“Someday I look at that sign and I say, “‘Okay, she’s mine.'”
Long story short: 3.5/4 stars