Scarface: The Shame of a Nation

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USA, 1932

Director: Howard Hawks

Production: Atlantic Pictures; black and white, 35mm; running time: 99 minutes. Released April 1932, New York. Filmed during Spring and Summer 1931.

Producers: Howard Hughes and Howard Hawks; screenplay: Ben Hecht, Seton I. Miller, John Lee Mahin, and W. R. Burnett, with Fred Palsey, from the novel by Armitage Trail; assistant director: Richard Rosson; photography: Lee Garmes and L. W. O'Connell; editor: Edward Curtis; sound: William Snyder; production designer: Harry Olivier; music: Adolph Tandler and Gus Arnheim.

Cast: Paul Muni (Tony Camonte); Ann Dvorak (Cesca Camonte); Karen Morley (Poppy); Osgood Perkins (Johnny Lovo); Boris Karloff (Gaffney); George Raft (Guido Rinaldo); Vince Barnett (Angelo); C. Henry Gordon (Inspector Guarino); Ines Palance (Tony's mother); Edwin Maxwell (Commissioner); Tully Marshall (Editor); Harry J. Vejar (Big Louis Costello); Bert Starkey (Epstein); Henry Armetta (Pietro); Maurice Black (Sullivan); Purnell Pratt (Publisher); Charles Sullivan and Harry Tembrook (Bootleggers); Hank Mann (Worker); Paul Fix (Gaffney hood); Howard Hawks (Man on bed); Dennis O'Keefe (Dance extra).



Hecht, Ben, and others, Scarface, in Avant-Scène du Cinéma (Paris), January 1973.


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Scarface was one of the three major films (along with Little Caesar and Public Enemy) that defined the American gangster genre in the early 1930s. Of the three, Scarface was simultaneously the most violent and most humorous; it was also the most controversial. Its gleeful depiction of the gangster's life as brutal fun lacked the mean, growing swagger of Little Caesar and the sociological analysis of Public Enemy. For two years, Howard Hughes, the film's producer, battled with the industry's censors, who only allowed the film's release with the deletion of some scripted material (for example, a scene showing an elected public official as a paid collaborator of the gangsters) and the addition of other material (a morally sententious scene in which the newspaper publisher implores a group of public-spirited citizens to stop the gangster menace by taking some sort of public action on election day). Even with the censorship and the changes, the film was cited as an example of what the industry would try to avoid when it implemented its Hollywood Production Code two years later. As a result of the controversy, the film has been seen far less often in America (especially on television) than the other two major gangster films, and for decades the film could only be shown legally in Europe. (Hughes's death allowed his estate to find an American distributor for it.)

Much of the power of Scarface derives from its director, Howard Hawks, and the choices he made. Rather than make a film of snarling gangsters, he decided to treat the gangsters as children playing games, having fun—since Hawks felt that the gangsters who talked to him about their adventures always sounded like children. Another Hawks decision was to turn the leading gangster's affection for his sister into a repressed, unexplored, and unarticulated form of incest so that the gangster himself does not understand the power and shape of his feelings for her. As Hawks told his chief writer for the film, Ben Hecht, the intention was to get the Borgia family into Chicago, and the script for the film made explicit references to incest and the Borgias (scenes either deleted by the censors or removed by Hawks himself, who preferred to give less away). The incest motif underlies the plot of the film, as the leading gangster, Tony Camonte, kills his best friend, Guido Rinaldo, because he believes Guido is sleeping with his sister.

In casting his film, Hawks found several minor or unknown players to fit the roles. Paul Muni, a noted actor from New York with roots in the Yiddish theater, played his first major film role as Tony Camonte. Hawks claimed that he found George Raft, who played Tony's best friend, at a prizefight. Raft's nervous, perpetual flipping of a coin occurs for the first time in this film; the action has since become a cultural icon of movie gangsterism, duplicated decades later in the "Broadway Melody" ballet of Singin' in the Rain, when two dancing thugs flip coins in unison, and by a minor thug in Some Like It Hot, an act which occasions George Raft himself to ask, "Where'd you learn that cheap trick?" For the role of Cesca Camonte, Tony's sister, Hawks found Ann Dvorak, a lithe, sharp-talking mixture of toughness and softness who would become the prototype for all Hawksian women in future films. And for the role of "Dope," Tony's comic "seckatary," Hawks found the quirky character actor Vince Barnett, who provides most of the film's comedy by being a secretary who cannot write and can never even remember who the caller is or what the message might be.

The overall shape of Scarface reveals the classic narrative of the gangster's rise and fall, roughly patterned on the same tragic model as Shakespeare's Macbeth: the gangster climbs to the top by taking action against his betters, then falls from that summit when he is deserted by his own allies and underlings. The first scene of the film is one of its most memorable, a very lengthy traveling shot, extended in both time and space, in which we watch a shadowy, whistling figure (only later identified as Tony) murder the gangster who then sits at the "top of the world." At the end of the film Tony himself will be gunned down (by the police, not by one of his own), and as he dies in the gutter an electric sign above him ironically flashes, "The World Is Yours—Cook's Tours." The shadowy irony of the film's opening shot and the cynical irony of its final image enclose a narrative full of other ironic, comic, or subtle touches that are clearly lacking from the other major films of this type. Tony's fall is precipitated not by the forces of law in the film (who are shown to be totally inept or unable to contain the gangster menace) but by Tony himself. The murder of his best friend (like Macbeth's murder of Banquo) and the death of his sister, whom he loved not wisely but well, lead to his emotional breakdown and collapse. His resolution to die "with harness on his back," like Macbeth, shooting gleefully at the police from his heavily armored lair, collapses when his sister dies from a stray police bullet—turning Tony into a puling, weeping coward.

Among the other memorable scenes in the film is a violently comic sequence which juxtaposes the brutal crashing of machinegun bullets, spraying a restaurant with deadly destruction, with Dope's comic attempts to take a telephone message for Tony. Dope keeps complaining that he is unable to hear the message because of all the noise from the crashing glass around him. This method of deflection dominates the film to produce its wry, ironic, understated tone; deflecting a scene from a brutal gun battle to a comic telephone conversation, deflecting emotion from brutal words to a flipping coin, deflecting Tony's motivation to a smothered and incomprehensible love for his own sister, deflecting the gangster menace to a series of childhood games.

The irony and deflection not only make Scarface unique among gangster films but make it consistent with the other films of its director, Howard Hawks. Hawks enjoys depicting the lives of professionals who do their work well and love what they do. In this film, those professionals are gangster. Hawks also comments on a related group of professionals in the film—newspaper reporters and editors— who do not condemn the gangster menace but excitedly exploit the gangsters' activities—to sell more newspapers. Hawks would return to this theme—the conflict between morality and professionalism in the newspaper world—in His Girl Friday. Still another of the film's delights (equally true of Public Enemy and Little Caesar) was the pleasure of simply listening to the private lingo and argot of tough gangsters. The gangster film was born with the talkies, at least partially because listening to the slang was a major delight of the genre.

—Gerald Mast