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SCARFACE (aka: Scarface – The Shame of the Nation) (director/writer: Howard Hawks; screenwriters: from the book by Armitage Trail/Ben Hecht/ Seton Miller/John Lee Mahin/ W.R. Burnett; cinematographers: Lee Garmes/Lewis William O’Connell; editor: Edward A. Curtiss; music: Adolph Tandler/Gus Arnheim; cast: Paul Muni (Tony “Scarface” Camonte), George Raft (Guino Rinaldo), Ann Dvorak (Cesca Camonte), Karen Morley (Poppy), Osgood Perkins (Johnny Lovo), Howard Hawks (Meehan, Man in Hospital Bed), Boris Karloff (Gaffney), C. Henry Gordon (Guardino), Vince Barnett (Angelo), Harry Vejar (Big Louis Costillo), Inez Palange(Tony’s mother), Edwin Maxwell (Chief of Detectives), Tully Marshall (Managing Editor), Purnell Pratt (Mr. Garston); Runtime: 90; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Howard Hughes/Howard Hawks; United Artists; 1932)
“A brilliantly wild narrative that had a lot of Capone and the Borgias in it.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Warning: spoilers throughout.

Scarface was loosely based on notorious Chicago mobster Al Capone. It was originally to be about “the Borgia family living in Chicago today,” referring to the powerful Italian Renaissance dynasty. What the filmmakers ended up with was a brilliantly wild narrative that had a lot of Capone and the Borgias in it. Director Howard Hawk’s favorite film, a strangely pleasing blend of comedy and brutality, was based on the 1930 novel Scarface by Armitage Trail (a pseudonym for Maurice Coons). It was finished by mid-1930 but not released until 1932 because it ran into censorship problems over its violence (there were 28 deaths on-screen, making it the most violent film at the time). If it was released on time, it would have been the first great talkie gangster film, but during the delay Little Caesar (with Edward G. Robinson) and Public Enemy (with Jimmy Cagney) were released causing quite a stir for this type of hard-hitting crime drama. Yet Scarface remains of historical importance to the crime genre, as it set the tone for how the gangster film was to be made in modern times. Finally a compromised cut version with less violence, more moralistic lectures on the evils of crime, and a tamer ending was released in some cities, as the censors thought the film glorified the gangsters too much–it now showed Scarface arrested and then hanged by the law instead of being gunned down in a shootout. Other cities saw all the violence in the uncut version. Hawks and screenwriter Ben Hecht never agreed to the cut version, while co-producer and money man Howard Hughes did all he could do in his fight with the censors. It’s also the first film for George Raft, who was discovered at a prize fight while hanging out with gangsters, and the first one where he flips a coin (something he watched the mobsters do). Paul Muni was an unknown New York stage actor and this film made him an overnight Hollywood success.

The ambitious and ruthless Tony “Scarface” Camonte (Paul Muni) is a bodyguard for old-fashioned twenties bootlegger Big Louis Costillo, but Tony bumps him off as we see him do it in the shadows. Tony is grilled by the police, but says nothing and is soon released on a writ of habeus corpus. A newspaper editor predicts this will be the start of a gang war in Chicago among the bootleggers, and the papers will be filled with stories about bodies piling up on the street. After his release Tony meets with Johnny Lovo (Osgood Perkins), who arranged the hit, and gets handsomely paid off and told he’s moving up in the world to be the enforcer for his South Side liquor operation. Also in the swell apartment is Lovo’s gorgeous blonde mistress Poppy (Karen Morley), someone Tony is immediately attracted to and plans to acquire along with his plans to take over for Lovo someday.

Tony’s one human quality is that he dearly loves his sister Cesca (Ann Dvorak), though in an overbearing protective way. The first time we see them together, he stops her from kissing her date in the hallway of their home. But then to show he really cares about her, lays on her a big wad of cash to have some fun–which meets with the disapproval of his mother, who has given up on him but has hopes that her daughter will not take the same path.

Tony in his rise to the top (signaled by a neon sign he admires that faces his apartment that says “The World is Yours — Cook’s Tours”) begins a reign of terror with his right-hand man Rinaldo (George Raft). They make bootleggers buy from them by force, and bomb and shoot those who resist. In one case, they go to a hospital to finish off a rival gangster they previously wounded (Howard Hawkes). After attacking the Irish on the North Side and having their leader O’Hara bumped off by Rinaldo in his flower shop, Tony proves he’s the man to deal with and not Lovo.

Gaffney (Boris Karloff) and his gang use newly obtained machine guns in a drive-by shooting while Tony and Poppy are in a restaurant. Lovo is wounded at a different location, and berates Tony for raiding the North Side and causing all this trouble. Tony falls in love with the machine gun he gets off a dead hood and immediately retaliates by attacking with his boys the North Side on Valentine’s Day dressed as cops, lining up seven of the top rival leaders and mowing them down. Gaffney figures he’s next and goes on the lam. Soon Gaffney is gunned down in a bowling alley. At a nightclub, Tony is dancing with Poppy while Lovo acts scared and jealous by his table. When Tony spots Cesca dancing, he becomes insanely paternal taking her home and hitting her. While in his car Tony is shot at and driven off the road, and later realizes it was Lovo. Tony and Rinaldo meet up again with Lovo, and the pleading gangsters begs that they spare his life. But Rinaldo shoots him.

The film draws to its conclusion with Tony returning from a month’s vacation in Florida and learning from his mother that his sister is living with a man. In a jealous rage, Tony finds her with Rinaldo and guns him down, not realizing they married. Tony’s downfall comes as the police surround him and kill his loyal inner circle and then in a shootout kill his sister, leaving the trembling gangster alone. Tony is killed as he tries to run from the police rather than be captured.

The film seems to be sending a dual message: it’s saying this criminal violence is awful but, on the other hand, it earns its entertainment value solely on all the gunplay. You can’t have it both ways (Or, can you?). But if you forget about any messages, Scarface brilliantly conveys a dark and violent mood that it revels in and refuses to let go of in all its insanity and bad attitude. It was the nearly perfect escape film for the thirties, and the pioneering film still serves as a model for today’s still popular gangster films.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”