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Scarface (1932)

August 29th, 2006 · No Comments

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After giving a gang boss in a telephone booth a case of lead poisoning, Tony Camonte (Paul Muni) and partner Guino (George Raft) are rousted from a barber shop and hauled in by the coppers. A swaggering Italian immigrant with a scar on his left cheek, Tony responds, “Now listen, you. What kinda mug do ya think I am? I don’t know nothin, I don’t see nothin and I don’t hear nothin. And when I do, I don’t tell a cop.”

Tony is bodyguard for Chicago bootlegger Johnny Lovo (Osgood Perkins), but even after Lovo takes over beer running on the south side, the upstart feels that the boss is too soft. With one eye on Lovo’s tramp girlfriend Poppy (Karen Morley) and another on his 18-year-old kid sister Cesca (Ann Dvorak), Tony draws inspiration from a billboard, whose slogan “The World Is Yours” inspires him to take what’s coming to him at the trigger of a gun.

Directed with terrific energy by Howard Hawks, from a screen story adapted by Ben Hecht from Armitage Trail’s novel, Scarface was completed in 1930, but held up two years in an epic battle with the nation’s censors. Elements of the story are based on the career of Al Capone, who despite the anti-crime message, loved the movie so much, legend has it he owned a print.

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Infamous for being the first movie where a gangster used a machine gun – and used it racking up 28 killings in the course of the picture – Scarface came to the attention of Will Hays, the former campaign manager for President Warren Harding and chairman of the Republican National Committee, whom the movie studios had hired to fend off charges of immorality.

To guarantee Hollywood had the best interests of the public at heart, Hays developed a production code which governed the content in motion pictures. The guiding principle of the code was that no movie would be allowed to “lower the moral standards of those who see it.” Nudity, suggestive dance, ridicule of religion, illegal drug or liquor use, vulgarity, and interracial dating were forbidden, as was “excessive and lustful kissing.”

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Scarface took a tommy gun to those restrictions, throwing in an implied incestuous relationship between Tony and Cesca as a bonus. Hawks refused to give in to Hays’ editing demands, but producer Howard Hughes eventually relented on several points. The film was retitled Scarface: The Shame of a Nation, and a prologue was inserted stating “This picture is an indictment of gang rule in America,” to make sure the audience knew they’d be in trouble for trying to copy Tony’s behavior.

As a black comedy, punctuated briefly by melodrama and public service announcements, this is a masterpiece, the film all modern gangster movies take their cue from in one way or another. Though Little Caesar with Edward G. Robinson, and Public Enemy with James Cagney beat it to theaters, had it been distributed on time, this would have been the first “talkie” gangster film.

Hawks creates a moody, uncompromising underworld from the opening scene, where Tony’s trademark whistle and silhouette slowly make their way closer to his victim. Hawks felt that the hoodlums he’d talked to reminded him of children, so there’s playful glee in the mayhem here, such as the scene when Tony is shot at, but can only marvel of his assassins, “Hey, lookit! They got machine guns you can carry!”

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In spite of Hays’ crusade to protect the public, Scarface is undeniably exciting. Paul Muni, whom Benecio del Toro shares a resemblance to, swaggers around like a giant ape and mumbles some terrific dialogue, like “I’m gonna run the whole works. There’s only one law; do it first, do it yourself, and keep doin it.” In addition to the barrage of drive-by machine gunnings, Hawks sends Model Ts whipping through traffic, crashing into sidewalks and flipping over throughout.

Ironically, the Hays Code disintegrated by the mid ’60s, but Brian DePalma’s remake was greeted by almost as much furor when it was released in 1983. Today, the Al Pacino version is considered a masterpiece, while the original languishes as an also-ran of the period.

They’re two different films, but I admire how Hawks told the same story as DePalma (“The World Is Yours”) in half the time, using creative suggestion instead of graphic violence or profanity. Hawks had said that of all his films, this was his favorite.

Tags: Golden Age of Hollywood

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