Sunday, March 19, 2017


"The World Is Yours"

Produced by Howard Hughes and directed by Howard Hawks, SCARFACE (1932), is ground zero for the American gangster film. Loosely based on real life "Scarface" Al Capone, the film deals with the rise to power of scar faced thug Tony Camonte (Paul Muni). Tony starts off as a lieutenant to Johnny Lovo (Osgood Perkins). Tony kills rival gang leader Louis Costillo (Harry J. Vejar) at the beginning of the film, a move which places Lovo in charge of all of the illegal activity in Chicago's south side. Tony is ordered to leave the north side gangs, led by Gaffney (a cadaverous Boris Karloff) alone but he's wildly ambitious and drunk on power and he soon brings a gang war to the north side. After wiping out all of his enemies and becoming top dog, there's no where for Tony to go but down. But he's not going out without a fight and fight he does in a well mounted final act shootout with the police.

Muni owns this film from start to finish. He plays Tony with a strange mix of likeable rube and vicious killer. He's loyal to his best friend, the endlessly coin-flipping Guino Rinaldo (George Raft). He woos the lovely Poppy (Karen Morely) away from Lovo and he has an overly protective attitude towards his beautiful younger sister, Cesca (Ann Dvorak). Muni's looks are a combination of two future tough guys: Charles Bronson and Tommy Lee Jones, while Boris Karloff's visage prefigures Abe Vigoda and Jeremy Irons.

SCARFACE is visually sophisticated, with smoothly executed long tracking shots by cinematographers Lee Garmes and L.W O'Connell. There's the repeated motif of an "X" in the background of the frame whenever Tony kills someone. Director Howard Hawks brings vigor to the multiple gun fights with sedans speeding along dark streets, tommy guns typing out a letter of leaden death.

One nod to reality (among several) in the screenplay by W.R. Burnett, John Lee Mahin and Seton I. Miller (from a story by the legendary Ben Hecht), is an enactment of the infamous St. Valentine's Day Massacre, a sequence shot in silhouette. The film has a strong social message, indeed, the opening title cards practically preach at the audience that crime is a poison and that something must be done about it. It's no coincidence that the film's original subtitle was THE SHAME OF THE NATION.

Filmed before the restrictions of the Hollywood Production Code were put in place, SCARFACE is full of tough talking gangsters, beautiful women and brutal violence. It was later famously remade in 1983 by Brian De Palma with Al Pacino in an over-the-top performance

The original SCARFACE is a vital piece of  film history and should be seen by anyone interested in the evolution of both the crime film and the American cinema. Highly recommended.

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