There once was a gangster film about an ambitious crime lord and his ruthless and violent rise to power trafficking in illegal substances. He was played with consummate skill by a chameleonic actor of the first rank, who many claimed exaggerated the character’s non-American accent to the point of parody. The film was exceedingly violent, simultaneously drawing the ire of censorship boards and thrilling audiences seeking an exciting glimpse into the network of the criminal underworld. That film is Scarface. But I’m not talking about the one with Al Pacino, I’m talking about the 1932 one with Paul Muni from which director Brian DePalma and screenwriter Oliver Stone took big chunks in their 1983 homage to director Howard Hawks and screenwriter Ben Hecht’s groundbreaking film based loosely on the life of Al Capone (here named Tony Carmonte). And where DePalma’s film goes gleefully over the top in tandem with its lead character, Hawks’ film is more restrained, more tightly controlled, and probably more thrilling in the long run – but no less violent in intent.
Producer Howard Hughes, who had previously bankrolled the drama Hell’s Angels, featuring the most spectacular plane stunts ever put on film to that date (or perhaps ever), wanted to comment on what he felt was a scourge undermining the country during Prohibition – organized crime – and decided to make the most realistic and upsetting portrait of it ever put on film, pushing the violence of great earlier crime films like Little Caesar, The Public Enemy, and Underworld to the limit. And push it he did. Along with director Howard Hawks, they fashioned a crime epic that in no way undercut the viciousness, the brutality of the crime world of the day, even though their alleged glamorizing of the criminal lifestyle tied them up in battles with censors that delayed the release of the film for nearly a year. With Hawks’ fast, mobile camera crafting a lithe and exciting film, it’s hard not to get swept up in the rush of the rise of Tony Carmonte, though it’s hard to see how the censors could find anything likeable or relatable about his sociopathic violence or his inevitable fall that would be perceived as glamorous. In response to the censors, Hawks and Hughes fashioned a scene in which concerned citizens get to vent to police and government officials their frustration with the mob violence on the streets (including a representative Italian immigrant decrying how these gangsters are giving his people a bad name) and it’s the film’s only bum note, a moralizing aside that only interrupts the flow of an otherwise terrific film.
Paul Muni as Carmonte is remarkable, playing him in the early scenes as uneducated but not dumb, with an arrogant insouciance that comes from his unshakeable belief that he’s going straight to the top. And he’s right, of course. And in the grand Hawks tradition, there’s a brilliant ensemble cast at work around him: Osgood Perkins (Anthony Perkins’ father) as mob leader Johnny Lovo, Carmonte’s boss; Karen Morley as gangster’s moll Poppy, moving to whoever has the power and money to keep her in style; Ann Dvorak as Tony’s sister Cesca, playing her as flirty but experienced teenager with whom Tony is creepily obsessed; and Boris Karloff as North Side rival boss Gaffney. Hawks’ taut direction (plus the hand of Hughes wanting to push the film further) is also at play in the action scenes, with an terrific nighttime high-speed car chase later in the film that finds Tony shooting it out with some would-be assassins only one of many such scenes. And he’s also got his hand in one of the film’s signatures – a visual “X” motif marking any impending scene of violence, as when a scene recreating the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre moves from seven X’s in the rafters down to a wall showing the shadows of the Massacre taking place. The film moves breathlessly through Carmonte’s rise and fall, and Muni treads a perfect line of nailing this anti-hero whose life is fascinating and repellent in equal measure. It’s a trick that DePalma, Pacino, and Stone would recreate with success in 1983, pushing the envelope for the time of what could be put on screen, but it was done first, and equally well if not better, way back in 1932.
- Patrick Brown