I love movies. I’ve always wanted to work in the film medium in some way, but have yet to figure out how. Sure, I’d love to make them, but if that doesn’t happen, what will I do? “Aha! I’ll just write about them,” I — and every critic ever — said. To write about them, I need to actually write. Therefore, it’s time to stop neglecting this website and start a regular column in which I write about film. I don’t care if they’re sparkly new 3D releases or scratchy DVD transfers of old classics; I’ll write about whatever strikes me as worth discussion. I hope you like I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School, with today’s inaugural film, Howard Hawks’ 1932 gangster picture, Scarface.
Hawks’ eleventh film in six years (say what you will about Golden Age Hollywood’s assembly-line production style, but prolific is prolific), Scarface opens curiously, as a title card screed rails against gangster culture, claiming how the protagonists of the film are ruining American culture. “Well, all right,” I said as I registered that counterintuitive way of introducing characters about whose fates I’m supposed to care.
As soon as that anti-crime title card disappears, we’re treated to a visually flashy sequence in which a shadow guns down crime boss “Big” Louis Costillo, top dog of Unnamed-City-But-Really-It’s-a-Thinly-Veiled-Chicago-So-Let’s-Stop-Kidding-Ourselves’s booze racket. This sets the stage for the new gang in town, led by Johnny Lovo (Osgood Perkins) and his right-hand man, Tony Camonte (Paul Muni), the film’s eponymous character.
The film tracks the rise of that gang, and the loose-cannon Tony in particular. Through a series of fire bombings, hospital hits, and St. Valentine’s Day Massacre-esque tactics in which Tony’s underlings pose as police officers and murder rival gang members, firing squad-style. Hawks and company aren’t even trying to fool anyone into thinking this is something other than a biography of Al Capone, with Tony’s rubbing out of the men who stand in his way (Lovo, the “North Side” booze runners, et cetera) following Capone’s career arc.
Hawks was a director who inherently knew the importance of entertainment. He’s famous for working in nearly every genre and doing interesting, if not thrilling, things within each. That includes large sections of Scarface. However, three key sequences derail Hawks’ otherwise superb pulp tale.
The first we’ve already discussed. If the film is indeed an indictment of the prevalent criminal activity of the time, then that should be — and having seen the rest of the film, I’d say it succeeds in doing this — apparent by the story and character actions displayed within it. There should be no need to open the thing with a “No, seriously guys, the stuff in this movie is bad. VERY BAD INDEED.” It cheapens what comes after it and plays like what it is: a weak attempt by the producers to appease the censors into allowing them to show the film to audiences.
The second ties directly into the first. About halfway through the film, someone I assume to be other than Hawks inserts a scene featuring characters not seen at any other point only to expound on the opening title card’s insistence that crime is ruining the nation. “Give the Deportation Act some teeth!” is one of many strange, overtly xenophobic things shouted in this back room conversation by the WASPiest of WASPs, as if Italians were the only people committing crime in the thirties. Again, it feels like something done to make the censors happy, by stating in the most on-the-nose manner just how bad this gang activity is. But I contend marinating in the film’s gangster world would do a much better job of convincing the average Joe not to enter the criminal life; show, don’t tell, and all that. Instead, what we get is the laziest of soapbox morality, stopping cold all the film’s forward momentum in the process.
The third sequence is the one most likely attributable to Hawks himself. At the film’s climax — and if you have misgivings about spoilers for a 70-year-old movie, you know where you can shove them — Tony murders his sister’s new husband, and his former associate, for being in the same room as her; big brothers can be overprotective, I guess. Justifiably, she rats on Tony to the police. She doesn’t want the cops to get her revenge for her, though. She beats them to Tony’s compound, gun in hand. After the cops surround the place, she finds she can’t shoot him out of revenge, and decides out of nowhere to join forces with her brother to shoot at the cops she herself called. Not the most logical storytelling. Of course, to give Tony a reason to go totally berserk, she gets shot and killed by police gunfire. He gets a few shots off before the police toss a tear gas can into his house. Blinded and bewildered, he heads down the stairs to be greeted by police officers tearing down the front door. He rushes past them to the street where he’s shot down by a machine gun-wielding cop. The end.
Obviously, Scarface is a flawed film. At times, those flaws threaten to overwhelm its good parts. But those good parts are really good. Hawks shows off considerable visual flair in the opening scene in which Tony, as the murderous shadow, whistles his way toward his first killing of the film, without a care in the world. Another segment distills just how cool cinema can be with a bit of creativity: During the montage of Tony’s rise to power, Hawks employs a visual of a Tommy gun shooting the pages off a daily calendar to show the passage of time. That simple yet elegant trick made me grin ear to ear.
Despite my heavy gripes, I’d say Scarface marginally earns its status as a “film classic.” It’s probably on the lower end of the Hawks totem pole, but well worth seeing nonetheless. For a movie shot in the 1930s, its visual ingenuity and violent story represent a dramatic leap forward during a time of strict censorship, something even this film was unable to fully avoid. Besides, if you’re like me, you get to be “that guy” who has only seen the ORIGINAL Scarface, gangsta lifestyle be damned.