Scarface (1932)

This is a contribution to the Early Hawks Blog-a-thon being hosted at Ed Howard’s Only the Cinema blog.

There are famous shootouts and violent episodes in The Public Enemy and Little Caesar. But I’d have to say they don’t come anywhere near the relentless violence of Howard Hawks’ powerful gangster movie Scarface. From the arresting scene near the start where Tony Camonte (Paul Muni) is seen in silhouette gunning down his boss,  Big Louis, the film seems to be riddled through with machine-gun fire.

I do have some mixed feelings about the film and think there are problems with it, which I’ll come on to later, not least Muni’s terrible Italian accent – but it’s second to none in showing the devastating effects of gang warfare in the streets.  

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Spoilers below cut

There is such a  quick succession of corpses that I quickly lost count and couldn’t even keep track of all the incidents or remember who was killing who, although you can bet that Tony is usually either the man behind the gun or one pulling the strings. Restaurant windows explode in fragments of glass as  diners fall to the ground. There are familiar gangster set-pieces such as drive-by shootings and people walking into rooms to open fire, as well as people being called to the phone at a certain time so that they can be gunned down from outside.

There are also one or two unlikely, blackly comic shootings –  like the scene where Tony and his sidekick Guino Rinaldo (George Raft) go into a hospital to finish off a rival they only managed to wound. They stalk the gleaming white corridors carrying large bunches of flowers with guns hidden beneath, as terrified staff dodge out of the way.   And there’s more black comedy when Tony is hiding on the ground during a shootout, but forgets to be worried about being killed because he is so excited by the sight of “machine guns you can carry!” As soon as the shooting lets up, he’s rushing out to help himself to one, and setting off on a spree of killing, with shots ripping through sheets from a calendar as the days go by.   

Looking at all this death and destruction, it isn’t a great surprise to hear that Hawks had a long battle with the Hays office about this movie, even in the pre-code era, and that he was forced to make a whole succession of cuts and changes. A detailed account of the film at  Tim Dirks’ Filmsite  says it was originally made in 1930, earlier than the first two big Warner gangster films, but release was delayed for two years while  Hawks and co-producer Howard Hughes argued with the censors. The site details the censors’ demands, which ranged from putting a disclaimer at the start and saying no blood could be shown to adding in some moralising, preachy scenes, some of which, Dirks says, were actually shot by another director, Richard Rosson, rather than Hawks.  I didn’t know about this background while watching, but did notice that some of these scenes felt glaringly out of place, particularly a couple of scenes where a newspaper publisher and a police boss start lecturing everyone about how evil the gangsters are. The film is already showing that starkly enough without any need to spell it out.

Ironically, despite the censors worrying so much about the shootouts, I think some of the most powerful violent moments in the film are just things like Tony smashing a hole in a glass office door  – and chillingly explaining “Just changing the name.”

The whole film looks dark and moody, with shadows and silhouettes helping to build the atmosphere. The way the shape of the cross keeps turning up in different contexts, for instance in a pair of wooden beams or a piece of clothing, echoing the cross-shaped scar on Tony’s face, is also visually striking – something carried right through the film.

However, for me the big problem with this movie is that I don’t think all the acting is very convincing. Paul Muni often seems hammy as Tony – and, as I mentioned before, his Italian accent is dreadful. For me this ruins a lot of the film – he has a strong physical presence and seems intimidating, with those burning eyes, but how can you take him seriously when he’s talking in such a ridiculous cod accent? Ann Dvorak, who plays Tony’s sister Cesca, just talks in her normal voice, and George Raft uses his normal voice too, as does Boris Karloff as an Irish mobster  – so I think Muni would have done well to do the same.

Ann Dvorak and Paul Muni

Ann Dvorak and Paul Muni

One of the most famous and controversial aspects of this film is the suggestion of  incestuous desire by Tony for Cesca. He has a blonde moll, Poppy, who he stole from his boss, Johnny – but Cesca is plainly his true love. He is insanely jealous whenever he sees her even looking at a man, and, when he discovers her living with Guino, he shoots his best friend down, only to learn too late that they were actually married. Wild with grief and rage, Cesca comes for Tony with a gun – but realises she can’t kill him after all and ends up fighting at his side instead when a mass of police arrive outside and start to shoot. This whole ending sequence is amazingly powerful, especially the moment when Cesca confesses that she didn’t shoot Tony because “you’re me and I’m you. It’s always been that way.” A few minutes later she is dying in Tony’s arms, as he breaks down and begs her not to leave him “all alone”.

Tony has been an almost completely unsympathetic figure all through the movie, more brutal and self-centred than either Rico or Tom Powers – but at the last, as he becomes terrified and begs the police not to shoot him, he does show some vulnerability. In the ending Hawks originally filmed, he finally makes a break for it and is gunned down in the street by clearly gleeful police, dying in the way he killed so many others. 

However, the censors tried to impose a preachy ending where Tony is taken to court, lectured by a judge and then hanged – as well as cutting out a chunk of the “incest scene” with Cesca for good measure. This alternate ending is included on the DVD I’ve got, and is terrible, bashing the audience over the head with the moral. Apparently Hawks refused to direct this scene (I don’t know who did) and Muni also didn’t appear in it, which is why you only see him in silhouette or glimpses of his feet heading for the gallows! In the end Hawks refused to use this ending and restored the original one, which saved his film from being wrecked.

One aspect which seems to be missing from this film is any feeling of why the gangs had developed and so many people were turning to a life of crime – you don’t get the sense of the surrounding poverty and desperation that you do in The Public Enemy and Little Caesar. It also seems as if the police are rather whitewashed, without a hint of the corruption which is there in other pre-code gangster films. I wonder if this is again down to the battles with the censors.

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9 thoughts on “Scarface (1932)

  1. Great review. I’m mostly in agreement with you, though I think Muni’s performance is actually a fascinating trainwreck, and a big part of what makes the movie such bizarre fun. It’s just such an unhinged performance, with no concern whatsoever for “good” acting. I really love it even if, in the traditional sense, it’s undoubtedly horrible acting. Similarly, Ann Dvorak isn’t a great actress either, but she gives such an erotically charged performance that it’s hard not to like her anyway. The scene where she gives a little seductive, sexy dance for one of Tony’s thugs was just amazing. To me, this movie is more about the brute force of its sex and violence than about such niceties as good acting or polish. It’d lose some of its spark with more conventional performances, I think.

    Thanks again for the great article.

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  2. Thank you for the encouragement and your stimulating comments, which have got me thinking some more about this movie. I’m interested in the idea of Muni’s performance as ‘a fascinating trainwreck’. I do sometimes like over the top performances – for instance I usually love John Barrymore however hammy he is – but I really found Muni a bit much in this. I might not have minded the hamminess if not for the Italian accent, maybe the two together were the fatal thing for me! I do like Ann Dvorak and agree her dance scene is great. Thank you again.

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  3. Judy – An excellent write up.
    Ed and you both mention Ann Dorvak’s terrific dance scene. There is an interesting story behind it which Todd McCarthy in his bio of Hawks “The Grey Fox of Hollywood” writes: Raft was resonsible for bringing Dorvak into the picture. Raft brought the slender 18 year-old chorus girl to an elegant party at Hawks home. Hawks recalled “that Ann asked Raft to dance with her but he said he rather not. She was a little high and right in front of him starts to do this undulating dance, sort of trying to lure him on to dance with her. She was a knockout. She wore a black silk gown almost cut down to her hips. I’m sure that’s all she had on. After a while George couldn’t resist the suggestive dance and in no time they were doing a sensational number which stopped the party.”
    Hayes then goes on to say that the next day Hawks worked out a deal to cast her in the role of Cesca and had her repeat the suggestive dance in the film.
    Hawks says “the scene played like a million dollars because it was something that really happened between George and Ann.”
    BTW – one little correction, hope you don’t mind. According to the McCarthy bio, It was Howard Hughes who was fighting the censors and it was he who eventually made the decision to use the originally ending. Hawks moved on, personally and professionally with Ann Dorvak, to film “The Crowd Roars” and was not around for the continuing censor battles.

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  4. Thanks very much for the info behind the dance scene, John. Do you recommend the McCarthy bio? I’ve “looked inside” it at Amazon and it looks good from the bits I have read, but I have two massive books about old movies I’ve just acquired, so I really ought to read those before buying more.

    Thanks also for correcting me about Hughes and Hawks – I don’t mind at all, always glad to get extra information, facts etc, the more the better! I feared I might get them muddled up somewhere along the line (the similar names don’t help!) and it seems I did so. In any case, I’m glad the original ending was restored – I could hardly believe how terrible the alternative ending was when I watched it as an extra on the DVD.

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  5. The Hawks bio is good, I would recommend it.

    The alternate ending was really poor, it was laughably bad, and certainly would havegraded the film as a whole.

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  6. What I was trying to say in that last sentence on the previous commment was “Certainly would have down graded the film as a whole.”

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  7. Thanks, John – I’ll aim to read that bio before too long. I definitely agree that the alternate ending would have ruined the film!

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  8. good stuff–and I think you hit upon one of the most interesting differences between Scarface and the Warner gangster films–i.e. the lack of sociological context

    quite simply–Hawks doesn’t believe in that guff! (neither did Howard Hughes)

    The fact that there were censorship battles over this film always confirms to me that American conservatives never did and never will have clue where their best interest lie (which is the only hope that something can be done to destroy them once and for all)–i.e. this movie is a fascist’s wet dream–Tony is a 100% non-sociologically-produced depraved mutant who participates in the generation of widespread chaos that no viewer (even one who is leery of law n’ order discourse) can afford to dismiss… Hawks shows us an America that is OUT OF CONTROL (like Muni’s performance)–and gives his audience absolute carte blanche to vote for the most repressive solution possible… There’s no suggestion here–as in a Warner film–that the American class system has anything to answer for in the production of this madness

    Dave

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  9. Hi Dave, thanks… I hadn’t really thought about the lack of sociological context as being part of a conservative agenda, but it’s an interesting thought and something I’ll bear in mind. I know it was often argued at the time, by the censors especially, that gangster movies as a whole were too sympathetic to the gangsters, but I do think there is far less sympathy/understanding for Tony than, say, for Rico in ‘Little Caesar’, and I agree the lack of sociological context, to give any kind of motivation for his actions beyond the apparent glee in causing mayhem, is part of this.

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