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.
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 A detailed account of the film at Tim Dirks’ Filmsite says it was originally made in 1930, earlier than the first two big Warner gangster films, but release was delayed for two years while Hawks and co-producer Howard Hughes argued with the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.
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.