Based on a 1929 novel and inspired by real events, 1932’s Scarface was one of a series of pre-code gangster pictures which shocked and enthralled its viewers. Opening with a written disclaimer, damming the government for their lack of action regarding the threat that modern gangsters pose, the film nonetheless glamorises the life of crime while shaking a stick in its vague direction. It follows the ascent of young arrogant Italian immigrant Tony Camonte (Paul Muni) as he rises through the Chicago underworld by bumping off bosses and rivals who stand in his way and intimidating speakeasy proprietors into taking his booze. Aided by his right hand man, the quiet coin flicking Guino Rinaldo (George Raft), Tony reaches the heights of underworld overlord but finds that being at the top is even more dangerous than the climb to the summit.
Arriving two years before the Hays Office began imposing much stricter censorship on Hollywood; Scarface was able to get away with a lot more than many films which followed it. Inside its ninety minutes you’ll find brutal murders, gunplay and revealing costumes worn by the female characters, things which just wouldn’t be permissible from 1934 onwards. Even still, the film troubled the censors and the ending was changed to suit their tastes. Overall the movie contains a ‘crime doesn’t pay’ theme, something which you expect from the opening credits disclaimer but it’s slow in coming. For the most part, the theme appears to be ‘crime gets you everything you want’ and it’s this which the censors must have taken issue with. The glorification of the central character is also something which the Hays Office was unhappy with. This is something which film makers and censors would lock horns over for the next forty years.
Scarface was remade in 1983 by Brian De Palma and the plot of that movie closely resembles that of this one. The central themes and ideas are also quite similar. Tony’s love for his sister and desperation to protect her from the world and especially men is one of the driving forces behind many of his actions. In a twist though, his overbearing sensibilities leads to more pain for her than is necessary. His desire to conquer is perhaps his main drive and the fact that he is willing to remove anyone in his way shows the malice in the character. Camonte is a character who doesn’t recognise anyone as his better or superior and views each boss as simply another stepping stone in his way to world domination. The picture features several scenes which are taken from real events. Many of these are lifted from the life of Al Capone, himself nicknamed Scarface. The most famous of these scenes is the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre which is recreated here, albeit in silhouette. Also present is the slaying of Tony’s first boss, ‘Big Louie’ Costello, based on the 1920 murder of ‘Big Jim’ Colosimo, a crime which Capone played a part in.
The cinematography is notable for its ‘X’ motif. In many of the murder scenes, an overtly visible X is present on the screen. This takes the form of shadows, window lattices, iron railings and slithers of light but it’s almost always present. It’s a really interesting visual and matches the scar found on Tony’s left cheek. Martin Scorsese paid homage to this idea in his Oscar winning The Departed, putting the same X on screen during his movie’s death scenes. Overall the film looks very good. There are several fast paced action scenes which look expensive and the interior sets are well designed. The costumes too, look fantastic. Gangsters always look great on screen but Camonte and his cohort look incredibly well dressed. Likewise the female cast members are attired in stunning gowns and have excellent hair.
Paul Muni delivers a near career best performance as Tony. He’s the right amount or arrogant and his single minded goal drives his character to the edge several times. He wonderfully portrays nonchalance under fire and a conceited attitude towards the police. Despite being nominated for six Oscars, he was snubbed for this role. George Raft plays a quiet and reserved role but his coin flipping is scarily ominous. He plays a realistic character and is slightly underused in my opinion. Ann Dvorak excels in the role of Tony’s vivacious sister while Karen Morley is slightly more wooden, although her Poppy ismore window dressing than fully fledged character in the script. Osgood Perkins plays the downtrodden boss role very well and there’s a small role for Boris Karloff.
Occasionally I found Scarface a little dull and I had the same opinion on my first watch a few years ago. Perhaps it’s because I was aware of the story through the 1983 remake but I found that many of the scenes felt like a slog to get through until the final shootout. Even so, there’s a lot to like about the film and it contains some well written characters and themes which were pertinent to the time. It generally fails in its attempts to de-glamorise the gangster lifestyle but it delivers a strong message as it does so. Eighty years on, Scarface is a film which is still worth watching and its influence lives on strongly in the films of today.
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