One of Hawks's undisputed masterpieces, and a landmark in the screen depiction of gangsters. Though the gangster genre had recently exploded with LITTLE CAESAR and PUBLIC ENEMY, it was SCARFACE (a.k.a. "Scarface, the Shame of a Nation") that depicted the professional hood as a murderous
beast. In earlier films of the genre, a great deal of attention was paid to developing the background of the criminal and placing the blame for his antisocial activities on his environment. But with SCARFACE, all of that was dispensed with to give audiences for the first time an adult, fully
developed monster who thrived on murder and power.
The first scene of SCARFACE shows Tony Camonte (Muni) only in shadow, whistling a few bars of an Italian aria before shooting a victim and then walking calmly away. It's obvious that the career shown on screen is that of the notorious Al Capone. Tony is honestly portrayed as the typical gangster
of the era; he is brutal, arrogant, and stupid (Truffaut said Hawks directed Muni to make him look and move like an ape; it's likely), a homicidal maniac who revels in gaudy clothes, fast cars, and machine guns, because their rapid fire allows him to kill more people at a single outing. (The
number of deaths recorded in this ultra-violent film is 28, with many more reported as occurring off-camera.) But Tony is also insanely jealous of his slinky sister (Ann Dvorak), to the point where his feelings toward her are obliquely incestuous. Tony works for Johnny Lovo (Osgood Perkins), a
more sophisticated and clever hoodlum who, in turn, is the chief lieutenant of Big Louis (Harry Vejar), the city's nominal crime boss. (Perkins's role is based on Johnny Torrio, the creator of organized crime in America, and Vejar is a duplicate of Chicago's old-time crime czar, Big Jim Colosimo.)
Tony is arrested for the murder shown in the opening scene, but the mob lawyer soon has him freed on a special writ. Tony encourages Johnny to kill Louis since he won't take advantage of the new Prohibition law and go into bootlegging liquor. But when Johnny tells Tony to leave the North Side boss
(Boris Karloff) alone, and especially after Tony meets Johnny's sexy mistress (Karen Morley), it's clear that Tony's tactics are only going to intensify.
SCARFACE was the most violent, bloody film the genre had seen. Hawks outdid himself, running his cameras with the action in vivid truck and dolly shots often missing from the static early talkies of the period. Note in particular how Hawks uses the symbol of an "X" to indicate death (the rafters
of a ceiling, Karloff's bowling score, Raft's apartment number, etc.) Aiding the director was cameraman Lee Garmes, whose sharp contrasts created some of the starkest images ever captured on screen. Producer Howard Hughes spared no expense, but he also interfered with Hawks (as he did with other
directors), insisting that Hawks present all decisions for his approval. In fact, the production was almost cancelled because of the incessant squabbling between the producer and director.
Little of the original novel was kept except for the title. Profiling the gangster and his tempestuous sister as modern-day Borgias was Hawks's idea, with the incest relationship brilliantly suggested as the emotional weakness that destroys the unthinking gangster. Hecht had been offered $20,000
by Hawks to write the script, but wanted instead $1,000 a day in cash--not a particularly advantageous deal since he finished the script in 11 days.
Muni is superb in his role of the maniac killer, and Morley is perfect as his ice-cool moll. Raft, meanwhile, with his tuxedo and pomaded hair parted in the middle, is also excellent as Muni's right-hand man, a killer who does Muni's bidding without question. Muni and Raft became stars overnight
because of SCARFACE, and both received lucrative long-term Hollywood contracts.
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- Review: One of Hawks's undisputed masterpieces, and a landmark in the screen depiction of gangsters. Though the gangster genre had recently exploded with LITTLE CAESAR and PUBLIC ENEMY, it was SCARFACE (a.k.a. "Scarface, the Shame of a Nation") that depicted the p… (more)