Scarface (1932)recommended viewing

X marks the spot
Howard Hawks
Paul Muni, Ann Dvorak, Karen Morley, Osgood Perkins
The Setup: 
Thinly-veiled portrait of Al Capone and source of the De Palma remake.

It's always good to have these old movies out there that you know will show you a good time. I had seen this one before starting this site and been blown away, so now was as good a time as any to revisit it and get it on here. This is one of the few movies produced by Howard Hughes, who has endless money to throw at it and no constraints of any studio. The movie opens with a title saying that every bit is true, and it is meant to serve as a catalyst for law enforcement to crack down on the gangster menace, and also to ask you--yes, YOU--what you're doing to help your community. Well??? Huh???

Behind the credits is a large X, and you'll notice that every time Tony 'Scarface' Camonte kills someone throughout the film, they have some form of X over them. Director Howard Hawks actually gave a reward for crew members to think of creative ways to show the X throughout the film. We notice right away that the film has a beautiful visual sense as we pan across a nearly empty restaurant, black janitor sweeping up, to a group of men at a table, then one goes to make a phone call and a door on the other side of the frame slowly opens. A man sneaks in, shoots the guy in the phone booth, and slips out again, then the janitor comes over and finds the body. Nice!

Tony is taken in by the police, where we see that he packs a great deal of attitude. The police, classic old-style cops, give Tony a nice speech about how they'll get him one day. Then Tony goes to meet his boss, Johnny Lovo, and is impressed by his girlfriend, Poppy, who sends nothing but withering comments his way. This only enflames Tony the more, and their flirtation has real heat. Tony goes home and finds his sister, Francesca, kissing a guy, and freaks. Tony has an unhealthy fixation with his sister, and his influence is bemoaned by their Italian mother, in her strong accent. Two things we've noticed so far is that this movie allows for these wonderful secondary characters to come on, give a vivid scene, then move off, and also that this movie has a clear context of recent American immigrants and their ways of making it in their new country.

Tony's boss has told him to stay out of the North Side, which is controlled by a rival gangster, but Tony only half-listens. His men go into bars and force the owners to buy beer from them, sometimes more beer than they can possibly serve. His second Rinaldo, constantly seen flipping a coin, which became a sort of visual gangster staple and shows up in movies like Singin' in the Rain. We show time passing, and an uncontrollable crime spree, by having a machine gun 'shoot' pages off of a calendar, and soon find that Tony has been making incursions into the forbidden North Side. This brings a huge machine gun attack on Tony at a restaurant, and the vivid side characters continue as we have a bit of comic relief by Tony's male assistant, who cannot read or write. Soon Tony is openly defying Lovo, gets a machine gun of his own, and is openly cavorting with Poppy, to the shock of everyone around him. He's just arrogant and assured and listens to no one else. Meanwhile the police go to the newspapers and beg them not to devote too much attention to the gangsters, as it only glorifies them.

Boris Karloff shows up just in time to get shot in a bowling alley. Then Tony muscles in on a private dinner with Lovo and Poppy, despite the fact that Lovo clearly tells him he's not wanted. Poppy chooses Tony's match over Lovo's to light her cigarette. Meanwhile, Francesca is flirting with Rinaldo, and does a little erotic dance for him, which is surprisingly steamy. Tony sees her and drags her home. On his way out, there is an attempt on his life, followed by an exciting car chase (given that this is 1932), and Tony drives his attackers off a cliff.

He has a sense who tried to kill him, and arranges someone to call Lovo while he is there, in his office. Lovo's performance when he realizes that Tony knows that he himself set up the hit is effective. Tony has Rinaldo kill Lovo, and now he is the big kingpin. He goes away for a month to set up business elsewhere, and during that time Francesca finally seduces Rinaldo. Tony returns, finds them together, and kills Rinaldo. This is a clear crime there is evidence for, and the police are after him. He goes to his hideout, and Francesca enters after him, prepared to shoot him, but she can't. The police start shooting in, and Francesca is killed. Tony finally breaks down that with her gone, he'll be all alone. Forced out of the room by tear gas, he makes a run directly for the police, committing suicide by cop.

It was good! It has a small, comprehensible story, with big characters and understandable motivations and quirks, like Tony's vaguely incestuous fixation with his sister. It delivers a good sense of the dangers of this new level of crime, and how it affects even people not connected with the underworld. You have a lot of vivid secondary characters, and to through them get a clear sense that this is a population of first-generation immigrants. And it's all told with bold, energetic filmmaking and effective photography. It's a winner all around! And it makes me want to watch the De Palma Scarface again and see how the story has been filled in and expanded. I previously had no idea that the De Palma film was SUCH a remake of this film, but it is... from the outline of the plot [don't go into forbidden territory], the fixation on the sister, the place of immigrants in America, even the sign that says 'The World Is Yours' all originate in this film. It all makes the De Palma film--one of my least favorites of his--a lot more interesting.

If you want a good, solid early crime drama, with that ingenious early film direction and attention to craft often missing these days, look no further.

Should you watch it: 

Yes, you sure should.