22 March 2009

Movie Review: The Original Scarface

Scarface (1932)
Directed by Howard Hawks. Starring Paul Muni, George Raft, Ann Dvorak, Karen Morley, Osgood Perkins, Boris Karloff

Before you shout “Say hello to my liddle friend!”, let’s go back and look at that date, director, and cast. Yeah, this is the other Scarface. You know, “the original.” Don’t worry: although there’s no Little Friend, the World Is Still Yours.

I’ve found that many people who adore the 1983 Brian De Palma Scarface—those same folks who have the poster on their walls, dress like Tony Montana, listen to Scarface-influenced rap, and own all seventeen DVD versions—have no idea that the film is a re-make. I can understand this, since the De Palma version seems to exist so solidly in the early ‘80s Miami culture of the “cocaine cowboys” that it could hardly have originated fifty years earlier.

But substitute Miami and cocaine with Chicago and bootleg whiskey, and you have the same package, only with better fashions. (Please take into account the way that I occasionally like to dress when you judge this statement.)

And Scarface ‘32 has as much violence for its time as Scarface ‘83 had for its. Both films struggled with censorship. The ‘83 version nearly got an ‘X’ rating, while the censors went after Hawks’s film with chainsaws of their own. That the ‘32 movie got released at all honestly amazes me. It helps to have a mega-millionaire like Howard Hughes producing.

The gangster movie was the principle form of crime film in the days before film noir, and the golden era was the early ‘30s, before censorship slammed down on violence and any ambiguous moral message. The Public Enemy and Little Caesar were huge hits, but Scarface is the best of the bunch, mostly because it has the brilliant Howard Hawks at the helm, one of Hollywood’s most legendary directors, and famed author Ben Hecht at the typewriter. Hawks always brought a crisp snap to his films, and Scarface bristles with energy, channeled through Paul Muni’s performance as a psuedo-Al Capone, Tony “Scarface” Carmote. Al Pacino obviously admired Muni’s performance, since I can see many similarities between the two Tonys separated by five decades.

Of all the pre-code Hollywood movies I’ve seen, Scarface is one that most astonishes me with what it manages to pull off. People getting machine-gunned to death at point-blank range. Gangsters barging into a hospital and shooting patients in their beds. A near incestuous relationship between Tony Carmote and his sister Cesca (Ann Dvorak). Only a few years after this, the prudish Breen Office wouldn’t even allow a gun to go off in the same frame as the person getting shot. Scarface just lets the dang bullets fly all over the place, ripping holes in everything with their incessant chatter. It must have electrified audiences in 1932.

The story follows the classic Greek tragedy rise and fall, only with the tragic figure having a ton more fun at it then Oedipus. Tony Carmote, an Italian immigrant in Chicago, starts gunning his way up the bootlegging ladder, eventually taking over from his boss Lovo (Osgood Perkins, father of Tony, playing a cringing “softie”) when Lovo tries to take Tony out for getting it on with his girl, Poppy (a very sexy Karen Morley). Tony is essentially “The Joker” of the Chicago scene, overturning every sense of decency and gangland decorum in his machine gun-happy shooting spree to the top of the world. But he falls fast when he guns down his closest associate, Guido Rinaldo (a stoic and calm George Raft) because of Rinaldo’s love for Tony’s kid sister Cesca. In the middle of all these bullets flying, Boris Karloff—less than a year after his appearance in Frankenstein—pops up as rival mobster Gaffney. Gaffney is the ersatz “Bugs” Moran of the story, since it is his men who die in the re-staging of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, photographed in silhouettes along a brick wall. Karloff is great fun in his supporting part, and his bowling alley death, where he “picks up a spare” posthumously, is a classic.

Muni’s performance is something mesmerizing: tackling the role as outright crazed was a brave decision. Tony is not a smart guy, but he has guts and cunning and the realization that the way to the top in a business like crime is to be willing to go farther with the insanity than the next guy—and making sure the next guy is lying in the gutter with thirty slugs from a Thompson machine gun in his back. Muni plays Tony as a true Agent of Chaos. His performance reaches its apex in his exhausted, nearly incomprehensible begging to the cops at finale, “Gimmie a break, will ya!”, before dying beneath a very familiar sign:
But Howard Hawks’s direction carries the picture today: constantly energized and filled with clever visual motifs and atmospheric lighting, Hawks pushes the boundaries of what was possible in 1932 cinema and gives us a film for all times. Love that recurring ‘X’ symbol!

The only section of the film that no longer holds up is the dips into comic relief with Tony’s bumbling, English-challenged “secretary,” Vince Barrett. His death, however, provides a surprisingly touching moment. And really, as comic relief goes, he isn’t that bad.

Producer Howard Hughes made some concessions to the New York Board of Censors and filmed an alternate ending where Tony goes to prison and receives a didactic speech from the judge before hanging. Muni was not available for the re-shoots, so the judge speaks to the camera, and the camera discretely hides Tony during the hanging. It’s a weaker ending, and Hughes managed to restore the original ending when the NY Board of Censors rejected this version as well. The DVD has the alternate ending as a bonus feature. Some prints of the film also got the subtitle: “The Shame of a Nation.” Yeah, fine.

The uncensored release print still has some concessions to the moral police at the time. An extremely annoying title card disclaimer opens the movie, condemning gangsterism and asking the government what it will do to curb it. A year later, the New Deal would answer that with the re-structured FBI, but that’s the topic of the forthcoming Public Enemies. A later intrusive scene has a journalist giving a speech about how the gangster and his glorification hurts America and . . .

Blah, blah, blah . . . the Triple-H of Hawks-Hecht-Hughes doesn’t care about any of this pandering to the bluenoses. Scarface does glorify the gangster as a grand tragic figure, fascinating to watch even as he commits repulsive acts. The movie isn’t offering any moral except that machine guns are totally cool, and that Paul Muni is a hypnotic performer. Tony doesn’t fall because “crime doesn’t pay”; his downfall comes from his creepy relationship with his sister and that he kills his best friend for no good reason.

And—I’ve got to say it, despite how many “enemies lists” it will put me on—I like Scarface ‘32 more than Scarface ‘83.
Enjoy an awesome re-release trailer for Scarface along with some interviews about its historical importance.

Bonus feature: One of my favorite pieces of popular music, “St. Louis Blues,” appears in the nightclub scene. I wanna dance!