Paul Muni - Tony Camonte
Anne Dvorak - Cesca Camonte
Karen Morley - Poppy
Osgood Perkins - Johnny Lovo
Boris Karloff - Gaffney
George Raft - Guino Rinaldo
Howard Hawks - Director
Howard Hughes - Producer
Ben Hecht - Screenwriter
Lee Garmes - Cinematographer
Armitage Trail - Original Novel
Harry Oliver - Art Director
Undoubtedly the high peak of the gangster movie of the thirties, Scarface: Shame of a Nation is studded with unforgettable images and gestures, from Raft's coin-flipping and Muni's childish glee over his first machine-gun ("Outta my way, I'm spittin'!") to the murder of Boris Karloff in a bowling alley and Paul Muni's own death in a gutter as the camera contemplates the travel sign ("The World is Yours") that had been his goal.
Like Little Caesar (1930) and Public Enemy (1931), the film features in its Tony Camonte (Muni) a gangster who is of Catholic immigrant origin, who ruthlessly eliminates all opposition in his drive to the top, and who is destroyed by a fatal sexual flaw. However, unlike the two earlier films, which were fundamentally realist in their approach, Scarface is darkly expressionistic. The opening sequence, with the camera dreamily prowling through the debris of a New Year party as Muni's ape-like silhouette stalks his first victim, momentarily suggests a return to the fantasy world of Josef von Sternberg's Underworld (1927). But almost immediately the film strikes out into a style entirely its own.
Set in Chicago, Scarface is the story of the aforementioned Camonte (Muni), a power-hungry mobster whose thirst for blood grows with every murder and blackmail he commits. Initially, Camonte is merely a bodyguard for warlord Big Louis Costillo--one of the last of the old-school mob leaders--but after Costillo is mysteriously snuffed out, presumably by Camonte himself, he graduates to assistant henchman and shoots his way up the ladder until he’s capo. Scarface closes with the demise of Camonte and the demise of the Mafioso operation--but not until he’s instigated a bloody massacre that takes countless lives, including that of his sister Cesca (Ann Dvorak), a beautiful 19-year-old who rebelled against her overprotective, thuggish brother.
Little evidence remains in the finished film of Hawks' notion of presenting the Camonte/Capone family as latterday Borgias living in Chicago, but the suggestion is useful in helping to define that style as a sort of formalized actuality. On the one hand there is the gutter quality of material torn from the headlines--not just the brutally meticulous recreation of the gangland killings (Capone's murder of Big Jim Colosimo, the St. Valentine's Day massacre, and Legs Diamond's hospital assassination), but Hecht's cynically offhand depiction of journalists as muck-rakers and cops as brutish thugs indistinguishable from the gangsters they pursue. On the other hand there is the tragic dimension of Camonte's soaring ambition and his doomed incestuous love for his sister.
Taken together, what these two disparate elements create is a kind of satanic opera, orchestrated on the one hand by the bizarre strain of black humor running through the film as an ape gradually becomes humanized (or an ignorant immigrant becomes integrated with the American dream), and on the other by an almost precious dilettantism (with the doom of each succeeding victim heralded by a cross either painted with light or formed by trellises, street signs and shadows).
Despite censorship tamperings, which involved cutting the most explicit reference to incestuous love and adding some shots denouncing Scarface as a public menace (and on some prints imposing an alternative ending in which he suffers the degradation of being hanged), and despite an occasionally over-pitched performance from Muni, this is a masterpiece.
--PHIL HARDY, from The Gangster
Film Encyclopedia, 2001.
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