Wednesday 7 March 2012

Movie Review: Scarface (1932)

Produced by business magnate Howard Hughes with a money-is-no-object attitude and directed by Howard Hawks, Scarface is an early milestone in the history of cinema as a whole, and specifically the gangster movie.

Ambitious criminal Tony Camonte (Paul Muni) teams up with mobster boss Johnny Lovo (Osgood Perkins) and they eliminate rival gangster Louis Castillo (Harry J. Vejar), taking control of the illegal alcohol distribution business on the South Side (the City is unnamed, but presumed to be Chicago). Tony's ambition is unlimited, and he lusts after the luxuries of life as well as Poppy (Karen Morley), unperturbed that she is Lovo's girlfriend. He also sets his sights on taking control of the North Side business, controlled by the powerful O'Hara, despite Lovo's protestations.

Tony's weakness is his insanely protective attitude towards his sister Cesca (Ann Dvorak). While Tony allows himself total liberty to commit all crimes, he does not want Cesca to even be seen with a man. With the help of smooth assassin Guino Rinaldo (George Raft), Tony eventually makes his move for total dominance of the City and eliminates O'Hara, sparking a brutal round of reprisal killings and shootings. Gaffney (Boris Karloff) emerges as Tony's main adversary, and as the body count rises and the police move in, Tony faces his destiny from the top of the criminal world.

Dancing on the edge of celebrating the criminal lifestyle and wildly violent with numerous murders, drive-by shootings and even a depiction of the St Valentine's Day Massacre, Scarface opens with a perfunctory warning that crimes are dominating society and the government should do something about it. But the rest of the film presents a glamorous view of the riches up for grabs in the gangster world, and draws the easy message that living well and dying young is an attractive choice. Tony drools over his ability to wear each tailored dress shirt for just one day, and celebrates the arrival of the hand-held machine-gun as a game changer in his ability to dominate the streets.

This appeal to the dark side was all good for business of course, and Hughes had the resources and independence to battle the fragmented censorship regimes of the day to place his vision squarely in front of eager audiences. The success and notoriety of Scarface was one of the prompts that brought in stricter national enforcement of the Hays Code by 1934.

Hawks' directing is taut, and the film's visuals pack a punch with plenty of car chases and drive-by shooting action scenes. The Ben Hecht script (adapting the Armitage Trail book) includes ample character development scenes that round out Tony's rapid rise and inevitable fall. Paul Muni brings a manic magnetism to Tony, his eyes conveying a greed that will only be satisfied with the rapid pace of criminally accumulated riches, and a lust after Poppy that will only be quenshed when his mentor Lovo is crushed. George Raft makes a strong impression as the suave Guino, perpetually flipping a coin as he coldly goes about the business of killing.

Scarface may be muddled about its patched social responsibility in the face of the joyfully rampant excess on display, but there is no doubt the high entertainment quotient combined with ambitious production values influenced the early evolution of the movies.

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