#8 in my ranking of Howard Hawks’ filmography.
This is the prototypical gangster movie of the 30s. It wasn’t the first major example (held up for a year by the assorting censorship boards across America in a protracted battle with the film’s producer Howard Hughes), but it’s been so influential in no small part because of the controversy around it at the time. The tale of Paul Muni’s Tony Camonte, inspired by real life gangsters including Al Capone, is a lurid look at the out of control criminal element in the middle of Prohibition, but it’s more than just a piece of exploitation filmmaking. There’s real intelligence at play underneath the garish surface.
Louis Costillo, the last “good” mobster in Chicago, gets murdered after a celebration, and the South Side is open for the taking in the underworld. The newspapermen and the police know that a war is about to break out, and the only question remaining is who is going to come out on top. Johnny Lovo is primed to take control at first, and with his right hand man, Tony Camonte, also known as Scarface due to his cross-like scar on his face, they start by eliciting beer orders from speakeasies across the South Side that aren’t prone to automatically joining them. Through force, they create a small empire of bootlegging profits, but Lovo doesn’t want anything to do with O’Hara who runs the North Side. Tony, though, isn’t really afraid of reaching too far. He’s a violent monster greedy for the everything the world has to offer, and he’s going to reach out and take whatever he wants.
Tony has two women in his life. The first is his sister, Cesca played by Ann Dvorak, that Tony tries to control far more than one would expect from a big brother. He refuses to allow her any other man in her life, chasing off any man who shows her affection, especially physical affection. When Cesca catches the eye of Tony’s right hand man, Guido (played by George Raft, famously flipping that coin), both know that they have to keep any remote show out of Tony’s eyes. Guido simply refuses any advances, but Cesca, being an impulsive woman, is going to do whatever she wants.
The other woman is Poppy, Lovo’s girl, that Tony sees and simply wants. She’s good looking, and the two have nothing in common. However, she represents the sort of high-living that he desires. He doesn’t want to be Lovo’s right hand man, he wants to be Lovo and O’Hara in one, running all of Chicago. Part of that is taking over their business, but the other is taking over Lovo’s woman. Poppy is similar. When she meets Tony for the first time, she barely pays him any attention, but when it becomes obvious that Tony is on the rise and Lovo is diminishing in importance, she simply leaves Lovo for Tony.
The controversy around this movie is twofold, the first being the incredible amount of violence in the film. In the early days of the Hays Code, this was daring stuff, but it ends up being rather bloodless now. Still, the sheer amount of it still remains shocking. Tony’s rise to power, first through his own organization and then as he extends his grip into the North Side, is a non-stop orgy of gunfire from the new Tommy Gun that he loves so much. There are car chases, bombings, and shootouts from beginning to end. This borders between exploitation and activist horror-show (the awkwardly inserted scene, not shot by Howard Hawks, of a newspaperman addressing the camera directly for action, pushes it towards the latter). However, amidst all of this is the fascinating character of Tony.
Paul Muni plays Tony like a monster, uneducated, and desirous for the finer things in life. I think this is best shown when he attends some live theater and a production of “Miss Sadie Thompson”. He’s into it, but he’s easily drawn away when he discovers that O’Hara’s number one man (played by Boris Karloff in another really good performance) is at a bowling alley. Receiving word of how the play ended from his secretary (a permanently befuddled Vince Barnett) and giving a quick word of approval for the character’s choice, he marches right inside and mows down his target without a thought. For all of his talk about grabbing the whole world, he’s never going to be able to change who he really is. He could never go straight or quiet down. He’s loudly and proudly a violent monster, and the Wild West like nature of Chicago during Prohibition is what allows him to rise to such power.
His end comes like the way he lived, violently. Trapped in his apartment that he designed with steel doors and windows, essentially making it a coffin if anything should happen, with his sister, they get into a shootout with the police that they cannot win. One of the other Hays Board complaints about the film was that Tony’s end was too glorifying, which is weird since he literally gets pummeled full of bullets on a dirty street.
I can imagine getting lost in the controversy around the film. Seeing the violence that’s so ever-present and seeing little else, either thinking that there’s too much or that it’s all rather tame now or even both, but there really is a very good story here. It may be exploitative to a certain extent, but Tony and Cesca are actually two solid characters on which to build this film. Paul Muni plays Tony in a large way, but it’s Dvorak as Cesca who, I think, really steals the show. She’s tied to her brother through his abuse, but she’s also strong and confident of herself, allowing her to be feminine and defiant of Tony at the same time. When they decide to stand together in the final shootout, her crazed look sells the moment just as well as Tony’s rise to that moment.
Scarface became famous because of controversy, but it has stood the test of time because of the strong script by Ben Hecht, the strong performances from the cast, and the confident direction of Howard Hawks.