Director: Howard Hawks
Continuing my exploration into the original gangster movies (following up my earlier review of Little Caesar) I picked up the original 1932 Scarface. Like a lot of people, I’m quite well-acquainted with the more well-known 1983 version staring Al Pacino. That film has embedded itself quite firmly into movie culture, and seems to have pretty thoroughly overshadowed the original in a way akin to the big-budget 1991 adaption of Cape Fear did to its 1962 predecessor. But, the original is still fortunately widely (and cheaply) available on DVD. Suffice to say, it is well worth picking up.
The original Scarface (based on a 1929 novel by Armitage Trail) stars Paul Muni as Tony Carmote, a low-level gangster keen to move up the ranks in the power vacuum left by his assassination of a mob boss (which, unsurprisingly, turns out to be the beginning of several). Nicknamed ‘Scarface’ for a mark on his face suffered earlier on, the story is effectively a fictional take on the rise of Al Capone in prohibition-era Chicago.
For those acquainted with the 1983 version, the underlying plot is the same. Tony gets in with another mob boss (this one involved in selling alcohol rather than cocaine), thinks he can do a better job, makes his own deals, falls in love with the boss’ woman, and has an unhealthy obsession over his teenage sister. Oh, and the ‘The World is Yours’ moniker is also present. It’s not unfamiliar territory, but the style and setting of the film, combined with the fact that it pretty much defined the stereotypes that the genre became known for (tommy guns, fast-talking detectives shouting ‘see!’ a lot), makes it a film worth watching. If 1931’s Little Caesar and Public Enemy were the films to start the gangster genre, then Scarface is the movie that defined them. It is fast-moving, contains enough shoot-out scenes to rival a modern video game, and Muni gives a spectacular performance as the unhinged gangster on his way to the top. The rest of the cast is also solid, and although Muni is unquestionably the centrepiece, the rest of the cast are memorable and varied enough to make it so that the movie doesn’t rely solely on the strength of the lead (as opposed to Little Caesar).
What also makes the film interesting is the blunt and direct political message the film makers were trying to make. Before the opening scene, a series of flashcards show up making an indictment of the American government’s failure to react to organised crime and claiming that movie which follows reflects a portrayal of the real world. They aren’t wrong either. As mentioned, the film draws heavily on Al Capone (who shared the moniker of the title character here) and plenty of parallels between the two characters are made (see: the killing of a gang rival in his flower shop is an obvious comparison to Dean O’Banion’s killing; and frankly the St Valentine’s Day Massacre scene needs no commentary). The story goes that Capone’s men also ‘assisted’ with the production of aspects of the film. Quite what they made of the opening flashcards, we can only guess…but the fact that the film makers (including director Howard Hawks, who went on to make a number of subsequent classic movies, not least of all The Big Sleep) were left with their legs intact probably suggests they weren’t too fussed…
Quite whether the film had the political effect it intended is probably doubtful (although prohibition did come to an end the year after it was released), but it is still great entertainment all the same. If you’re sick to death of the indulgent Pacino version of the eighties (as great a film as that is), you could do worse than seeking out the original.