“Scarface” is one of the three gangster movies on the list from the early thirties (the other two being “Little Cesar” and “Public Enemy”). All three of them follow the rise and fall of a Chicago gangster king pin, All three of them are madmen and all three meet a violent end.
It would be easy to say that these movies are just tired copies of each other and that is also a partial reason I am quite fed up with gangster films. Another is this that I was never very sympathetic to them in the first place, but I think I have covered that ground in my previous comment on gangster films.
Instead of going down on the genre in general I will focus on what makes “Scarface” stand out.
First of all there are some very competent people involved in this movie.
Paul Muni is back and in a very very different role from “I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang” from the same year. The only resemblance is the darkness of his characters. Tony Camonte is a ruthless, brutal character who is determined to get what he wants and sweep everybody aside in the process. There are no restraints, no compassion or human understanding in his character, not even vanity. Just the strive to power. Well that is a sort of vanity, but not the public adoration of Little Cesar or Tom Powers. This is ultimate megalomaniac I-am-invincible domination. For a while I was seeing James Allen (I am a Fugitive…) going around shooting to the left and right with a fake Italian accent and it was so not right. Yet Muni is convincing. The character is a pig and Muni plays him well at that.
A second capacity behind this movie is director Howard Hawks. Since I saw this movie the first time 1½ year ago I have seen quite a few Howard Hawks movies and I have come to respect him and his skill. This is not his best picture ever, but technically it is far superior that the two earlier films. This one also contains an awful lot of shooting with big guns, something Hawks did well.
The characterization of Camonte and his lot is thin and this is not so much a psychological study. Neither is there any background information on why he became a gangster in the first place. He is there from the beginning. Instead this is the story of how Camonte in his own brutal way take de facto leadership in his gang. He is officially an employee of gangster boss Johnny Lovo (Osgood Perkins), but come more and more to ignore orders and run the business his own way. The “South side” gangster boss is killed in the beginning of the film (by Camonte) and Camonte now makes sure it is Lovo’s gang that moves in to take over. So far Lovo agrees. But when Camonte, not satisfied to share power, moves in on O’Hara’s gang on the “North side” it is in direct opposition to Lovo, but he is powerless to stop him.
It is a brutal war, fought with submachine guns and plenty of drive by shootings. Very noisy indeed. Eventually Camonte wins and Lovo realizes that it is now or never if he is to retain any semblance of control and stop this madman. The attempt on Camontes life fails and the revenge is brutal. Camonte is now at the top of the world, yet the end is near and come from an unexpected side.
There are two women in this story: Poppy (Karen Morley), the trophy girlfriend of Johnny Lovo and Cesca (Ann Dvorak) Camontes sister.
Poppy is just a trophy and she symbolizes power. She belongs to Lovo (is his to give away) and is pursued by Camonte as part of his angling for power. She is smooth and wise cracking, but she remains of minor significance to the story.
Cesca on the other hand, brilliantly played by Ann Dvorak, is pivotal to the story. She is loved and protected by Camonte and kept solidly in an iron cage by his constraints on her. She is wild and ambitious like him and chafes in her bondage and keep challenging them. The Book suggests an incestuous relationship between them and that is possible, yet I think it is his mania of control that rules his actions. She belongs to him and she better do what he tells her, which is to remain his little sister, demure and obedient.
Her ultimate rebellion is when she hits (hard) on Camonte’s second in command, Rinaldo (George Raft) and despite his misgivings manages to get him won over and married to her. Camonte does not ask. He just shoots him.
This killing clearly attributed to Camonte gives the police the excuse they have been waiting for to take him out in a magnificent shootout (I am reminded of the end of “Dr. Mabuse”). But they are almost too late. Cesca arrives before the police ready to shoot Camonte. Yet when the Police arrive she instead rush to his aid to fight a last stand as a couple. I have some misgivings about this turn. After all Camonte has just shot her husband and ruined her life.
A lot of shooting later they are all dead.
In a way it makes sense that it was this one that was picked as template for a remake. The shooting action is perfectly aligned with a modern take on action films.