Scarface: The Shame of a Nation (1932)

Director: Howard Hawks

Producers: Howard Hughes, Howard Hawks (Caddo, United Artists)

Writers: Ben Hecht, Fred Pasley, Seton I. Miller, John Lee Mahin, W.R. Burnett (screenplay), Armitage Trail (novel)

Photography: Lee Garmes, L. William O’Connell

Music: Shelton Brooks, W.C. Handy

Cast: Paul Muni, Ann Dvorak, George Raft, Boris Karloff, Karen Morley, Osgood Perkins, C. Henry Gordon, Vince Barnett, Purnell Pratt, Tully Marshall, Inez Palange

Half a century separated Tony Camonte and Tony Montana; Paul Muni’s tommy gun and Al Pacino’s grenade launcher; “Get outta my way, Johnny, I’m gonna spit” and “Say hello to my little friend!” And in the time between the two Scarface films came ample room for debate, difference in taste, cinema knowledge, appreciation of history, and thus preference for one or the other.

Academics mostly favor the 1932 original, produced by Howard Hughes, written by Ben Hecht and directed by Howard Hawks. On the other hand, the hip hop generation unanimously prefers the 1983 remake, written by Oliver Stone and directed by Brian De Palma. No matter where you stand, it’s telling that both films were named to AFI’s Top 10 Gangster Films of All Time. Each was undoubtedly the most graphic film at its respective release date and faced tough censorship. Today it’s hard to imagine one without the other. DePalma and Stone owe their entire story to Hawks, Hughes and Hecht. And Hawks, Hughes and Hecht now owe their film’s entire pop culture recognition to De Palma and Stone. To know both is to love both.

The making of the original, Scarface: The Shame of a Nation, is a story of major cahones. With the success of Little Caesar and The Public Enemy in 1931, Hollywood began churning out gangster pictures like it was nobody’s business. The industry made 25 in 1931 and 40 in 1932. But there had been so many complaints about Caesar and Enemy that the very idea of topping the violence was unthinkable. In the fact, the film probably wouldn’t have been made (A) if it weren’t for the money and influence of multi-millionaire tycoon Howard Hughes — best known today as the subject of Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator (2004). Hughes was a big fan of the genre, having already produced The Racket (1928), and like the maverick, obsessive compulsive he was, wanted to produce the biggest, best, most bullet-ridden gangster picture the moves had ever seen. Needless to say, he succeeded.

Based on a novel by Armitage Trail, the film takes a perverse angle on the Horatio Alger myth, following Chicago criminal Tony Camonte (Muni) and his pursuit of the American Dream. Working for fat cat Johnny Lovo (Osgood Perkins), Tony rubs out crime boss Big Louis Costillo (Harry J. Vejar) in the opening scene and is released from custody for lack of sufficient evidence. Later during the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, Tony gets his hands on a tommy gun and all hell breaks loose. Bodies pile up across town and Tony builds his control over the city rackets, to the point that Johnny tries taking him out. Narrowly escaping the hit and realizing his betrayal, Tony confronts and kills Johnny, giving Tony Johnny’s widow Poppy (Karen Morley) and the keys to the top of the Chicago crime world. He goes by one simple motto: “Do it first, do it yourself, and keep on doin’ it.” But he’s a thug doomed by his own weaknesses. Not only is he a trigger-happy maniac, he’s a sad case of paranoia, fuming about a relationship between his best friend Rinaldo (George Raft) and his younger sister Cesca (Ann Dvorak). In the end, he is left to defend his steel-shuttered, urban fortress alone, taunting the police from out his top floor windows and guaranteeing himself certain death.

The scoundrel was tough enough to place #47 on AFI’s 50 Greatest Villains. But beneath the mean streak and power freak, Camonte is a character of childlike wonder. He’s the ultimate child, a kid in a candy shop where tommy guns pack the sugar high. You can feel the excitement in his voice when he says, “Hey look it! They got machine guns you can carry!” In this light, remember the film’s signature image is not one of violence at all. Rather, it’s a charming shot of Raft smiling and flipping his coin, a move homaged in everything from Singin’ in the Rain (1952) to No Country for Old Men (2007) and reprised by Raft himself in Some Like It Hot (1959). Even if it is a tragedy, there’s a great deal of fun to be had in Scarface, from the characters dancing to Shelton Brooks and W.C. Handy tunes to the hilarious guy in a phone booth during a shoot out. The experience is one of pleasure among evil, entertainment in the midst of murder.

The tone is set by none other than Hawks, a master director when it comes to such things. If anyone understands tone, it’s Hawks, who jumped from genre to genre witthout ever losing his personal touch. Looking at his career of consistent authorship, Scarface stands as the first great work. The opening scene alone, done all in one 3 1/2 minute long-take, should be required viewing material in every film course.

It begins on a street corner in the early morning, looking up at a lamp post then panning right to follow a janitor as he enters a building. The camera moves “through” the wall to track with the man and we discover the remnants of an all-night party. As the janitor sweeps up streamers, the camera dollies over to the table where Big Louis sits talking to two others. We listen in on their conversation as Louis sends the others home, and we track to the right with Louis as he goes into an interior phone booth. In the right of the frame, down a hallway very deep in the field, we see a man’s shadow emerge. But just as our curiosity is sparked, the camera pans back left to the phone booth, putting our subject of curiosity outside the frame. Seconds later, Hawks satisfies our desire to see it, and dollies down the hallway to see a man’s shadow on the wall, accompanied by an eerie whistling — a clear homage to Peter Lorre in Fritz Lang’s M (1931), released the year before. Hawks tracks back to the left following the shadow as it rounds a corner behind a window. In pure silhouette, the profile of a gangster pulling his gun appears through the window and fires three shots. The killer extis right as the camera dollies left, rounding the wall to see the victim, Big Louis, lying dead on the floor. The camera holds on this shot as the janitor enters and grabs his coat, and we pan left as he leaves in a hurry.

That, my friends, is cinematic mastery. And though the rest of the film never tops it, there’s still plenty to admire, be it a tommy gun firing away the pages of a calender, the groundbreaking use of rear projection in a car chase scene, or the bowling alley demise of Gaffney (Boris Karloff, fresh off Frankenstein). In the latter, Gaffney is pumped full of lead the moment he releases his bowling ball, the camera tracking left to follow the ball as it hits the pins, leaving one teetering (like Gaffney’s final breath) before falling to the ground. To me it joins Sam Fuller’s record needle (Pickup on South Street, 1953) as the coolest visual death metaphors in movie history. Similar imagery is done with Hawks’ motif of the letter “X,” used as a repeated familiar image — in the title sequence; as the scar on Tony’s face; behind a victim in the hospital; as ceiling rafters as the camera tilts down to see a line of victims mowed down as shadows on a wall; on Gaffney’s score sheet as he bowls his last ball; as Rinaldo’s door number and then as a shadow behind him on the wall as he too is killed. But most memorable of all of Hawks’ choices is that powerful tilt from Tony’s dead body in the street up to the “The World is Yours” sign flashing above him — a set-up and a payoff if there ever was one. For all this and more, legendary French critic and director Jean-Luc Godard, writing for the prestigious Cahiers du Cinema in the 1950s, called Scarface the best American sound film ever made. (D)

But where does one give the credit? Especially when the line between director and writer is so blurred, as in the brilliant touch where Poppy lets Tony light her cigarette instead of Johnny. If anything, Hecht deserves as much credit as Hawks. His script sparkles with clever writing, like Tony’s analogy of tommy gun and typewriter: “I’m gonna write my name all over this town, with big letters!” Yet Hecht’s biggest contribution is the gritty realism that comes from his own experience. Today, he’s known as one of history’s greatest screenwriters, the man who wrote Stagecoach (1939), Wuthering Heights (1939), His Girl Friday (1940), Notorious (1946), even contributing to Gone With the Wind (1939). But before all that, Hecht was a Chicago newspaperman, covering the crimes of Al Capone and John Dilinger. Scarface is an obvious response to Capone, who himself went by that nickname, and many of the film’s murders follow real-life events, most famously the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. It was actually dangerous territory. There are stories that Hecht was visited by Capone’s associates who asked if he really thought it was a good idea to be writing a script about Capone. Hecht stuck to his guns and eventually convinced them to be consultants on the movie. (E)

But the close-to-life depiction raises an important question as to the glorifying of these gangsters. Capone, who was in jail by 1931, is said to have loved the film so much that he owned his own copy, unheard of in those days. And as Leonard Maltin said, “It was a film that lured John Dilinger out of his hideout and led to his demise in 1934 in Chicago. So even the gangsters found it attractive and appealing to see themselves and their brotherhood depicted on the screen.” (A) Scarface ponders this dilemma, as a room full of reporters debate Camonte as newsworthy. On one side: “You’re trying to tell me you can get rid of the gangster by ignoring him, by keeping him off the front page? That’s ridiculous!” On the other: “That’s the attitude of too many morons in this country. They think these big hoodlums are some sort of demagogues. What do they do about a guy like Camonte? They sentamentalize, romance, make jokes about him.”

No doubt this moralizing made its way into the picture as a result of strict censorship. Scarface was completed in 1930, but its release was delayed two years as Hughes fought it out with the censorship. These censors, specifically the New York State Censorship Board, forced a subtitle (The Shame of a Nation) and a giant disclaimer at the beginning of the film: “The purpose of this picture is to demand of the government: ‘What are you going to do about it?'” What’s more, they forced Hawks to shoot three endings (A) and choose the one with a judge scolding Camonte and sending him to the gallows.

After all this, New York and Chicago still refused to release it, at which point Hughes restored his original “World is Yours” ending and released it in states that didn’t have censorship boards. Imagine the buzz around a film you had to drive to another state to see! This caused huge ticket lines, but hurt the film’s overall box office. By 1934, the MPAA had established the Hays Code, citing Scarface as an example of censorship necessity. The headaches caused Hughes to leave Hollywood for nearly nine years, returning to buck the system with sex symbol Jane Russell in The Outlaw (1943). As for Scarface, Hughes was forced to withdraw it from circulation, and it was rarely seen in the U.S. for almost 50 years, until its reissue by Universal Studios in 1979, just four years before Oliver Stone’s remake. (C)


CITE A: Public Enemies/Gangster Films documentary on TCM
CITE B: AFI Al Pacino Lifetime Achievement commemorative book
CITE C: Tim Dirks,
CITE D: Godard, Cahiers du Cinema
CITE E: Robert Osbourne TCM introduction (found on the DVD)
CITE F: 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die

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