Gangsters, prohibition, Al Capone, the St. Valentine Day’s Massacre. It all sounds like some distant piece of folklore that by now is far removed from our modern day sensibilities. But when films like The Public Enemy, Little Caesar, and of course Scarface came out, these things were at the forefront of the national conscience. In fact, it seems like these films have seeped into our culture, making it hard to pull the legends and cinematic stereotypes away from the cold hard facts that have now dissipated with time.
Like the other gangster dramas, Howard Hawks‘ effort makes it blatantly obvious with its introductory title card that it is a story condemning the rise and fall of the gangsters. Much like many modern films, there is a great deal of screen time given to corrupt characters, but in this case, there is meant to be less ambiguity. The audience is directed to the fact that this is not a glorification, but an indictment. That didn’t mean controversy was not stirred up since Scarface’s immense amount of violence got it held up by the censors. But it did finally make it past in 1932.
What follows is what we would expect: The rise and fall of one ambitious mobster Tony “Scarface” Carmona. He starts out as an enforcer and tough guy who is ready to make his way up the ranks and he’s not going to allow any Tom, Dick, or Giuseppe get in his way. He often incurs the displeasure of his worried mother, and he is often distraught with his baby sister (Ann Dvorak) since she will not keep away from the boys.
Pretty soon Tony is made second in command, and his boss is looking into taking over the South Side after the previous big shot was knocked off. The little men cannot do much about Johnny and his crew moving in on the territory, but of course Tony’s not satisfied. Along with making a pass at the bosses girl, he starts taking it to rival mobsters on the North Side even when Johnny told him to lay off.
Retaliation follows with a vengeance and the cops are also taking an increasing interest in nailing Tony since he’s such a smug hotshot. But Scarface’s new best friend is the Tommy Gun. Tony only increases his ambitions by countering the rival mobsters, ambushing and gunning them down all across town. There’s no mercy and he even annihilates the rival boss Gaffney (Boris Karloff) at a bowling alley. Tony even manages to escape a hit put on him by Johnny and pretty soon old Scarface is running the show like he always wanted.
Every rise is always followed by a crushing fall, and Tony is no different. He is enraged to find his buddy and perpetual coin flipper Little Boy (George Raft) calling on his sister. Tony literally loses his mind gunning his friend down in cold blood and thus unwittingly setting himself up for an undisputed murder wrap. He deliriously holds himself up in his barricaded flat, but the hourglass is slowly running out. The game is up as quickly as it began.
Paul Muni is a fairly captivating lead who pulls off the gruff Italian tough guy pretty well. His supporting cast including the glowering George Raft and his hapless “secretary” (Vince Barnett). Although Ann Dvorak felt like a girl miscast. Otherwise, this pre-code film has its fair share of bullets flying and sirens blaring. It’s a film full of grit and shadowy avenues that are sometimes swimming with beer and sometimes blood. It is extraordinary to think of where Hawks went from this film, one of his earlier works because he really was one of the most adaptable and successful directors I can think of. His films do not always reflect his own personal style per se, but they are more often than not engaging, self-assured, and dynamic. Scarface is little different. An early classic from one of the great American visionaries of film.