Based on the book by author Armitage Trail, the original Scarface remains the most culturally resilient film from Hollywood’s Pre-Code Period.
Scarface is loosely based on the rise of notorious Chicago mobster Al Capone. While it deviates from reality in a number of ways, Scarface parallels Capone’s biography more closely than films like The Public Enemy (1931) or Little Caesar (1931).
Scarface was produced by billionaire industrialist Howard Hughes. It was scripted by Oscar winning writer Ben Hecht, with assistance from crime novelist W.R. Burnett.
Despite major production delays caused by the demands of censor boards, Scarface earned an impressive $800,000 at the box office. With Paul Muni in the starring role, its cast included Hollywood veterans George Raft, Boris Karloff and Osgood Perkins (the father of Psycho’s Anthony Perkins).
Scarface vaulted into pop culture iconography thanks to Brian de Palma’s 1983 remake starring Al Pacino. It was added to the Library of Congress National Film Registry in 1992.
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‘Scarface’ (1932): Spoiler-Free Synopsis
Tony Camonte (Paul Muni) is a low-ranking thug in the South Chicago Mafia. When a power struggle forces him to choose sides, he aligns himself with insurgent mobster Johnny Lovo (Osgood Perkins).
Tony brazenly executes mob leader”Big Louis” Castillo (Harry J. Vejar). With Lovo in control of the entire South Side, Tony and his friends Angelo (Vince Barnett) and Guino “Little Boy” Rinaldo (George Raft) set up a lucrative bootlegging operation in the newly acquired territory.
Things get complicated when Tony falls for Johnny Lovo’s girlfriend, Poppy (Karen Morley). Fueled by lust and ambition, he sets his sights on the city’s North Side, a zone controlled by rival Irish gangs.
Ignoring Lovo’s objections, Tony launches a series of attacks on Irish mob establishments. This audacity earns him both respect and credibility amongst his fellow thugs. Soon enough, Tony finds himself the undisputed leader of the Chicago’s South Side Mafia.
Armed to the teeth with newly purchased machine guns, Tony declares war on the Irish mob. But his rise has caught the law’s attention. And his sister Cesca (Ann Dvorak) has caught the attention of his oldest friend.
Heavy is the head that wears the crown. And Tony’s burden weighs a ton.
Opinion: My Review of ‘Scarface’ (1932)
Dwarfed by the enormous popularity of the 1983 remake, interrogating the original Scarface requires a close and careful reading. The most revealing methodology is by way of comparisons with other gangster movies of the era.
Although nowhere near as prominent, the theme of friendship and betrayal that dominates Little Caesar also has a place in Scarface.
The same can be said of the family dynamic explored so thoroughly in The Public Enemy. Instead of a protective older brother, Scarface portrays Tony’s younger sister Cesca as the more virtuous sibling.
Through Cesca, Scarface explores the depression-era gender bias discussed more thoroughly in 1933’s Baby Face.
Like Lily Powers, Cesca also deals with patriarchal double standards. While it’s perfectly okay for Tony to be a mobster, to murder mobsters, and to steal a mobster’s girlfriend—when Cesca falls in love with Guino Rinaldi—Tony flies into a rage and kills him.
Lastly, as with Little Caesar, City Streets and The Public Enemy, Scarface wants to have its cake and eat it too.
It features the same bolt-on prologue denouncing gangs and criminality. It also embeds similar anti-racketeering messages in the dialogue of several overly didactic scenes.
Just like fellow protagonists Rico Bandello (Little Caesar), The Kid (City Streets), and Tommy Powers (The Public Enemy), the irony is that Tony Camonte’s heavily stylized criminal persona is far too seductive for any callous law and order message to be taken seriously by the audience.
Whether it was the enormous $600,000 budget, or the expertise of legendary director Howard Hawks, Scarface is the cinematic gem of the Pre-Code period.
What separates Scarface from competing films of the era is the quality and verisimilitude of its action set-pieces. Machine gun shoot-outs, car chases, car crashes—all these scenes are years ahead of their time.
Although the movie as a whole does not qualify as a Noir, many scenes exemplify the Film Noir style. For instance, the expressionistic street scene (pictured below) shot from above on “Undertaker Street” would be right at home in Fritz Lang’s M (1931).
The use of silhouettes in the Big Louis execution scene and the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre scene are two of the most iconic shots of the decade. And who can forget the pivotal bedroom scene, in which both Poppy and Tony are drenched in gorgeous gloom.
These techniques add more than just aesthetic beauty.
Before Tony executes Big Louis, he’s literally a nobody. Here, the film is telling us his gun-toting silhouette could be that of any thug.
In the bedroom scene, Tony and Poppy only briefly share the frame. They remain on opposite sides of the room as our point of view toggles back and forth. There is something between them that can’t be verbalized, something that cannot be expressed through touch.
The scene is telling us that despite the strength of their ambitions, Tony and Poppy are doomed. Their tragic fate hangs about the room like an ominous black cloud, visually expressed by Hawks’ visionary use of shadow.
While not overtly expressed within the confines of the film, the original Scarface interacts well with Marxist ideology.
As a disenfranchised immigrant, Tony’s minority status confines him to the proletariat. With no social mobility and few opportunities for honest work, his only choice is to join the Italian Mafia.
Because the Mafia is essentially a corrupt political apparatus, brute force and audacity become Tony’s primary tools for climbing through its ranks.
Finally a member of the bourgeoisie, Tony becomes the target of the elite political class, which uses the police force and the judiciary to maintain the status quo.
By refusing to be exiled, and by refusing to be assimilated into a competing economic system, Tony is punished by the full weight of the establishment.
His house of cards collapses. His power evaporates. He dies the way he lived for most of his life: an exploited worker, sold an American dream that is unequally distributed amongst its citizens, legal or otherwise.
Historical Accuracy: ‘Scarface’ vs. The Real Al Capone
Although loosely based on Capone’s early years in the Chicago mob, Scarface is not a docudrama. Consider the following:
- Capone’s family immigrated from Salerno (Italy) to New York City, in 1893.
- Capone was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1899.
- The real-life Al Capone did have a scar on his cheek and his nickname actually was “Scarface,” a moniker Capone despised.
- Capone did rise from the bottom to the top of the “Outfit,” an Italian mob in prohibition-era Chicago.
- Although he rarely did the dirty work himself, the massacre depicted in the film is based on the Saint Valentines Day Massacre, widely believed to be ordered by Capone himself in 1929.
- Perhaps to avoid additional conflict with the censor board, Scarface ignores Capone’s celebrity status in the local and the national media.
- The film also ignores Capone’s activities within Chicago’s working-class neighborhoods, where leveraged charity and personal appearances to portray himself as a benevolent, Robin Hood-style crook.
- Capone’s many high-profile political connections and endorsements omitted from the film as well.
- Had Scarface been written ten to years later, its purely fictional ending would have been received much differently.
- The real life Capone never served a day in jail for the murders he committed or commissioned.
- On the back of an extensive effort by the newly formed FBI, Capone was eventually tried in Federal court for tax evasion.
- His conviction was the result of a new law called RICO, which gave prosecutors expanded powers to table broad legal arguments that linked together multiple layers of criminal activities in a single, comprehensive trial.
- After serving seven years in San Fransisco’s infamous Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary, Capone retired to his Florida mansion, where he lived quietly until his death from heart failure as a result of neuro-syphilitic paresis in January 1947.
- The real life Al Capone had seven siblings, including a sister named Mafalda.
Tony Camonte’s Character Arc: The Turn
Deviating from the formula established by many of its gangster movie counterparts, Howard Hawks’s Scarface is a complex character study that includes a decisive “turn,” a moment of psychological upheaval from which there can be no recovery.
Unlike the 1983 remake, in which Tony (Montana) is unhinged from the start, Hawks’ Tony descends into depravity one step at a time, a trajectory made evident by the reactions of the people around him, rather than his own maniacal diatribes.
In a brilliant directorial choice, the moment Tony’s transformation becomes complete is marked by the chilling words of his younger sister:
“Don’t touch me. Don’t come near me. Stay away from me. You’re not my brother. Don’t you think I know. Murderer. He kills people. He kills everybody. He kills everything. He’s a butcher. That’s what you are. You’re a butcher. You’re a butcher!”
The nature of this “turn” is what separates Scarface from its inferior Pre-Code counterparts.
Unlike Rico Bandello (Little Caesar) or Tommy Powers (The Public Enemy), as Tony’s death draws near, he remains entirely unrepentant.
His only remorse is for his sister, and even that emanates from a selfish place. All he can do is talk about himself, wailing to the cops that “he cannot be alone.”
But when the police lower their guns, Tony makes a break for it, still believing sheer ambition will somehow win the day.
Tony Camonte prefers to die in a hail of gunfire than answer for his sins. In this respect, he foreshadows characters like Night and The City‘s Harry Fabian, or Thief‘s ‘Frank’, men who are totally committed to their objectives, even if it means their own destruction.
For crooks like these, there is never any turning back.
The World Is Yours
The travel company billboard positioned outside Tony’s apartment window provides us with the film’s most potent symbol.
“The World Is Yours,” illuminated in shimmering electric light, is akin to “The Eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleberg” in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel, The Great Gatsby (1925).
In Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, the optometrist’s billboard overlooks the “valley of ashes,” an industrial wasteland in suburban New York City. The two giant eyeballs depicted in the ad behave as the novel’s moral compass, a symbol to remind us that “someone is always watching.”
In Scarface, “The World Is Yours” serves an ironic function. Although Tony is clearly inspired by the billboard’s message, as audience members, we understand the sign is just an advertisement, just another flashy sales pitch.
The billboard’s empty promise foreshadows Tony’s realization that for him, the American Dream is nothing more than a marketing campaign—and he was fooled by that one too.
“The World Is Yours” sign also raises a number of deeper questions that still resonate today.
Who is the “you” in “yours?”
Who does the “world” belong to?
Who owns the world?
Analysis: What’s ‘Scarface’ Really About?
Unlike the 1980’s remake, which invokes ideas around immigration, machismo and free market capitalism, the original Scarface concerns itself with the mass media’s role in sensationalizing criminality.
In this respect, the original Scarface has a lot in common with films like Citizen Kane (1941) or Sunset Boulevard (1950), films that explore the media’s persuasive power to distort, delude and deceive.
Although the bland didactic scenes in which concerned elites discuss the problematic rise of gangsters were obviously inserted to comply with censor board demands, their inclusion adds a compelling diagetic complexity that would have otherwise been absent.
The hand wringing in the newspaper executive’s office omits one very important stakeholder: the audience.
In the world of the film, the media reports on gang activity because it turns a profit. People want to read about gangsters and they’re willing to pay good money to do so. The same is true in the real world, the world in which real people are watching Scarface.
Like the ending of Fritz Lang’s M, this subtle narrative device implicates the audience. It seems to say, “Never mind the government censors. Only you, the audience, can stop the media from popularizing criminality. And you can start by turning off this movie.”
Howard Hawks’s stylized proto-Noir cinematography and brilliant action sequences only serve to reinforce the seductive quality of the medium.
Such a reading therefore frames Scarface as an early Post-Modern film, espousing the idea that art imitates life, and then life imitates art, until constructed and actual realities merge into a blurry common space: a meta-cultural universe unto itself.
Is ‘Scarface’ (1932) Worth Watching?
Beyond being a commercial vehicle for Al Pacino’s clownish overacting, De Palma’s 1983 Scarface remake is ultimately a veiled critique of Regan-era Neo-Liberal economic policy.
The original Scarface, however, is far more complex. It’s not just a sweaty metaphor for the free movement of people, capital and goods. It’s about the nature of human desire.
How you always want what you don’t have. How you never appreciate the good things until they’re gone. How when you cross a moral line, there is never any turning back.
So if you’ve got ninety minutes and an internet connection, say hello to the original Scarface.
You can watch the original Scarface for free on The Internet Archive.
Big Fella Meskal, the villain of Rouben Mamoulian’s City Streets (1931), was also based on Chicago mobster Al Capone.
Along with an alternate ending, the Hays Code demanded a prologue denouncing criminality, and a sub-title to convey a similar message. “The Shame Of A Nation” was thusly bolted onto to Scarface before its long-delayed release in April 1932.
In a side note for Film Noir enthusiasts, is it possible that the prosecutorial ‘RICO’ acronym was inspired by Little Caesar’s Enrico “Rico” Bandello?
Paul Muni went on to win Best Actor for The Story Of Louis Pasteur at the 1936 Academy Awards. After two decades in cinema, he grew disillusioned with Hollywood and focused the remainder of his career on theatre. Muni won a Tony Award in 1955 for his leading role in Inherit The Wind.
Director: Howard Hawks
Date Created: 2023-12-08 00:51