Directed by Howard Hawks and Richard Rosson.
Starring Paul Muni, George Raft, Ann Dvorak, Karen Morley, Osgood Perkins, C. Henry Gordon, Vince Barnett, Edwin Maxwell and Boris Karloff.
Howard Hawks’ original Scarface from 1932. Tony Camonte is new in town and ambitious. It’s prohibition-era in America, which is great for the illegal liquor business.
It’s easy to forget, with all its influence, that America is still a young country. There’s a lot of history that it’s missed out on. It has no Robin Hoods or King Arthurs. It had to rapidly create its own heroes. Cowboys and gangsters. The Western and the Mobster films. The former were noble, until the Italians got their hands on the genre in the 60s. The cowboys would meet in the middle of town at high noon, whereas the gangsters ran around like animals. Italians again, actually, but back in the prohibition-era. It was a nice little earner for the mobsters.
Tony Camonte (Paul Muni) is new in town. You can tell by his accent and occasional pigeon English. He has a subtle scar along his left check that he got from an “old business”. The war? Nah, some broad in a Brooklyn speakeasy. It makes him look like the Joker from The Dark Knight.
He debuts in a big way, killing Big Louis Costillo, the boss of the South Side, in the opening scene. He was the last of the old gang leaders of the booze business. All in one take, the shadow of a whistling gunman executes Costillo, Noir almost a decade before it took off. It was under the orders of Johnny Lovo (Osgood Perkins). “This town is up for grabs.” That’s called aggressive expansion.
Camonte is ambitious. A neon billboard beams “The world is yours!” at him through his window every night in his American dreams.
After a while, with the help of his good friend Guino Rinaldo (George Raft), Camonte takes control of the South Side from Lovo. Bar owners are forced to buy their liquor from them. Anyone who doesn’t is exploded/shot. Even the hospital isn’t safe. There’s a shot of a calendar having the days ripped from it by the sound of a Tommy gun. It’s an effective way to show how the gangsters, and the film, pass the time.
Problems arise when Camonte tries to expand into the North Side. It gives him heat with both the Micks and the police. The move triggers a gang war in the city. Most scenes have at least one person killed in them. The deaths are very expressive. One body is shot (by the camera) lying beneath an undertaker’s sign, the bars of which cast the shadow of a cross over the corpse.
These X’s are everywhere. The Roman numeral ‘X’ dons Rinaldo’s hotel room door. The woodwork in a barn forms a long row of ‘X’s. The line of ‘X’s for strikes on a bowling scorecard. These ‘X’s always preclude or frame the executions. They follow Camonte around like some Grim Reaper.
It goes well for Camonte for a time. He has the city in his hands. But Scarface is a tragedy, his success undone by the flaws in his own character. Gangsters are tragic figures. They had to be to get past the censorship board. Films at that time couldn’t be seen as glamorising a life of crime.
Everyone wore hats back then, too. They’d hang them up when they entered a room, and put them back on as the exited. These gangsters had manners and a warped respectfulness. It’s the endearing paradox at their heart. Camonte’s fierce protectiveness to his sister, shown in the same motion as he shoots single bullets from his pistol at half the city’s police force gathered outside.
Mythical guys, these gangsters.
365 Days, 100 Films
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