A Few Observations and Some Questions on Scarface (Howard Hawks, USA, 1932)

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I’d not seen Hawks’s Scarface for several decades and had forgotten the title cards that are placed between the opening credits and the beginning of the drama proper (and which you can see below). They rather shocked me. Has any government of the day and its citizenry ever been held to account for a social ill by a popular film as clearly and strongly as Scarface does? If so, I don’t remember it. And why don’t contemporary films do the same? Are media companies now run by Tony Camontes who have already made the world theirs?

The insolence with which Paul Muni as Tony Camonte lights his match on the policeman’s badge is more familiar to us today but it still succeeds in garnering the desired effect (see below).

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The script is a marvel: Complex relationships, humour, a stance on society, a critique of capitalism, an attitude to crime, a complex interviewing of class and ethnicity, all are woven into a classic rise and fall structure in which everything has its place, and the place of everything is tight and has to move fast. It’s no surprise that the credits feature Ben Hetch, John Lee Mahin, W. R. Burnett and Seton I. Miller, all legendary writers with long careers in this type of material.

There are aspects of the film that still raise an eyebrow. I was surprised this time around at the overtness of the incestuous desire: Tony Camonte’s (Paul Muni) desire for his sister Cesca (Anne Dvorak), and her acknowledgment of it is expressed clearly at the beginning when she receives it with shock and disgust. Later, after he’s killed the man she married on the morning after their wedding, she flees from him. But she can’t bring herself to kill him and at the end there’s an acceptance ‘I am you and your are me.’ she says.

I was surprised as well at how beautifully lit the film is and how ingeniously the  lighting is deployed. The first murder that we are shown Tony commit, we see him do it as a shadow through a screen (see fig A, below); the St. Valentine’s-type massacre we see later in the film is also rendered in shadows, this time on a wall (see fig B, below). The effect is poetic if brutal.

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Our first half-sight of Tony
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St. Valentine’s type massacre

But I want to here note simply the beauty of the atmospheric and very expressive uses of light and the camerawork that captured it, credited to Lee Garmes and L. W. O’Connell. See for example how Tom Gaffney (Boris Karloff) is lit in his hideout below (fig C) or how Karen Morley is lit as Poppy when she decides to fully embrace the dark side and opt for Tony (fig D). Its very beautiful.

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LIghting Gaffney in his hideout
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Karen Morley lit to enter the dark side and opt for Tony

I had not remembered how modernity itself seems to be a theme in the film. I was first struck by this with the shot in which Cesca is upstairs eyeing Guino (George Raft) flicking his coin on the street and noticed that the time the film was set in and shot was still a time in which horses and buggies shared the street with cars (see fig E). The film depicts a world that is new and changing: it’s significant that the protagonist is an immigrant. The world is literally new to him, with codes (in dress, style, taste) that he continuously misreads; a world full of opportunity for those who dare, and full of new and marvellous tools with which to destroy the other and take over, as for example the moment when Tony discovers that there are now such things as automatic machine guns so that even murder can now be accelerated(see below — fig F), a moment of realisation that with such tools at his disposal the world really can be his.

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A world where horse-and-buggy shares space with the car
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Tony and Guino discover the automatic machine gun, which makes him certain he can take over everything.

Speed and the reduction of time in which various spaces can be crossed also embody modernity in the film. See for example, the montage below, so typical of Thirties American cinema and here showing gang warfare on a daily basis and through the months. It’s now a cliché of the period but still feels exhilarating to watch.

Seeing Scarface again also highlighted Hawks’ skill as a director. See, for example, the scene below. Tony has heard from his mom that his sister Cesca has moved out and is living with a man like a common trollop. We know she’s madly in love with Guino (George Raft). We’ve seen her dance a very suggestive Charleston to him in the nightclub (see a close-up of it below).Screen Shot 2017-12-29 at 20.06.02.png

She’s at the piano playing him a song when the bell rings. Guino goes to answer it, eyes his gun but what the hell it’s his wedding day. He flips the coin — a gesture Raft would forever be associated with —  and opens the door. Then note how Tony looks through Guino, eyes his sister, she screams, we hear the gunshot, and cut to  Guino’s chest presumably receiving the bullet mid coin-flip, before another cut to a two-shot in which Guino eyes Tony, shakes his head as if to say ‘you got it wrong’ and collapses out of the lower part of the frame.   Hawks has shifted the focus from Tony murdering his best friend, a dramatic highlight in any film, to the relationship between brother and sister through the way the murder is staged and cut with imaginative uses of composition, framing, staging and point-of-view. The direction still feels fresh. It’s amazingly fast as well, married and widowed in twenty-four hours. In thirties cinema, things move fast (and it’s just as well with performances like George Raft’s).

I should probably end with a note on performances. Muni is unquestionably a ham, but I find him a most effective one here. He overdoes it, lays on the ethnicity, the gestures, so thick that you see an actor thinking through what he’s doing at every step; yet the result is easily understood and vivid. In the extras for De Palma’s 80s remake, Al Pacino talks about how he found Muni’s performance ‘astounding and inspiring and I thought after that I just wanted to imitate him. I wanted to do something. I was inspired by that performance’. Ann Dvorak is also very vibrant and very beautiful though not always good; and Hawks gets good characterisations out of those who can act (Karen Morley, Osgood Perkins, Boris Karloff). Those who can’t, like Raft, he gives amusing business to.

It was thrilling to see again.

 

Questions:

Is the hospital scene in The Godfather a reply to the hospital scene in Scarface: in the former Don Corleone is saved; in this one, he isn’t, and the gangsters have the insolence to throw in the flowers after the bullets.

Was Boris Karloff on Coppola’s mid when he cast Abe Vigoda, the former in The Godfather looks like an aged version of the latter in Scarface. 

José Arroyo

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