Dionisio (Ernesto Gómez Cruz) lives with his mother in a one-room hut, scraping a living as a town-cryer. He’s at cock-fight in a village fair and is given a bloodied rooster as a tip. Dionisio heals him and begins a career. The innocent naïve peasant is transformed into a leading gambler, marries a beautiful singer (Blanca Guerra), who brings him even more luck. But in his single-minded pursuit of money, he loses sight of everything else and ensures his own downfall. A synthesis of many elements we’ve seen in previous Ripstein films, a film which shows the influence of Italian neo-realism but also leaps into a more magical kind of story-telling. Dark and funny, with a great evocation of the sensual and criminal dimension of rural fairs. We discuss this and more in the podcast below:
Investigating the Gangster film is crucial to understanding cinema past the silent era. From the 1930s “the western had been replaced by the Mob story as the central epic of America”. During the decade the Mob movie had risen to unprecedented popularity due to its distinct working class mode of address. The Gangster film appealed to lower class audiences who had just witnessed and were deeply entrenched in the initial consequences of the biggest financial crash in history. Life in 1931 for blue collar workers and their families was very hard indeed, so the release of Little Caesar and The Public Enemy (as well as subsequent titles) provided necessary escapism. Moreover, films made in this period began and evolved to further provide specific experiences tailored for depression audiences, as to provide them with the most effective release from their real social contexts. Key to achieving this end was the Gangster archetype, who was very intentionally formulated over the period by filmmakers to serve as a spokesperson and icon of strength and solidarity for the lower classes.
In achieving this end, the Gangster genre adopted a very distinct set of connotations and a mode of address which allowed for the presentation of spectacle to be directed in a fashion that allowed audiences to voice their lamentations with their real existence while simultaneously indulging in their destructive fantasies through the Gangster archetype as a surrogate. The Gangster existed as a vessel for audiences; any lower class individual could implant themselves in the position of Tom Powers or Rico Bandello and live a rise from poverty. The character allowed for the average citizen “to become a maverick” and involve themselves in the excitement of the criminal lifestyle, while relinquishing all the danger upon the fictional character. Robert Warshow highlights that the Gangster, in suiting this aim, was made to be intentionally spectacular. He brings our attention to the intentional fictionalisation of the Gangster and his world. The Gangster “inhabits and personifies not the real city, but the sad city of the imagination”. Through this process, the Gangster genre over the decade manifested a fictional reality that mediated and reflected the genuine fears of the audience amongst increasing social unrest and organised crime, yet conveyed them with a certain glamorisation that undercut said fears and allowed audiences to embrace them and temporarily escape their social anxieties by confronting them within a power fantasy, piggybacking off the Gangster archetype. The glamorisation of aspects which in the real world were points of fear and concern characterised the classical Gangster aesthetic. The Gangster film as a result refined strict patterns of presentation and spectacle that consolidated the aesthetic and form of the genre. The first section of my video essay aims to identify the conventions that became embedded within the genre after it was established with this agenda.
These conventions actually proved to be a financial and repressive tool to constrict and control lower class audiences. Firstly, the Gangster film was an effective and proven paradigm for repeat custom and profit. Once the Mob film was established to appease and voice lower class views and concerns, audiences consistently flocked to theatres, eventually relying on cinema to continue coping with the dire circumstances of their existence. Under the surface, however, is a much more malicious possibility. The Gangster film was refined as a tool for the oppression of lower classes because it passifies them through allowing fantasies of resistance. If the Gangster film provides relief, then tension cannot be built up and potentially explode out into real protest and potentially revolution. The Gangster film, although contested by Will Hays, was explicit in its disregard for law and order and thus allowing the population to demonstrate their authoritarian attitudes, but in a manner of which they could be controlled by the very institutions the films appears to resist. This content is crucial to informing the form of the 30s Gangster film. These motivations provide insight into how the genre should be judged, by its ability to provide relief to audiences as this is what the genre was intended to do. Crucially, the depression was over by the end of the decade and the Gangster archetype was made redundant. If he existed to reflect, provide escapism and potentially control audiences during the depression, and the form of his depiction was suited for this purpose, then what was the meaning of the gangster past the 1930s? My Video essay will identify the changes in the gangster figure between 1940 and 1990. I will pay particular attention towards how attitudes change regarding the figure and identify how the form of the gangster film changes as a result of growing critiques. I will focus on particular milestone films that highlight a greater psychoanalytic critique of the Gangster, showcasing changes in societal or technological contexts, and demonstrating changes in the original form of the Gangster film. These milestone films will include: Angels with Dirty Faces, White Heat, The Godfather, Scarface, and Once Upon A Time in America. Through working systematically through these films I will demonstrate how since the end of the 1930s there has been a consistent growing psychoanalytic critique of the Gangster since he has served his purpose for depression audiences. Moreover, I will note how the form of the original Gangster film is commented on and adapted as the deployment of the Gangster changes. Overall I will demonstrate that as the decades progressed, critique grew and the Gangster devolved further from his original purpose. By the 1970s the Gangster represented a broken, flawed and regret-ridden man, and by the 1980s with the release of Once Upon a Time in America, the Gangster consolidated in the 1930s was finally completely eviscerated both as an idea and a set of aesthetic attitudes. Leone, more than any other director, takes the basic principles of the 1930s Gangster and deconstructs and undermines them, with a particular focus on exposing the hidden inherent violence that underpinned the genre all along. Not only this but he comments on what the post depression Gangster is, which is ultimately a violent and vindictive, yet lonely and empty pathetic excuse for a human being, demonstrating a clear devolution from the glory days of the 30s.
Thompson, R,J. The Godfather (Berkeley: Reissue Edition, 2002)
American Film Institute. AFI 10 On 10 (New York: CBS, Air Date: 29 May 2008)
Warshow, R. “The Gangster as Tragic Hero”, Notions of Genre (Texas, University Press, 2016)
 Thompson, R,J. The Godfather (Berkeley: Reissue Edition, 2002)
 American Film Institute. AFI 10 On 10 (New York: CBS, air date: 29 May 2008)
 Warshow, R. “The Gangster as Tragic Hero”, Notions of Genre (Texas, University Press, 2016)
Richard Layne, Nicky Smith, Helen Vincent and I discuss Quick Millions, part of the early sound Fox films programmed at this year´s Ritrovato. We discuss it in relation to other gangster films of the era such as Public Enemy and Scarface, the passage of time montages, the iconography of the suit, Newsies, and the presence of both Spencer Tracy and George Raft, who makes quite an impression dancing. As we wrap up, Bertrand Tavernier walks past.
The film is on youtube and can be seen below: the difference in image and sound quality between this and what we saw in Bologna is reason enough to go to Ritrovato. George Raft´s dance can also be seen below just under the film itself,
Brian De Palma’s Scarface was released in December 1983. I was then an undergraduate at McGill trying to earn a few bucks during the holiday season by working as an usher at the Place du Canada cinema in Montreal, an 815 seater with one screen that opened in ’67 with Expo and closed in 1989, after the multiplex boom made such theatres impractical.
I got fired eventually, ostensibly for reading on the job but really because the holiday season was over. Scarface was Universal Pictures’ big Christmas release that season. During the whole time I worked at Cinema Place du Canada, which must have been just over a month, it was the only film we screened, and we could only show it twice weekdays as the film was so long (2h50). Despite mixed reviews, we got good crowds, and queues were common at almost every screening.
I have many fond memories of working there; the sound of kernels of corn popping steadily away, the smell of the newly melted butter. I thought that’s the way all cinemas all over the world made their popcorn until I moved to England. Here I found the popcorn on sale popped who knows when, looking forlorn and strewn behind big glass windows, usually sweet instead of salty. Why is that? It’s so inexpensive to pop corn fresh and the melting butter makes the whole cinema smell enticing and delicious. What an alienating way to cut corners, especially at the prices they charge.
I’ve never forgotten the way guys with their dates leaned up to the box-office and said ‘Two for Al’ at the Place du Canada cinema screenings of Scarface. It was almost always ‘Two for Al’ instead of ‘Two for Scarface.’ That’s how big a star Al Pacino was then. If the guys were Italian, they’d purr a ‘Hey’ up front with that extra relish, musicality and élan so typical of East Coast North Americans of Italian descent wanting to present ‘la bella figura’ and taking particular pride in Al Pacino’s accomplishments: ‘Hey! Two for Al’. Remember John Travolta aspiring to Al-ness in Saturday Night Fever?
Pacino then was every immigrant’s Al. That Scarface has since found a central place in hip hop culture in particular and black cultures in general is no surprise. One can point to how the cocaine, the guns and the gold might have a particular appeal to hip hop ‘pimp’ culture. But of greater significance in Scarface is how it presents the gangsterism of the system itself, the lawlessness of the cops, the muderousness of the privileged and the constant exclusionary practices put in place against any kind of other. Scarface spoke — sang really — not only in operatic style but with operatic range and depth to immigrants and outsiders of all kinds.
At Place du Canada I wore a tux; a cheap, scratchy and ill-fitting one, which probably made me uncomfortable wearing any kind of suit for life. I repetitively took and tore up tickets. I had a flashlight and sometimes lit the way and led the last stragglers to their seats.
But hey, there wasn’t much to do, which meant I was already in place in the dark to delight in the audience’s reaction to the chainsaw scene in the shower, probably the most graphic and violent bit of cinema your average filmgoer had seen to then — the not so average had probably already revelled in Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974) — and one which has surely shaped my taste.
I also got to see the rest of the film, over and over again, maybe 70 times in all, which surely also shaped the way I understand and think about cinema now. In between shows, I was reading Pauline Kael in short bursts, which I imagine must also share some of the blame, and not just for getting me fired.
There will be more on De Palma’s Scarface in later posts.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.