Scarface (1932)

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Detail from Movie Poster for the Film "Scarface"

Scarface (1932). 94 minutes.  Directed by Howard Hawks.  Starring Paul Muni (as Tony Camonte), Osgood Perkins (as Johnny Lovo), George Raft (as Guino Rinaldo), Boris Karloff (as Gaffney), Ann Dvorak (as Cesca Camonte), and Karen Morley (as Poppy).  Produced by Howard Hughes.

“Oh, I knew Luciano and Costello, and even Capone, and lesser lights.  It was easy to be in movies and not know them, but almost impossible to be in show business—Broadway—without knowing them, unless you never went out at night to a nightclub and never knew anybody in any form of show business.  Unless you were the Lunts or Katharine Cornell, it was virtually impossible not to get to know them—they were so anxious for you to.  Capone used to take four rows at the opening night for every play in Chicago and come backstage and see everybody.  You couldn’t get to a nightclub without Costello sending over a bottle of champagne, or sit in Lindy’s without Luciano coming over.  They were horrible people—I never thought they were glamorous or interesting or anything—but there they were, part of the scene, and so one got to know them.”

Orson Welles to Peter Bogdanovich, This Is Orson Welles (pp. 311-312)

In the quotation above, filmmaker Orson Welles maintains that he never thought the gangsters he and other theatrical stars mingled with were glamorous, and yet many have made the claim that early Hollywood had a love affair with criminals.  Ever since crime films became popular, critics have claimed that these films glorify wrongdoing through their stylishness and sophistication.  In this  view, the moral and judicial consequences that film gangsters meet with as a result of their actions are overshadowed by the attractive light in which their escapades are portrayed.  Early in the 1930s, this criticism focused on an onslaught of gangster movies that included Scarface, The Public Enemy, and Little Caesar, which were subjected to censorship both internal and external to the Hollywood studio system.  That censorship sought to minimize the extent to which we as audience members could revel in the larger-than-life criminal personae we saw on the screen.

A careful review of Scarface reveals that some of the criticism of early crime films has merit.  The film’s principal gangster, Tony Camonte, does enjoy himself quite a bit in his rise to fame, and the film seems to enjoy sharing his exploits with us.  Throughout the movie, the distinguished actor Paul Muni plays Camonte as if he does not particularly care for the disturbing consequences of his criminal ways.  Even in one particularly bullet-ridden scene, when rival gangsters attack Camonte with copious gunfire from passing cars as he dines in a restaurant, Camonte seems to think the whole affair is an occasion for mirth.  He does not lose his cool for a minute, and he does, in fact, look very stylish as he laughs and ducks for cover. The movie even goes so far as to suggest that there is a sensitive or artistic side to Camonte, albeit an amateurish one.  What Orson Welles has to say about Al Capone’s opening night tradition becomes particularly relevant when we see the gangster Camonte, who is based on Capone, at a production of the John Colton and Clemence Randolph play Rain.  He comes off as funny, likeable.  During the intermission, he playfully dissects the characters with his goons, but much to his chagrin, his theatrical pleasures must be cut short in the name of gangland business, and he cannot finish the play.  He leaves his secretary behind to take notes on what he misses while he goes off to gun down a rival.

Many opponents of crime films point to their slick appearance, and appearances are very important to this mobster.  The theater is a place where Camonte can see cultural productions, but it is also a place where he can be seen partaking in culture and, accordingly, appear to be sophisticated and important.  Elsewhere in the movie, we observe him decked out in a polished tuxedo in nightclubs with glamorous women.  Even in his custom-outfitted apartment, where is not on public display, he ostentatiously piles his bed high with brand-new shirts, still folded and wrapped from the shop.  He shows these off to his boss’s girlfriend, Poppy, bragging that he will someday have one in every color.

Camonte’s conspicuous possessions increase in number as his position in the underworld grows.   He begins as the hired underling of mob boss Johnny Lovo, whom he serves with his friend Guino Rinaldo.  Lovo’s racket is bootlegging, and soon Camonte is helping him to run liquor all over the city of Chicago.  Camonte quickly moves to take on the king of the North Side, O’Hara, and O’Hara’s successor, Gaffney.  A torrential downpour of bullets ensues in an all-out gang war, but Camonte emerges victorious.  Soon Lovo is worried that Camonte is encroaching on his position, so he attempts to assassinate him but to no avail.  Camonte is poised to take over the entire city when the cops close in and he meets his end.

During Camonte’s meteoric rise to the top of the underworld, the staging itself seems at times infected with Camonte’s charisma and enthusiasm for the posh.  In a particularly beautiful but unsettling sequence, Camonte and his men corner Gaffney at a bowling alley.  As Gaffney bowls his turn, the camera follows the ball all the way to the pins where it hits a strike, but as it does, the sound of gunfire signals the end of Gaffney’s life.  The final impact of the ball so perfectly coincides with the gunshots that the film seems to revel in Gaffney’s death in a peculiar way.  There is also the sequence where, to indicate the passage of time, director Howard Hawks shows the pages of a tear-away calendar flying off into the darkness as they are relentlessly struck by bullets from a Tommy gun.  Strangely, it is as if the person firing (Camonte?  one of his nemeses?)  is directing the passage of time in a way that reaches beyond the ordinary powers of a movie character.  The stylishness of the film and its gangland figures become intimately intertwined in this moment.

Despite this playful attention to Camonte’s stylishness, even insofar as it intersects with violence, there is a fair amount of unattractiveness in this movie.  Although Camonte takes pleasure in criminal strategy, he certainly does not live a life free from personal conflict or sorrow.  This is particularly evident in his relationship with his sister, Cesca, and their scenes together do a good job of diminishing whatever glamor may lie elsewhere in the film.  He is obsessed with her sex life, demanding that she forsake all men and stay home at night.  She, of course, is dying to take part in that same exciting world her brother seems to belong to.  In one scene, after Tony has caught her at the very nightclub that he has been frequenting, he drags Cesca home and fights with her, ripping off half of the top of her gown.  For a moment we think she is nude, but she is wearing a barely discernible undergarment.  The suggestion, for a moment, that Tony has actually undressed his sister and exposed her breast in an act of violence that seems to emanate from sexual jealousy is extremely disturbing.  His behavior towards her is so extreme that he ends up killing his second-in-command, Guino, because he finds him with Cesca and both are in dressing gowns (this is the early thirties, and we are supposed to know what that implies).  What Tony does not realize is that earlier Cesca and Guino were secretly married, so he not only kills his closest friend but also his brother-in-law.

The relationship between Tony and Cesca heightens the issue of personal depravity in the film and contributes an especially dark undertone.  There is a wonderful early scene where they are fighting about her love life and she observes that to hear him talk, one would think he was not her brother so much as…  She lets the thought dangle.  The film may be implying that they have, or have had, an incestuous relationship, or it may only be implying that Tony has an unhealthy obsession with her.  Either way, Scarface indicts Tony not merely for his role as a criminal but for sexual and moral perversity in these domestic scenes. There is nothing glamorous about a man who acts like his sister’s jealous amorous partner and ends up killing someone as a result: it’s just plain creepy.  Camonte’s behavior as a brother indicates that there is a great deal about him that is undesirable and not worthy of emulation.

Perhaps the greatest moment used to determine how we should value Camonte comes in the film’s final shot.  He often admires a travel agency’s flashing neon sign positioned directly across from his decked-out apartment that proclaims, “The World Is Yours.”  It seems to speak to his yearning to take over not just his sector of Chicago but the whole city and then the universe.  At the movie’s conclusion, he rushes out into the street and falls dead directly beneath the sign in a hail of gunfire.  The camera slowly pans up and we see the sign, still flashing on and off, “The World Is Yours.”  Individual state censorship boards that existed at the time, especially that of New York, objected to this ending, and they were among the earliest voices (then and since then) protesting that especially in this final shot, Scarface glamorizes Camonte and the gangster lifestyle.

It is true that Camonte goes out in a blaze of glory: he has barricaded himself in his apartment and, after a lengthy exchange of bullets with the police, is smoked out with gas.  Escaping down a staircase, he is met by the law.  He attempts to bargain with them, and it seems he is willing to go peacefully, but at the last minute, he charges down the stairs past them and out onto the streets to his death.  Is it clear, however, that this is a glamorous end?  In the sense that he dies unrepentantly, behaving in the devious and violent way he has throughout the entire picture, perhaps.  But does dying unrepentantly necessarily glamorize him?  In many ways, the answer lies in the sign.  This sign displays the hopes and dreams of Camonte, who seemed to take for granted the fact that he was going to live a flashy and unfettered life.  The sign continues to live, as it were, even though Camonte does not.  There is something strangely eternal about this and so many other signs on the urban landscape; the mortal body of an upstart gangster is not so fortunate, and even though Camonte is gone at the end, his way of life being not long for this world, it is possible that his ideal continues on in the form of the sign.  Perhaps that is what troubled the state censorship boards so.  (They certainly would have disapproved of an earlier, unfilmed version of this scene, which left the audience with the sound of Camonte repeatedly pulling the trigger of his now empty gun as he lies dying—driving home the unrepentant angle.)  But then again the sign is merely something that Camonte has looked at and appropriated perversely.  It is, after all, only a travel agency’s illuminated advertisement.  Throughout the film, he has attempted to lay claim to the sign’s significance, but attempting to possess everything is a character trait of his, and it becomes clear in the final moments as the sign continues to light up the screen with his dead body beneath it that that trait is also a flaw.

There is an alternate ending that was filmed for New York, whose censors refused at one point to authorize the film for release in their state without major changes.  The New York conclusion is designed to show Camonte utterly defeated by the legal process.  Instead it heightens his mystique.  In it, Camonte surrenders on the staircase at the end and is handcuffed, put on trial, and executed.  However, Paul Muni was not available for filming the trial and execution scenes.  The filmed sequence that resulted feels strangely detached, devoid as it is of the brilliant and charismatic Muni, and hence, any shots of Camonte in court or mounting the scaffold.  The fact that this ending also makes for much less fun perhaps points to the extent to which we fall for the Camonte character prior to this ending, even though we know we should not.  It is strange to say, but somehow we end up missing him in the New York version.  Perhaps that feeling implies that altering the ending is actually a fairly impotent gesture as a censorship strategy, given the strength of what has already passed on the screen.  At least the original ending forces the audience to reconcile the hype of Camonte’s beloved sign with the reality of his death; the New York version just makes us wonder why he does not bother to show up to his own execution.

Of course, the difference between real life and the movies is patent: a gangster may look beautiful and suave on film but be in real life a diseased and dangerous person.  As film-goers, we can see a stylish movie gangster and still maintain that he has an unattractive side.  Given that this is the case, the kind of power that censors, both internal and external to the studio, thought this film had is fascinating.  Before releasing the movie, the studio added Shame of a Nation to the title in some markets and a long forward about the social significance of the film.  In reality, the perceived need for a subtitle and introduction only underscores the fear that there is something not just glamorous but powerful about Camonte in the censors’ eyes, something that needs to be reined in and cordoned off.  The various awkward attempts to repackage and reframe this movie indicate that the censors missed the ugliness of Camonte; their revisions only point to the intrigue of the character that they seek to diminish.

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