Monday, 16 May 2011


Year: 1932
Director: Howard Hawks and Richard Rosson
Screenplay: Ben Hecht, Fred Pasley, Seton I. Miller, John Lee Mahin, W. R. Burnett and Howard Hawks, based on the novel Scarface by Armitage Trail
Starring: Paul Muni, Ann Dvorak, Karen Morley, Osgood Perkins, C. Henry Gordon, George Raft, Vince Barnett, Boris Karloff
Running Time: 93 minutes
Genre: Drama, crime, gangster

Summary: Big Louis Costillo (Henry J. Vejar) is the leading crime boss of the South Side of Chicago, until he is gunned down by Tony Camonte (Muni) apparently acting on the orders of rival boss Johnny Lovo (Perkins). After the murder, Chicago erupts into a gang war. However, with the help of Camonte and his enforcer Guino Rinaldo (Raft), Johnny Lovo soon becomes the most powerful figure on the South Side. However Camonte wants to take over the other areas of the city against his boss's express wishes, and to make matters worse is finding himself increasingly drawn to Lovo's girlfriend, Poppy (Morley), while Rinaldo is finding himself increasingly involved with Camonte's sister, Francesca (Dvorak), who is desperate to break free of her brother's brutal control of her life.

Opinions: Most people today are probably more familiar with the 1983 remake of Scarface which was directed by Brian De Palma and starring Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer (the one where Pacino invites us to "Say hello to my little friend!"), and which has now become a really big cult film.
However the 1932 original is still probably the most influential and definitive gangster movies ever made. Produced by billionaire Howard Hughes, this was hugely controversial in it's day for it's violence and arguable glamorising of the gangster lifestyle.
Although the impact of the film has inevitably dimmed since it's first release it is still pretty powerful and full of iconic moments such as George Raft's laconic hit-man whose constantly flipping a coin, and the violent confrontation with Boris Karloff's rival gang boss in a bowling alley with the ball knocking over the pins becoming almost symbolic. There is also a lot of humour in the film, such as Camonte's incompetent henchman (Vince Barnett) who is unable to take telephone messages and tries to hold a telephone conversation in a restaurant while a full-blown shoot-out is going on. The film also has an interesting recurring visual motif of an "X" symbol whenever a character is to be murdered (Hawks apparently offered the crew members $100 to think of a different way to show the "X" for every murder).
The perfomrnaces are great, especially Paul Muni as the charismatic, fast-talking Camonte, who is also a scarily brutal, childish, murderous psychopath. He is well supported by Ann Dvorak as his tormented sister.
The movie is loosely based on the life and career of legendary real-life gangster Al Capone (who was also nicknamed "Scarface"). According to screenwriter Ben Hecht a couple of Capone's men visited him to make sure that the film wasn't based on Capone. When Hecht assured them that it was fictional, the men pointed out that the title would lead people to believe that the film was about Capone, and Hecht replied that of course it would and they would get bigger audiences because people would want to see a film about Al Capone. "It's all part of the scam we call show-business" Hecht apparently said. Capone's men, who appreciated a good scam, left them in peace. Capone himself was apparently a big fan of the movie, and owned a print of it.
The movie, which Hughes had instructed Hawks to make "as realistic, as grisly as possible", encountered numerous censorship problems, and was released with a text introduction and the subtitle "The Shame of a Nation" added, along with several re-edited scenes and an alternate ending. Most prints these days use the original, more violent, climax.
This is a must see for fans of gangster movies and also for anyone interested in the history of cinema. Even today, nearly 80 years after it's release, it remains exciting, funny and shocking.


Vince Barnett, Paul Muni and George Raft in Scarface

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