Scarface (1932 film)
Theatrical release poster
by Armitage Trail
|Edited by||Edward Curtiss|
The Caddo Company
|Distributed by||United Artists|
Scarface (also known as Scarface: The Shame of the Nation and The Shame of a Nation) is a 1932 American gangster film directed by Howard Hawks and produced by Hawks and Howard Hughes. The screenplay, by Ben Hecht, is based on Armitage Trail's 1929 novel Scarface, which portrays the life of Al Capone. The film tells story of gangster Antonio "Tony" Camonte (Paul Muni) who works for bootlegger Johnny Lovo (Osgood Perkins). By machine guns and by force, Camonte violently rises through the Chicago gangland world, intent on eliminating the competition of a rival gang led by Gaffney (Boris Karloff). Camonte eventually earns the attention and affection of Lovo's mistress Poppy (Karen Morley), as Camonte's younger sister Cesca (Ann Dvorak) pursues Camonte's best hitman Guino Rinaldo (George Raft), much to Camonte's dismay. One scene depicts a version of the Saint Valentine's Day Massacre, the infamous murder of Northside gang members by Capone's gang posing as police officers, which represents an overt tie of the film to the life of Capone.
Scarface was produced before the introduction of the Production Code Administration in 1934, which enforced regulations on film content. However, the Hays Code, a more lenient precursor, called for major alterations, including a prologue condemning gangsters, an alternate ending to more clearly reprehend Camonte, and the alternative title The Shame of a Nation. The censors believed the film glorified violence and crime. These changes delayed the film by a year, though some showings retained the original ending. Modern showings of the film have the original ending, though some DVD releases also include the alternate ending as a feature; these versions maintain the changes Hughes and Hawks were required to make for approval by the Hays Office. No completely unaltered version is known to exist.
Audience reception was positive, but censors banned the film in several cities and states, forcing Hughes to remove it from circulation and store it in his vault. The rights to the film were recovered after Hughes's death in the 1970s. Alongside Little Caesar and The Public Enemy (both 1931), Scarface is regarded as among the most significant gangster films, and greatly influenced the genre.
Scarface was added to the National Film Registry in 1994 by the Library of Congress. In 2008, the American Film Institute listed Scarface as the sixth best gangster film. It was the basis for the 1983 film of the same name starring Al Pacino.
- 1 Plot
- 2 Cast
- 3 Production
- 4 Release
- 5 Reception
- 6 Analysis
- 7 Legacy
- 8 Italian language versions
- 9 Related films
- 10 See also
- 11 References
- 12 Bibliography
- 13 Further reading
- 14 External links
In 1920s Chicago, Italian immigrant Antonio "Tony" Camonte acts on the orders of Italian mafioso John "Johnny" Lovo and kills "Big" Louis Costillo, the leading crime boss of the city's South Side. Johnny takes control of the South Side with Tony as his key lieutenant, selling large amounts of illegal beer to speakeasies and muscling in on bars run by rival outfits. However, Johnny repeatedly warns Tony not to mess with the Irish gangs led by O'Hara, who runs the North Side. Tony soon ignores these orders, barraging bars belonging to O'Hara, and attracting attention of the police and rival gangsters. Johnny realizes Tony is out of control and aspires to take his position.
Meanwhile, Tony pursues Johnny's girlfriend Poppy with increasing confidence. At first, she is dismissive of him but pays him more attention as his reputation rises. She visits his "gaudy" apartment where he shows her his view of an electric billboard advertising Cook's Tours, which features the slogan which inspires him: "The World is Yours."
Tony eventually decides to declare war and take over the North Side. He sends the coin flipping Guino Rinaldo, one of his best men and close friend, to kill O'Hara in a florist's shop that he uses as his base. This brings heavy retaliation from the North Side gangs, now led by Gaffney and armed with Thompson submachine guns—which instantly capture Tony's dark imagination. Tony leads his own forces to destroy the North Side gangs and take over their market, even to the point of impersonating police officers to murder several rivals in a garage. Tony kills Gaffney as he makes a strike at a bowling alley. The South side gang and Poppy go to a club and Tony and Poppy dance together in front of Johnny. After Tony conspicuously shows his intention to steal Poppy, Johnny believes his protégé is trying to take over, and he arranges for Tony to be assassinated while driving. Tony manages to escape this attack, and he and Guino kill Johnny, leaving Tony as the undisputed boss of the city. In order to elude the increasingly aggravated police force, Tony and Poppy leave Chicago for a month.
Tony's actions have provoked a public outcry, and the police are slowly closing in. After he sees his beloved sister Francesca ("Cesca") with Guino, he kills his friend in a jealous rage before the couple can inform him of their secret marriage. His sister runs out distraught, presumably to notify the police. The police move to arrest Tony for Guino's murder, and Tony takes cover in his house and prepares to fire at the police. Cesca comes back, planning to kill him, but decides to help him to fight the police. Tony and Cesca arm themselves and Tony shoots at the police from the window, laughing maniacally. Moments later, however, Cesca is killed by a stray bullet. Calling Cesca's name as the apartment fills with tear gas, Tony leaves on the stairs, and the police confront him. Tony pleads for his life, but makes a break for it, only to be shot by an unknown officer with a Tommy gun. He stumbles for a moment and falls in the gutter and dies. Among the sounds of cheering, the electric billboard blazes "The World is Yours".
- Paul Muni as Antonio "Tony" Camonte
- Ann Dvorak as Francesca "Cesca" Camonte
- George Raft as Guino Rinaldo
- Osgood Perkins as John "Johnny" Lovo
- Karen Morley as Poppy
- Boris Karloff as Tom Gaffney
- C. Henry Gordon as Inspector Ben Guarino
- Vince Barnett as Angelo
- Purnell Pratt as Garston
- Tully Marshall as Managing editor
- Inez Palange as Mrs. Camonte
- Edwin Maxwell as Chief of Detectives
- Harry J. Vejar as Big Louis Costillo (uncredited)
- Howard Hawks as Man on Bed (uncredited)
Business tycoon Howard Hughes, who dabbled in filmmaking, wanted a box office hit after the success of his 1931 film The Front Page. Gangster films were topical in the early 1930s in the age of Prohibition, and Hughes wanted to make a film based on the life of gangster Al Capone superior to all other films in the genre. He was advised against making the film, as the genre was crowded; Little Caesar and The Public Enemy were already box-office successes, and Warner Bros. claimed nothing new could be done with the gangster genre. Furthermore, industry censors such as the Hays Office were becoming concerned with the glamorization of crime in media.
Hughes bought the rights to Armitage Trail's novel Scarface, inspired by the life of Capone. Trail wrote for a number of detective story magazines during the early 20s, but died of a heart attack at the age of 28, shortly before the release of Scarface. Hughes hired Fred Pasley, a New York reporter and authority on Capone, as a writer. Hughes asked Ben Hecht, who in 1929 had won the first Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for his silent crime film Underworld, to be head writer. Suspicious of Hughes as an employer, Hecht requested a daily salary of $1,000, to be paid every day at six o'clock. Hecht claimed he would only waste a day's labor if Hughes turned out to be a fraud.
Hughes wanted film director Howard Hawks to direct and co-produce. This surprised Hawks, as the two had never been friendly; Hughes had filed a lawsuit against Howard Hawks in July 1930, alleging that Hawks's film The Dawn Patrol had plagiarized his film Hell's Angels. Over a game of golf, Hughes promised to drop the lawsuit, and by the eighteenth hole, Hawks had become interested in directing the film. He became more convinced when he discovered Hecht would be the head writer. Hecht and Hawks worked together well, intending to portray the Capone character as of the Borgia Family, including the suggestion of incest between the main character and his sister, present in Trail's novel.
Hecht wrote the screenplay over eleven days in January 1931, adapted from Trail's novel. Additional writing was provided by Fred Pasley and W. R. Burnett, author of the novel Little Caesar, which the film Little Caesar was based on. Pasley wrote the screenplay including elements of book Al Capone: Biography of a Self-Made Man; the book contains a barbershop scene with Capone similar to the introduction of Tony Camonte in the film. Pasley was not credited for his work on the screenplay. John Lee Mahin and Seton I. Miller rewrote the script for continuity and dialogue.
Because there were five writers, it is difficult to distinguish which components were contributed by which writer; however, the ending of Scarface is similar to Hecht's first gangster film Underworld, in which gangster Bull Weed traps himself in his apartment with his lover and fires at the hordes of police outside, and thus was likely a Hecht contribution.
The film version of Scarface bears little resemblance to the novel. Though the film contains the same major characters, plot points and incestual undertones, changes were made to reduce the length and the number of characters, and to satisfy the requests of censorship offices. To make gangsters appear less admirable, Tony's character was made to appear less intelligent and more brutish than in the novel. Similarly, the sibling relationship between Tony and the police officer was removed to avoid depicting police corruption.
Ties to Capone
Both the film and novel are loosely based upon the life of gangster Al Capone, whose nickname was "Scarface". The names of characters and locations were changed only minimally. Capone became Camonte, Torrio became Lovvo and Moran became Doran. In some early scripts, Colosimo was Colisimo and O'Bannion was Bannon, but the names were changed to Costillo and O'Hara respectively. This, including other alterations made to characters and other identifying locations to maintain anonymity, were due to censorship and Hawks's concern about the overuse of historical details.
Ben Hecht had met Capone and "knew a lot about Chicago", so he did no research for the script. According to Hecht, while he worked on the script, Capone sent two men to visit him in Hollywood to make sure the film was not based on Capone's life. He told them the Scarface character was a parody of numerous people, and that the title was chosen as it was intriguing. The two left Hecht alone.
The references to Capone and actual events from the Chicago gang wars were obvious to audiences at the time. Muni's character had a scar similar to Capone, received in similar fights. The police in the film mention Camonte is a member of the Five Points Gang in Brooklyn, of which Capone was a known member. Tony kills his boss "Big Louis" Costillo in the lobby of his club; Capone was involved in the murder of his first boss "Big Jim" Colosimo in 1920. Rival boss O'Hara is murdered in his flower shop; Capone's men murdered Dean O'Bannion in his flower shop in 1924. The assassination of seven men in a garage, with two of the gunmen costumed as police officers, mirrors the St. Valentine's Day Massacre of 1929. The leader of this rival gang narrowly escapes the shooting, as did gang leader Bugs Moran. The film opens at the intersection of 22nd Street and Wabash Avenue in the middle of Capone's South Side, the site of many Capone's crimes.
Despite the clear references to Capone, Capone was rumored to have liked the film so much he owned a print of it. However, this was likely an exaggerated claim by Hawks as Capone was imprisoned in Atlanta for tax evasion during the film's release.
Hawks and Hughes found casting difficult as most actors were under contract and studios were reluctant to allow their artists to freelance for independent producers. Producer Irving Thalberg suggested Clark Gable, but Hawks believed Gable was a personality, not an actor. After seeing Paul Muni on Broadway, talent agent Al Rosen suggested him for the lead role. Muni initially declined, feeling he was not physically suited for the role, but after reading the script, his wife Bella convinced him to take it. After a test run in New York, Hughes, Hawks, and Hecht approved Muni for the role.
Boris Karloff was cast as British gangster Gaffney. Jack La Rue was cast as Tony Camonte's sidekick Guino Rinaldo (modeled after Capone's bodyguard Frank Rio) but as he was taller than Muni, Hawks worried he would overshadow Muni's tough Scarface persona. He was replaced with George Raft, a struggling actor at the time, after Hawks encountered him at a prizefight.
Though Karen Morley was under contract at MGM, Hawks was close with MGM studio executive Eddie Mannix, who loaned out Morley for the film. She was reportedly given the choice between the role of Poppy or Cesca. Though Cesca was the stronger role, she chose Poppy as she felt Cesca would be a better fit for her friend Ann Dvorak. She considered this "probably the nicest thing [she] did in [her] life". Morley invited twenty-year old Dvorak to a party at Hawks' house to introduce them. According to Hawks, at the party, Dvorak zeroed in on George Raft who would be playing her love interest. He initially declined her invitation to dance. She tried to dance in front of him in order to lure him; eventually he gave in, and their dance together stopped the party. After this event, Hawks was interested in casting her, but had reservations about her lack of experience. After a screen test, he gave her the part, and MGM was willing to release her from her contract as a chorus girl. Dvorak had to both receive permission from her mother Anna Lehr and to win a petition presented to the Superior Court to be able to sign on with Howard Hawks as a minor.
Filming lasted six months, which was long for films made in the early 1930s. Howard Hughes remained off-set to avoid interfering with the filming of the movie. Hughes urged Hawks to make the film as visually exciting as possible by adding car chases, crashes, and machine gun fire. Hawks shot the film at three different locations: Metropolitan Studios, Harold Lloyd Studios and the Mayan Theater in Los Angeles. Shooting took three months with the cast and crew working seven days a week. For the most violent scene of the film in the restaurant, Hawks cleared the set to avoid harming extras and had the set fired on by machine guns. The actors acted out the scene in front of a screen with the shooting projected in the back, so as everyone crowded under the tables in the restaurant, the room appeared to be simultaneously under fire.
During filming, Hawks and Hughes met with the Hays Office to discuss revisions. Despite that, Scarface was filmed and put together quickly. In September 1931, a rough cut of the film was screened for the California Crime Commission and police officials, neither of whom thought the movie was a dangerous influence for audiences or would illicit a criminal response. Irving Thalberg was given an advanced screening and was impressed by the film. Despite the positive feedback the film was given, the Hays Office was insistent on changes before final approval.
Scarface was produced and filmed during Pre-Code era of Hollywood, which spanned from 1930 to 1934. The Pre-Code era is characterized by its informal and haphazard screening and regulation of film content, prior to the establishment of the Production Code Administration (PCA) in July 1934. Before the influence of the PCA, censorship was overseen by the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA). In 1930, Will Hays, the chairman of the MPPDA, attempted to regulate the content of movies; the MPPDA became known as the Hays Office. The goal of the Hays Office was to censor nudity, sexuality, drug use and crime. More specific to Scarface, the Hays Office wanted to avoid the sympathetic portrayal of crime by either showing criminals recognizing the error of their ways or showing criminals get punished. The Hays Office, however, did not have authority to remove material from a film until the MPPDA officially pledged to adhere to the Production Code in 1934, so they relied on delaying film release and lobbying to remove scenes or prevent movies from being produced. Films evaded the Hays Office by adding extremely suggestive scenes so they could remove them and satisfy the Hays Office enough that they wouldn't notice the lesser immoralities that remained in the film.
J.E. Smyth called Scarface, "one of the most highly censored films in Hollywood history." Howard Hawks believed the Hays Office had personal vendettas against the movie, while Hughes believed the censorship was due to "ulterior and political motives" of corrupt politicians. However, James Wingate of the New York censor boards rebutted that Hughes was preoccupied with "box office publicity" in producing the film. After repeated demands for a script rewrite from the Hays Office, Hughes ordered Hawks to shoot the film: "Screw the Hays Office, make it as realistic, and grisly as possible." The Hays Office was outraged by Scarface when they screened it. According to the Hays Office, Scarface violated the Code, because the film elicited sympathy for Muni's character and it revealed to youth a successful method of crime. The Hays office called for scenes to be deleted, scenes to be added to condemn gangsterism, and a different ending. They believed Tony's death at the end of the film was too glorifying. In addition to the violence, the MPPDA felt an inappropriate relationship between the main character and his sister was too overt, especially when he holds her in his arms after he slaps her and tears her dress; they ordered this scene be deleted. Hughes, in order to receive the MPPDA's approval, deleted the more violent scenes, added a prologue to condemn gangsterism, and wrote a new ending.
In addition, a couple scenes were added to overtly condemn gangsterism, such as a scene in which a newspaper publisher looks at the screen and directly admonishes the government and the public for their lack of action in fighting against mob violence and a scene in which the chief detective denounces the glorification of gangsters. Hawks refused to shoot the extra scenes and the alternate ending. They were directed by Richard Rossen, earning Rossen the title of "co-director". Hughes was instructed to change the title to The Menace, Shame of the Nation or Yellow to clarify the subject of the film; after month of haggling, he compromised with the title Scarface, Shame of the Nation and by adding a foreword condemning the "gangster" in a general sense. Hughes made an attempt to release the film under the title "The Scar" when the original title was disallowed by the Hays office. Besides the title, the term "Scarface" was removed from the film. In the scene where Tony kills Rinaldo, Cesca says the word "murderer", but she can be seen mouthing the word "Scarface".
The original script had Tony's mother loving her son unconditionally, praising his lifestyle, and even accepting money and gifts from him. In addition, there was a politician who, despite campaigning against gangsters on the podium, is shown partying with them after hours. The script ending had Tony staying in the building, unaffected by tear gas and a multitude of bullets fired at him. After the building is on fire, Tony is forced to exit, guns blazing. He is sprayed with police gun fire but appears unfazed. Upon noticing the police officer who had been arresting him throughout the film, he fires at him, only to hear a single "click" noise implying his gun is empty. He is killed after the police officer shoots him several times. A repeated clicking noise is heard on the soundtrack implying he was attempting to fire while he was dying.
The first version of the film (Version A) was completed on September 8, 1931, but censors required the ending be modified or they would refuse to grant Scarface a license. Paul Muni was unable to re-film the ending in 1931 due his work on Broadway. To combat this Hawks used a body double. The body double was mainly filmed by way of shadows and long shots in order to mask Muni's absence in these scenes. The alternate ending (Version B) differs from the original ending in the manner that Tony is caught and in which he dies. Unlike the original ending where Tony escapes the police and dies after getting shot several times. In the alternate ending, Tony reluctantly handing himself over to the police. After the encounter, Tony's face is not shown. A scene follows where a judge is addressing Tony during sentencing. The next scene is the finale, in which Tony (seen from a bird's eye view) is brought to the gallows and hung.
However, Version B did not pass the New York censors and Chicago censors. Howard Hughes felt the Hays office had suspicious intentions in rejecting the film, because Hays was friends with Louis B. Mayer and Hughes believed censorship was to prevent wealthy independent competitors from producing films. Confident his film could stand out among audiences more than Mayer's films, Hughes organized a press showing of the film in Hollywood and New York. The New York Herald Tribune praised Hughes for his courage to stand against censors. Hughes disowned the censored film and finally in 1932 released Version A—with the added text introduction in states that lacked strict censors (Hughes attempted to take the New York censors to court). This 1932 release version led to bona-fide box office status and positive critical reviews. Hughes was successful in subsequent lawsuits against the boards that censored the film. Due to criticism from the press, Hays claimed the version shown in theaters was the censored film he had previously approved.
Due to the film's urban setting, nondiegetic music (not visible on the screen or implied to be present in the story) was not used in the film. The only music that appears in the film is during the opening and closing credits and during scenes in the movie where music would appear naturally in the film's action such as in the nightclub. Adolf Tandler served as the film's musical director, while Gus Arnheim served as the orchestra's conductor. Gus Arnheim and his Cocoanut Grove Orchestra perform "Saint Louis blues" by W. C. Handy and "Some of These Days" by Shelton Brooks in the nightclub. The tune Tony whistles in the film is the sextet from Gaetano Donizetti's popular opera Lucia di Lammermoor. This tune is accompanied by words that translate to, "What restrains me in such a moment?", and this tune continues to appear during violent scenes in the movie. The song Cesca sings while playing the piano is "Wreck of the Old 97".
The serious play Tony and his friends go to see, leaving at the end of Act 2, is John Colton and Clemence Randolph's Rain, based on W. Somerset Maugham's story "Miss Sadie Thompson". The play opened on Broadway in 1922 and ran throughout the 1920s. (A film version of the play, also titled Rain and starring Joan Crawford, was released by United Artists the same year as Scarface.) Though fairly inconspicuous in the film, and unnoticed by most viewers, the Capone family was meant to be partially modeled after the Italo-Spanish Borgia family. This was most prominent thought the subtle and arguably incestuous relationship Tony Camonte and his sister share. Camonte's excessive jealousy of his sister's affairs with other men hint at this relationship. Coincidentally, Donizetti wrote the opera for Lucrezia Borgia, about the Borgia family, and Lucia di Lammermoor from where Tony Camonte's whistle tune comes.
After battling with censorship offices, the film was released almost a year late, behind The Public Enemy and Little Caesar which had been filmed at the same time. Scarface was released in theaters on April 9, 1932. Hughes planned a grand premiere in New York, but New York censor boards rejected the showing of the film. State censorship boards in Ohio, Virginia, Maryland, and Kansas and citywide censorship boards in Detroit, Seattle, Portland, and Chicago banned the film as well. Hughes threatened to sue censorship boards for preventing the release of his film much to the approval of the <!- No definite article, see the WP article. -->New York Herald Tribune. Each state had a different board of censors which allowed Hughes to release the film in areas without strict censorship. At the request of Will Hays, Jason Joy convinced the strict censor boards to allow the release of Scarface, because the Hays Office acknowledged and appreciated the changes Hughes made to Scarface. Joy visited state censor boards individually, stating that that while the Hays Office was against the positive portrayal of crime, gang films were actually documents against gangster life. Joy was successful and eventually all state and municipal censorship boards allowed Scarface to be released, accepting only the cut and censored version of Scarface.
The film was released on DVD on May 22, 2007, and was released again on August 28, 2012, in celebration of the 100th anniversary of Universal Studios, by Universal Pictures Home Entertainment. Both versions of the DVD include an introduction by Turner Classic Movies host and film historian Robert Osborne and the film's alternate ending. On video and on television, the film maintains Hawks's original ending but still contains the other alterations he was required to make during filming. A completely unaltered and uncensored version of the film is not known to exist.
At the time of release, audience reception was generally positive. According to George Raft, who met Al Capone a few times at casinos, even Capone himself liked the film adding, "you tell 'em that if any of my boys are tossin' coins, they'll be twenty-dollar gold pieces." Variety cited Scarface as having, "that powerful and gripping suspense which is in all gangster pictures is in this one in double doses and makes it compelling entertainment," and that the actors play, "as if they'd been doing nothing else all their lives." The National Board of Review named Scarface as one of the best pictures of 1932. However, at the time of release in 1932, there was a general public outcry about the film and the gangster genre in general which negatively affected box-office earnings of the film. Jack Alicoate gave Scarface a scathing review in The Film Daily that the violence and subject matter of the film left him with, "the distinct feeling of nausea". He goes on to say the film, "should never have been made" and showing the film would, "do more harm to the motion picture industry, and every one connected with it, than any picture ever shown." Although Ben Hecht was often critical of his work for Hollywood, he admitted that Scarface was "the best-directed picture [he has] seen". Hecht did; however, criticize Muni's performance. Having known Al Capone, Hecht claimed that Muni portrayed Capone as too "silent" and "moody", more similar to "Hitler". Some critics disagreed with the casting of British actor Boris Karloff, believing his accent was out of place in a gangster film; a New York Times article stated, "his British accent is hardly suitable to the role". However, other critics considered him a high point. The film earned $600,000 at the box office and while Scarface was more of a financial success than Hughes's other films at the time, due to the large cost of production, it is unlikely the film did better than break even.
The film initiated outrage among Italian organizations and individuals of Italian descent, remarking a tendency of filmmakers to portray gangsters and bootleggers in their films as Italian. In the film, an Italian American makes a speech condemning gangster activities; this was added later in production to appease censors. This, however, did not prevent the Italian embassy from disapproving Scarface. Believing the film to be offensive to the Italian community, the Order Sons of Italy in America formally denounced the film and other groups urged community members to boycott the film and other films derogatory towards Italians or Italian-Americans. Will Hays wrote to the ambassador in Italy, excusing himself from scrutiny by stating the film was an anachronism, because it had been delayed in production for two years and was not representative of the current practice of censorship at the time. Nazi Germany permanently prohibited showings of the film. Some cities in England banned the film as well, believing the British Board of Film Censorship's policy on gangster films was too lax. Several cities in the United States including Chicago and some states refused to show the film. The magazine Movie Classics ran an issue urging the people to demand to see the film at theaters despite the censorship bans. The film broke box-office records at the Woods Theatre in Chicago after premiering Thanksgiving Day, November 20, 1941 after having been banned from showing in Chicago by censors for nine years. Despite the favorable reception of the film among the public, the censorship battles and the unflattering reviews from some press contributed to the film's generally poor performance at the box-office. Upset at the inability to make money from Scarface, Howard Hughes removed the film from circulation. The film remained unavailable until 1979 except for occasional release prints of suspect quality from questionable sources. Hughes had plans in 1933 to direct and produce a sequel to Scarface, but due to stricter censorship rules, the film was never made.
In 1994, Scarface was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". The character of Tony Camonte ranked at number 47 on AFI's 100 Years... 100 Heroes and Villains list. The film was named the best American sound film by critic and director Jean-Luc Godard in Cahiers du Cinéma. In June 2008, the American Film Institute revealed its "Ten Top Ten"—the best ten films in ten "classic" American film genres—after polling over 1,500 people from the creative community. Scarface was acknowledged as the sixth best in the gangster film genre. The 1983 version was placed 10th, making Scarface the only film to make the same "10 Top 10" list as its remake.
Scholars debate whether Scarface classifies as a film with historical significance or as merely a Hollywood gangster-era motion picture. Its historical significance was augmented by the film's writing credits: W.R. Burnett, author of gangster novel Little Caesar from which the film of the same name was based on, Fred D. Pasley, a prominent Chicago gangland historian, and ex-Chicago reporter Ben Hecht. Events similar to the assassination of Jim Colismo and the St. Valentine's Day Massacre contribute to the film's realism and authenticity. Film critic Robert E. Sherwood stated the film, "merits...as a sociological or historical document...[and] an utterly inexcusable attempt has been made to suppress it—not because it is obscene...but because...it comes to close to telling the truth."
According to film studies professor Fran Mason, a prominent theme in the film is excess. The opening of the film sets the stage as Big Louie Costillo sits in the remnants of a wild party, convincing his friends his next party will be bigger, better, and have "much more everything". This indicates the excessive life of a gangster, whether in pleasure or in violence. The death scene of Costillo sets the next tone of excess. In this scene, the audience sees only the shadow of Tony Camonte with a gun, hears the shots and the sound of the body hitting the floor. The violent scenes become more severe as the film progresses. Most of the violence in the film is shown through montage, as scenes go by in sequence, showing the brutal murders that Tony and his gang commit such as roughing up bar owners, a drive by bombing, and the massacre of seven men against a wall. A scene shows a peel-off calendar rapidly changing dates while shot by a machine gun, making the excessive violence clear. The violence is not only perpetrated by the gangsters. The police in the final scene with Tony and Cesca spare no effort to catch the notorious Camonte siblings, visible through the disproportionate number of police officers and cars surrounding the apartment complex to apprehend one man. Tony and the police's excessive use of violence throughout the film normalizes it. An element of parody underlies Tony's abnormal joy in using Tommy guns. In the scene in the restaurant in which men from the North side gang attempt to shoot Tony with a Tommy, he obtains pleasure from the power. Rather than cowering beneath the tables, he tries to peek out to watch the guns in action, laughing maniacally from his excitement. He reacts jovially upon getting his first Tommy gun and enthusiastically leaves to, "write [his] name all over the town with it."
The gangster's excessive consumption is comically represented through Tony's quest to obtain expensive goods and show them off. In Tony's first encounter with Poppy alone on the staircase, he boasts about his new suit, jewelry, and bullet-proof car. Poppy largely dismisses his advances calling his look, "kinda effeminate". His feminine consumption and obsession with looks and clothes is juxtaposed by his masculine consumption which is represented by his new car. Later, Tony shows Poppy a stack of new shirts, claiming he will wear each shirt only once. His awkwardness and ignorance of his own exorbitance makes this Gatsby style scene more comical than serious. His consumption serves to symbolize the disintegration of values of modernity, specifically represented by his poor taste and obsession with money and social status. Tony's excess transcends parody and becomes dangerous, because he represents a complete lack of restraint which ultimately leads to his downfall.
Tony's excess is manifest in the gang wars in the city. He is given express instruction to leave O'Hara, Gaffney, and the rest of the North side gang alone. He disobeys because of his lust for more power, violence, and territory. Not only does he threaten the external power structure of the gangs in relation to physical territory, he disrupts the internal power structure of his own gang by blatantly disobeying his boss Johnny Lovo. Gaffney's physical position juxtaposes Tony's position. Throughout the film, Gaffney's movement is restricted by both setting and implication, because of the crowded spaces in which he is shown onscreen and his troupe of henchmen he is constantly surrounded by. Tony is able to move freely in the beginning of the film, becoming progressively more crowded until he is as confined as Gaffney. He is surrounded by henchmen and cannot move as freely throughout the city. This, however, is self-imposed by his own excessive desire for territory and power.
The theme of excessiveness is further exemplified by Tony's incestuous desires for his sister, Cesca, whom he attempts to control and restrict. Their mother acts as the voice of reason, but Tony does not listen to her, subjecting his family to the excess and violence he brings upon himself. His lust for violence mirror's Cesca's lust for sexual freedom, symbolized by her seductive dance for Rinaldo at the club. Rinaldo is split between his loyalty for Tony and his passion for Cesca, serving as a symbol of the power struggle between the Camonte siblings. Rinaldo is a symbol of Tony's power and prominence; his murder signifies Tony's lack of control and downfall, which ends in Tony's own death.
Camonte's rise to prominence and success is modeled after the American Dream, but more overtly violent. As the film follows the rise and fall of an Italian gangster, Tony becomes increasingly more Americanized. When Tony appears from under the towel at the barbershop, this is the first time the audience gets a look at his face. He appears foreign with a noticeable Italian accent, slicked hair and an almost Neanderthal appearance evident by the scars on his cheek. As the movie progresses, he becomes more Americanized as he loses his accent and his suits change from gaudy to elegant. By the end of the film, his accent is hardly noticeable. Upon the time of his death, he had accumulated many "objects" which portray the success suggested by the American Dream: his own secretary, a girlfriend of significant social status (more important even is she was the mistress of his old boss), as well as a fancy apartment, big cars, and nice clothes. Camonte exemplifies the idea of the American Dream that one can obtain success in America by following Camonte's own motto to, "Do it first, do it yourself, and keep on doin' it." On the other hand, Camonte represents the American urge to reject modern life and society, in turn rejecting Americanism itself. The gangster strives for the same American Dream as anyone else, but through violence and illicit activity, approaches it in a way at odds with modern societal values.
Control of territory is a theme in the gangster film genre in a physical sense and on the movie screen. Tony works to control the city by getting rid of competing gangs and gaining physical control of the city, and he likewise gains control of the movie screen in his rise to power. This is most evident in scenes and interactions involving Tony, Johnny, and Poppy. In an early scene in the film, Tony comes to Johnny's apartment to receive his payment after killing Louie Costillo. Two rooms are visible in the shot: the main room, where Tony sits, and the room in the background where Poppy sits and where Johnny keeps his money. Lovo goes into the back room but Tony does not, so this room represents Johnny's power and territory. The men are sitting across from each other in the scene with Poppy sitting in the middle of them in the background representing the trophy they are both fighting for. However, they both appear equally in the shot, representing their equality of power. Later, in the nightclub scene, Tony sits himself in between Poppy and Johnny showing he is in control through his centrality in the shot. He has gained the most power and territory, as indicated by "winning" Poppy.
Fear of technology
Scarface represents the American fears and confusion stemmed from the technological advancement of the time: whether technological advancement and mass production be feared or celebrated. An overall anxiety post-World War 1 was whether new technology would cause ultimate destruction or whether it would help make lives easier and bring happiness. In the film, Tony excitedly revels in the possibilities of machine guns can bring by killing more people, more quickly and from further away. This represents the question of whether mass production equals mass destruction or mass efficiency.
Objects and gestures
The use of playful motifs throughout the film showcased Howard Hawks's dark comedy he expressed through his directing. In the bowling alley scene, where rival gang leader Tom Gaffney was murdered, when Gaffney throws the ball, the shot remains on the last standing bowling pin, which falls to represent the death of kingpin Tom Gaffney. In the same scene, before the death of Gaffney, a shot shows an "X" on the scoreboard, foreshadowing Gaffney's death. Hawks used the "X" foreshadowing technique 15 to 20 times throughout the film (seen first in the opening credits) which were chiefly associated with death appearing many times (but not every scene) when a death is portrayed; the motif appears in numerous places, most prominently as Tony's "X" scar on his left cheek. The motifs mock the life of the gangster. The gangster's hat is a common theme throughout gangster films, specifically Scarface, as representative of conspicuous consumption. Hawks included hand gestures, a common motif in his films. In Scarface, George Raft was instructed to repetitively flip a coin, which he does throughout the film.
"The World is Yours"
Camonte's apartment looks out on a neon, flashing sign that says "The World Is Yours". This sign represents the modern American city as a place of opportunity and individualism. As attractive as the slogan is, the message is impossible, yet Tony doesn't understand this. The view from his apartment represents the rise of the gangster. When Camonte is killed in the street outside his building, the camera pans up to show the billboard, representative of the societal paradox of the existence of opportunity yet the inability to achieve it. According to Robert Warshow, the ending scene represents how the world is not ours, but not his either. The death of the gangster momentarily releases us from the idea of the concept of success and the need to succeed. In regards to the theme of excess, the sign is a metaphor for the dividing desires created by modernity seen through the lens of the excessive desires of the gangster persona.
"Sharp" and "hard-edged", Scarface set the visual style for the gangster films of the 1930s. Hawks created a violent, gripping film through his use of strong contrast of black and white in his cinematography, for example, dark rooms, silhouettes of bodies against drawn shades, and pools of carefully placed light. Much of the film is shown to take place at night. Tight grouping of subjects within the shot and stalking camera movement followed the course of action in the film. The cinematography is dynamic and characterized by highly varied camera placement and mobile framing.
Despite its lack of success at the box office, Scarface was one of the most discussed films of 1932 due to its subject matter, and its struggle and triumph over censor boards. Scarface is cited (often with Little Caesar and The Public Enemy) as the archetype of the gangster film genre, because it set the early standard for the genre which continue to appear in Hollywood. However, Scarface would be the last of the three big gangsters films of the early 1930s, as the outrage at the Pre-Code violence caused by the three films, particularly Scarface, sparked the creation of the Production Code Administration in 1934. Howard Hawks cited Scarface as one of his favorite works and the film was a subject of pride for Howard Hughes. Hughes locked the film in his vaults a few years after release, refusing many profitable offers to distribute the film or to buy its rights. After his death in 1976, filmmakers were able to gain access to the rights to Scarface which sparked the 1983 remake starring Al Pacino.
Paul Muni's performance in Scarface as "the quintessential gangster anti-hero" contributed greatly to his rapid ascent into his acclaimed film career. Paul Muni received significant accolades for his performance as Tony Camonte. Critics praised Muni for his robust and fierce performance. Al Pacino stated he was greatly inspired by Paul Muni and Muni influenced his own performance in the 1983 Scarface remake. However, despite the impressive portrayal of a rising gangster, critics claim the character minimally resembled Al Capone. Unlike Camonte, Capone avoided grunt work and typically employed others to do his dirty work for him. Moreover, Muni's Scarface at the end revealed the Capone character to be a coward as he pled for mercy and tried to escape before getting shot in the street. Capone wasn't known for his cowardice and didn't die in battle.
Scarface would be Ann Dvorak's best and most well-known film. The film launched Raft's lengthy career as a leading man. Raft, in the film's second lead, had learned to flip a coin without looking at it, a trait of his character, and he made a strong impression in the comparatively sympathetic but colorful role. Howard Hawks told Raft to use this in the film to camouflage his lack of acting experience. A reference is made in Raft's later role as gangster Spats Columbo in Some Like it Hot (1959), wherein he asks a fellow gangster (who is flipping a coin) "Where did you pick up that cheap trick?"
The movie Scarface may have had an influence on actual gangster life four years after the film was released. In 1936, Jack McGurn who was thought to be responsible for the St. Valentine's Massacre depicted in the film, was murdered by rivals in a bowling alley.
Italian language versions
In October 1946, after World War II and the relations between Italy and the United States softened, Titanus, an Italian film production company was interested in translating Scarface into Italian. Initially, upon requesting approval from the Italian film office, the request was rejected due censorship concerns of the portrayal of violence and crime throughout the film. There was no initial concern about the film's portrayal of Italians. Titanus appealed to the Italian film office calling Scarface, "one of the most solid and constructive motion pictures ever produced overseas". They lobbied to bring in a foreign language film to help domestic film producers save money in the Italian economy damaged by the recent war. After receiving approval at the end of 1946, Titanus translated a script for dubbing the film. One difference in the Italian script, is the names of the characters were changed from Italian sounding to more American sounding. For example, Tony Camonte was changed to Tony Kermont, and Guino Rinaldo was changed to Guido Reynold. This, and several other changes were made to conspicuously remove references to Italians. Another example is the difference in the scene in the restaurant with Tony and Johnny. In the American version, Tony makes an comical statement about the garlic in the pasta, whereas in the Italian translation, the food in question is a duck liver pâté, a less overtly Italian reference to food. Moreover, in the American version, the gangsters are referred to as illegal immigrants by the outraged community; however, in the Italian dubbed version, the citizen status of the criminals is not mentioned, merely the concern of repeat offenders.
The film was redubbed into Italian in 1976 by the broadcasting company Radio Televisione Italiana (RAI). Franco Dal Cer translated the script and the dub was directed by Giulio Panicali. Pino Locchi dubbed the voice of Tony Camonte for Paul Muni and Pino Colizzi dubbed the voice of Gunio Rinaldo for George Raft. A difference between the 1947 version and the 1976 version is that all of the Italian names are and Italian cultural references were untouched from the original American script. The 1976 version celebrates the Italian backgrounds of the characters, adding noticeably different Italian dialects to specific characters. This version of the dubbed film translates the opening and closing credit scenes as well as the newspaper clippings shown into Italian; however, the translation of the newspaper clippings was not done with particular aesthetic care.
The film was redubbed in the 1990s and released on Universal's digital edition. According to scholarly consensus, the 1990 dub is a combination of re-voicing and reuse of audio from the 1976 redub.
After the rights for Scarface were obtained after the death of Howard Hughes, Brian de Palma released a remake of the film in 1983 featuring Al Pacino as Scarface. The film was set in contemporary Miami and is known for its inclusion of graphic violence and obscene language, uncharacteristic of the 1932 film. The 2003 DVD "Anniversary Edition" limited edition box set of the 1983 film included a copy of its 1932 counterpart. At the end of the 1983 film, a title reading "This film is dedicated to Howard Hawks and Ben Hecht" appears over the final shot.
Universal announced in 2011 that the studio is developing a new version of Scarface. The studio claims the new film is neither a sequel nor a remake, but will take elements from both the 1932 and the 1983 version, including the basic premise of a man who becomes a kingpin in his quest for the American Dream. On August 11, 2016, Universal announced Antoine Fuqua was in talks to direct the remake. On February 10, 2017, Fuqua left the remake with the Coen brothers rewriting the script. In 2018, Fuqua was back on the project.
Scarface is often associated with other pre-code crime films released in the early 1930s such as The Doorway to Hell (1930), Little Caesar (1931) and The Public Enemy (1931). According to Fran Mason of the University of Winchester, Scarface is more similar to the film The Roaring Twenties than its early 1930s gangster film contemporaries, because of its excess.
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