The prime beneficiaries of Prohibition had been gangsters, and the prime beneficiaries of gangsters had been the Hollywood filmmakers who, within the late nineteen-twenties and early thirties, turned them into a few of the most enticingly lurid characters ever seen in films. The true-life gangster Al Capone was refashioned within the 1932 drama “Scarface,” directed by Howard Hawks and starring Paul Muni—a celebrated stage actor with little movie expertise—as a gangster so appallingly, flashily fascinating that the film was accused of creating the felony life look too interesting. Hawks’s “Scarface” was “The Wolf of Wall Road” of its day, and, like Martin Scorsese’s extravagant, exuberant 2013 drama about monetary grifters, the movie’s attract and enticements are an important a part of its substance. (“Scarface,” lengthy obtainable to stream on a wide range of platforms, is newly obtainable to stream on the Criterion Channel, in a transparent and vivid switch.)
For Scorsese, the swaggering monetary wrongdoer is a magnification of the unusual cravings of his viewers, of himself, of everybody. For Hawks, the gangster is the perversion of cool—a magnification, by way of crime, of the swagger, the fashion, the audacity that might readily invigorate any of the opposite daring enterprises that Hawks filmed, whether or not fight or auto racing, journalism or enterprise. What’s extra, in “Scarface,” Hawks himself is doing a lot of the swaggering, contributing a lot of the daring and the fashion. He’d began his directorial profession in 1926, and had made ten movies (together with some extraordinary silent comedies and the pioneering early speaking image “The Daybreak Patrol”) by the point he shot “Scarface,” in 1931. By then, he’d established a mode of terse understatement, of maximum visible restraint, like a pictorial Hemingway. However Hawks’s first ten movies had been produced by Hollywood studios; “Scarface” was produced by the embodiment of swagger himself, the mogul Howard Hughes, who, as an unbiased producer, sought to crash the Hollywood gates, and who inspired Hawks to make a splash by giving his creativeness free rein. The result’s a show of directorial bravura and bravado that stands out to today as a excessive level of invention, audacity, and startling idiosyncrasy—in Hawks’s profession and within the historical past of cinema.
The film’s first shot is a mighty show of stylistic brilliance that depends on clear and easy motion to set contrasting moods of jolting, dissonant complexity: a three-minute-plus monitoring shot that begins up excessive at a streetlight at Twenty-second and Wabash (setting the motion in Chicago), descends to a sidewalk the place a waiter stands outdoors a restaurant after an enormous bash, accompanies him into the restaurant for his cleanup, and, discovering a Mob boss there together with his cronies, culminates in a homicide that’s proven totally in shadows. The titular protagonist, Tony Camonte (Muni), isn’t the gunman—that might be his bodyguard and right-hand man, Guino Rinaldo (George Raft, in a star-making flip). Tony makes his look a number of scenes later, in a barbershop, the place a police detective (C. Henry Gordon) involves arrest him and Rinaldo for the homicide; Tony emerges from below a scorching towel with a defiant sneer and greets the detective with an insolent, sexualized provocation—hanging a match on the officer’s badge. (It’s additionally within the barbershop that Raft introduces his trademark gesture—repeatedly tossing a coin within the air—which grew to become an iconic image of gangster cinema itself.)
The drama is centered on Tony’s effort to take over the crime household of Chicago, headed by Johnny Lovo (Osgood Perkins), wherein Tony is an underling, after which to take over town’s total gangland empire. The story relies largely on real-life characters and incidents (its principal screenwriter, Ben Hecht, had been a journalist in Chicago and knew Capone and different gangland figures), and it’s primarily a story of Tony’s overweening ambition being matched with the daringly insightful technique and pathological amorality crucial to hold it out—and in addition his high-wattage persona, which enthralls his felony cohorts and turns Tony into a contemporary determine of mass-media mythology.
After the restaurant hit by Tony and Rinaldo, Lovo is the brand new king of the South Facet—however he’s afraid to make a transfer on the Irish gang that controls the North Facet. Tony has no such qualms, telling Rinaldo that Lovo is “mushy” and boasting that, someday, he’s “gonna run the entire works.” Right here, Tony delivers his credo: “Do it first, do it your self, and carry on doing it.” He takes the struggle to the North Facet and sparks a bloody gang warfare—which he wins, partly by means of the horror of what grew to become generally known as the St. Valentine’s Day Bloodbath. Then Tony strikes in on Lovo—and, in fact, ultimately rubs him out and takes over his gang—however not earlier than trying to lure Lovo’s girlfriend, Poppy (Karen Morley), away from him. Lovo is a killer with a veneer of refined manners, and Poppy, with a sheen of sophistication to go along with her shimmery and glittery accoutrements, is at first merely amused by Tony’s blithe self-importance and oblivious crudeness. (“You’re such a humorous combination,” she tells him, and his response would discover its echo many years later chez Scorsese: “How do you imply, you assume I’m humorous?”) The scene wherein Tony wins her over is one for the ages, executed with a Hawksian gesture that has entered the historical past books: at a night-club desk, Poppy places an unlit cigarette to her lips, Lovo and Tony concurrently provide her lit matches, and he or she chooses Tony’s.
However the primary lady in Tony’s life is his sister Cesca (Ann Dvorak), who’s eighteen and longing to flee the household confines. She lives with their mom (Inez Palange), an Italian immigrant who rues and fears Tony’s evil methods, in a poor however well-kept home. Cesca is one thing of a free-spirited partyer, however Tony, pathologically controlling of what he considers the household honor, tries to maintain her from courting, even from dancing, and the implications of his incestuous ardour are unmistakable—and, after Cesca begins thus far Rinaldo, devastating.
Muni’s position as Tony is without doubt one of the most hyperbolically theatrical but cannily cinematic performances ever filmed. The absurd exaggerations that Muni delivers—a boisterous, extremely inflected however non-stereotypical Italian accent (his pronunciation of “fairly” as “put-ty” is an Oscar in itself), a flashy repertory of gestures wealthy in air-kisses and aggressive gesticulations, an alternation of cool composure and feral ferocity as he dispenses violence, a brash overconfidence as he boasts to ladies—make him seem to be the one character on this black-and-white film who’s filmed in peacock-bright coloration. His bluster and terrifying rage, his juvenile glee in anticipating homicide and his ice-cold effectivity in committing it—all to the tune of the sextet from Donizetti’s opera “Lucia di Lammermoor,” which he whistles all through—evoke a terrifying tangle of self-dramatizing impunity, a drive of irrepressible will and uninhibited energy that perverts the shining story of American-immigrant success right into a predatory nightmare that’s inseparable from the hubris of Tony’s psychosexual violence.
Tony’s sexuality is tinged with ambiguities that trace on the torment of repressed wishes. Homoerotic touches run all through the movie, as when Poppy wonders whether or not his jewellery appears “effeminate” and Tony, who doesn’t know what the phrase means, presumes that it’s a praise. Tony’s defiance of Lovo in taking up a beer-running racket is marked by Angelo (Vince Barnett), Tony’s diminutive, illiterate, meek, and bewildered sidekick and ostensible secretary, who deftly grabs a protracted, sharp pencil from the within of Lovo’s vest and wets its tip in his lips earlier than passing it alongside to Tony, suggesting a complicit intimacy. Such gestural touches, an indicator of Hawks’s work, puncture the material of the drama and recommend the roiling psychological magma beneath.
All through the movie, Hawks finds inspiration in visible and emotional incongruities recommended by the gangster life: at a Mob hit at a bowling alley, the place the digicam follows a rolling ball after its bowler, the sufferer, has been gunned down; a model of the St. Valentine’s Day Bloodbath, additionally executed totally in shadows; a scene wherein Angelo, arguing by cellphone in his thick accent and fractured grammar, pulls out his gun to shoot the handset. The best of those surprising contrasts is the film’s most colossal set piece—one which outdoes even the opening shot—wherein Tony, Rinaldo, Poppy, and Angelo are at a restaurant that Tony’s gangland rivals pulverize with a sustained barrage of machine-gun fireplace. Tony, Rinaldo, and Poppy survive by crouching on the ground, and even get well one of many weapons—the primary time they’ve seen handheld machine weapons, which they’re quickly to obtain in massive and lethal numbers. Angelo, nevertheless, is in the back of the restaurant, at a pay cellphone, taking a message for Tony, as gunfire sprays the sales space throughout him (destroying a espresso brewer, which wets his clothes). He emerges unscathed, after complaining to the caller that he can’t hear due to all of the noise.