Scarface (1932)

Howard Hawks | 1hr 33min

While Howard Hawks can’t take full responsibility for initiating the gangster film, we can at least give him credit for solidifying it as a genre before the Production Code cut its legs out from under it in the mid-1930s. It wouldn’t be until the emergence of New Hollywood directors like Francis Ford Coppola or Martin Scorsese in the 1970s that there was any serious revival in the United States, and another decade or so before Brian de Palma directed his remake of this film. But for a long time, it was Hawks’ Scarface which reigned supreme as the peak of the genre, setting an early standard for the sort of anti-hero we so often keep coming back to.

Tony Camonte’s arc is less of a character study than that of Tony Montana’s in de Palma’s version, but instead Hawks is far more interested in the world and legend that is built around such a threatening figure as this. The two films hit similar beats in their character journeys, playing on Freudian archetypes of the Madonna-whore complex in Tony’s relationship with his sister, as well as the murder of his boss to become the new drug kingpin in town. But Camonte is ultimately a more cowardly creature than Montana. Rather than madly going out all guns blazing in his final moments after his sister is shot, he completely breaks down. As a final gut punch, she calls him out for this weakness with her dying breath.

“I don’t want to stay. You’re afraid.”

Camonte collapsing under pressure in his final minutes, his true cowardice revealed.

Of course, this is a side of Camonte that only comes out behind closed doors under extreme pressure. The word on the street and in the newspapers paints him out as a larger-than-life figure – loathed by some, revered by others, but feared by all. So much of the gang warfare we see carried out is in short, sharp bursts of gunshots that are over within a few seconds, and target victims who are often dead before they even realise what’s happening.

Between these spurts of violence, Hawks is patient with his narrative. In the very first shot of the film, we slowly roll from the dark streets of 1920s Chicago into a nightclub after hours. Inside, crime boss Louis Costillo is wrapping up some private business with associates, and Hawks is sure to clutter every inch of his mise-en-scene with furniture, plants, and streamers. As Costillo makes a phone call, we suddenly detach from him. Our eye is caught by a shadow, moving slowly and quietly across a wall, which then turns into a silhouette behind a screen. All it takes is three gunshots from this mysterious intruder to kill Costillo, and to pay off on the masterful suspense of Hawks’ three-minute long take which introduced us to this dirty underworld.

A three-minute long take rolling from the street into a club, and ending with this terrifying assassination lit behind a screen.

To rewind a little, it is worth noting that at the start of this tracking shot, Hawks opens on the image of a street sign forming a cross shape at its intersection with the post. Though we don’t know it yet, X’s are harbingers of death in this film, marking characters who are destined to die. Scorsese surely would have had Scarface in mind when he used the exact same motif in The Departed, and Hawks is at least his equal here in the creative ways he works it into his mise-en-scène. Everything from lights, shadows, wooden roof beams, apartment numbers, and even a strike at a bowling alley seems to ominously brand each of Camonte’s targets, building tension each time by warning us of impending murders. But of course, the greatest use of this motif lies right in the film’s very title – the small, X-shaped scar on Camonte’s left cheek, marking him for dead right from the very start.

A brilliant dedication to a motif, as Hawks uses X’s all through his lighting and sets to mark characters for dead.

With that small wound, slicked back hair, and wild, angry eyes, Paul Muni strikes an intimidating figure that any newspaper would surely milk to fuel their own fear-mongering parade. But as the Chief of Detectives points out, even with that tone of dread that is attached to Camonte’s name, there is also an awe that surrounds him.

“That’s the attitude of too many morons in this country. They think these hoodlums are some sort of demigods. What do they know about a guy like Camonte? They sentimentalise him, romance. Make jokes about him. They had some excuse for glorifying our old western bad men. They met in the middle of the street at high noon, and wait for each other to draw. But these things sneak up and shoot a guy in the back, and then run away.”

One of the great performances of the 1930s – Paul Muni as Tony Camonte, leering and scowling all throughout.

In drawing this comparison to the “bad men” of the previous century, Hawks paints out an America in decline. Violence has always been a mainstay in world history, but in this new era where a coward like Camonte can reign supreme, it is conducted with secrecy and treachery, thereby repressing our most honest expressions of humanity. In wrapping up these ideas into a patient, brooding narrative, and then intermittently rupturing it with acts of brutality, Hawks effectively cuts right to the menacing heart of the gangster genre.

The real-life St. Valentine’s Day Massacre hauntingly captured in these shadows.

Scarface is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.

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