Scarface Reviews

Scarface (1932)

Scarface (date unknown)

TV Guide's Online Motion Picture Guide (2000)


Scarface
Copyright Reel Journal 1932.

Despite the storm of protest this Howard Hughes production might evoke from certain quarters it is perhaps the most daring and sensational expose of the modern gangster we have ever witnessed on the screen. It is a picture that will be remembered long after it has been shown because of its stirring preachment against the racketeer. Paul Muni plays the title role to perfection. The inner-workings of gangdom are shown; how gangsters are mowed down with machine guns in cold blood. The picture is not only filled with action but contains bits of human interest and comedy for relief.

SELLING SEATS: Play it up as an authentic story of gangdom. Advertise it as good entertainment with a superb cast. Exploit it with heralds in the form of a tabloid newspaper.

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Scarface
a review by Pauline Kael.

The gangster classic, with Paul Muni as the dangerous hood with the scar on his cheek, and dark, huge-eyed Ann Dvorak as his sister. The writer, Ben Hecht, and the director, Howard Hawks, said that they wrote the story by treating the Capone family "as if they were the Borgias set down in Chicago." Overall, it's a terrific movie, even though the pacing doesn't always seem quite right.

The opening sequence is a beauty: the camera moves from a street lamp with stylized skyscrapers in the background and follows a milkman into a speakeasy, where we see the remnants of a gangland New Year's Eve party and finally pick up the shadow of Scarface, who kills the gangland leader. The film's violence has the crazy, helter-skelter feeling of actual gun battles, and Paul Muni, with a machine gun in his arms, is brutal and grotesque, in a primal, childlike, fixating way. Truffaut suggests that Hawks "deliberately directed Paul Muni to make him look like a monkey, his arms hanging loosely and slightly curved, his face caught in a perpetual grimace."

The cast includes George Raft, Osgood Perkins, Karen Morley, Boris Karloff, Vince Barnett, Edwin Maxwell, C. Henry Gordon, Tully Marshall, Henry Armetta, and Purnell Pratt.

Here's Truffaut again: "The most striking scene in the movie is unquestionably Boris Karloff's death. He squats down to throw a ball in a game of ninepins and doesn't get up; a rifle shot prostrates him. The camera follows the ball he's thrown as it knocks down all the pins except one that keeps spinning until it finally falls over, the exact symbol of Karloff himself, the last survivor of a rival gang that's been wiped out by Muni. This isn't literature. It may be dance or poetry. It is certainly cinema."

The story, based on a novel by Armitage Trail, is credited to Hecht, and the continuity and dialogue to Seton I. Miller, John Lee Mahin, and W.R. Burnett. The cinematography is by Lee Garmes and L.W. O'Connell. The film was ready for release in 1930, but was held up for two years by censorship problems; the scene in the publisher's office wasn't directed by Hawks—it was inserted to appease pressure groups. The title SCARFACE bore the subtitle SHAME OF THE NATION. Presented by Howard Hughes; United Artists.

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Scarface
TV Guide's Online Motion Picture Database
Copyright TV Guide 2000

Gangsters in the 1930s received more press than the President of the United States. Grim, gruesome creatures that the gangsters were, the financially downtrodden public during the Great Depression oddly identified with them; their twisted careers, which the press itself promoted, were thought to be glamorous and sophisticated. For the uneducated and the unemployed, the gangster was sort of a folk hero. SCARFACE changed that misconceived notion. Though the gangster genre had begun with a tremendous explosion of films such as LITTLE CAESAR and PUBLIC ENEMY, it was SCARFACE (originally called "Scarface, the Shame of a Nation") that depicted the glorious gangster as a murderous beast. In earlier films of the genre, a great deal of attention was paid to developing the background of the criminal and placing the blame for his antisocial activities on environment, poverty, bad home life, and unthinking parents. But with SCARFACE, all of that was dispensed with to give audiences for the first time an adult, fully developed monster who thrived on death and power. The first scene of SCARFACE shows Paul Muni only in shadow, whistling a few bars of an Italian aria before shooting a victim and then walking calmly away. The remainder of the film shows Muni's rise from gunman to crime boss of the city, obviously Chicago.

It's also obvious that his career as shown on the screen is that of the notorious Al Capone. Muni is honestly portrayed as the typical gangster of the era; he is brutal, arrogant, and stupid, a homicidal maniac who revels in gaudy clothes, fast cars, and machine guns, because their rapid fire allows him to kill more people at a single outing. (The number of deaths recorded in this ultra-violent film is 28, with many more reported as occurring off-camera.) But Muni is also insanely jealous of his slinky sister, Ann Dvorak, to the point where his feelings toward her are obliquely incestuous, though he is too stupid to know it. Muni works for Osgood Perkins, a more sophisticated and clever hoodlum who, in turn, is the chief lieutenant of Harry J. Vejar, the city's nominal crime boss. (Perkins' role is based on Johnny Torrio, the creator of organized crime in America, and Vejar is a duplicate of Chicago's old-time crime czar, Big Jim Colosimo.) Muni is arrested for the murder shown in the opening scene, but the mob lawyer soon has him freed on a special writ. Muni manipulates the thugs and bosses to achieve his own ends, encouraging Perkins to kill the old-time boss Vejar, since Vejar will not take advantage of the new Prohibition law and go into bootlegging liquor. After Vejar has been killed in his lavish restaurant, Perkins calls a meeting of all the mob bosses in the city and lectures them about the wild shootouts that have drawn too much attention from the press and heat from the police. When Perkins tells Muni to leave North Side boss Boris Karloff alone, Muni says he'll take care of Karloff. Later, Perkins has the ambitious Muni come to his swanky apartment, where the bodyguard gets a good look at cool blonde Karen Morley, Perkins' sexy mistress. It's obvious that the ruthless thug covets her, and she is ready to reciprocate. Perkins warns Muni to curb his strong-arm methods, and Muni gives him an empty promise, continuing to go his own way, strong-arming and killing at will.

Later, Karloff's men attack as Muni, Raft, Morley, and Barnett sit in a coffee shop. They're nearly killed as they are fired upon from several cars moving slowly past in a phony funeral procession. Muni and company are unharmed though, Raft even capturing one of the enemies' weapons at the behest of the arrogant Muni. Perkins is not impressed, however, and tension mounts between the crime boss and his second-in-command. Meanwhile, Karloff remains the gang's only significant enemy, raiding their warehouses, killing their men, and waging all-out war against them. Muni finally corners Karloff's gang in a garage and cuts them down with machine guns, a slaughter that brings down the wrath of the public and the disapproval of Perkins on Muni. Karloff himself is later gunned down in a bowling alley by Muni's henchmen.

Perkins, finally fed up with this reckless activity, orders a group of henchmen to kill Muni. After leaving a nightclub without his bodyguards (to chase after his sister, who was dancing a little too close to her date), Muni is attacked and his car is run off of the road. He survives, however, and upon discovering that Perkins was behind the hit attempt, goes to Perkins' office, where he orders Raft to kill him. With Perkins out of the way, Muni can now claim Morley as his own and take over the powerful underworld position that Perkins once held. Muni becomes extremely successful, but his reckless behavior and wild antics eventually take their toll. His relationship with his mother deteriorates, and his wildly possesive feelings for his sister increase to ridiculous proportions. In addition to the personal problems, Muni begins to feel pressure from the law, as they get closer to actually catching the elusive criminal. Muni, whose world is gradually falling apart, is now hunted by the police and stuck with a strongly depleted gang, and it's not long before he learns that his sister is living with his best friend Raft. Not knowing that Dvorak and Raft are married, he goes to Raft's apartment and shoots him to death. Dvorak hysterically curses Muni as he walks dumbly away in a daze. The police are closing in on Muni now and surrounding his apartment, where Dvorak has gone to seek revenge for the killing of Raft. As the police begin raking the place with machine gun fire, Muni fires back, shouting to Dvorak that they can hold out indefinitely. But when a stray police bullet kills her, Muni goes berserk, turning into a sniveling coward. After begging the police not to shoot him, he makes a dash for freedom and is shot down, his body landing in the gutter.

SCARFACE, under director Howard Hawks' iron grip, was the most violent, bloody gangster film of the genre and remains a classic to this day. Hawks pulled no punches in creating this exciting film, running his cameras with the action in truck and dolly shots that were mostly unheard of in the early talkie period. Aiding Hawks greatly in his intricate construction of the picture was cameraman Lee Garmes, whose sharp contrasts lent a sinister look to the film and, in the glaring gangster daylight he created, images that are stark and brutal. Producer Howard Hughes spared no expense in presenting the greatest gangster film of the era, but he also interfered with Hawks as he did with other directors, insisting that Hawks present all decisions for his approval. In fact, the Hawks-Hughes production was almost cancelled because of the incessant squabbling between the producer and director. Almost nothing was used of the Armitage Trail novel on which the film is based, except the title. Profiling the gangster and his tempestuous sister as modern-day Borgias was Hawks' idea, with the incest relationship as the emotional weakness that destroys the unthinking gangster. Hecht had been offered $20,000 by Hawks to write the script, but wanted instead $1,000 a day in cash--not a particularly advantageous deal since he finished the script in 11 days.

Muni is superb in his role of the maniac killer. Morley is perfect as the ice-cool blonde gun moll, a violence-craving chippie who is turned on by power and killing, all embodied by Muni. Karloff's performance is marred by an oddball interpretation of how a Chicago gangster is supposed to talk. He plays a part based on Chicago's George "Bugs" Moran and he looks his part, with his staring deep-socketed eyes and stiff, lethargic movements, a gaunt, almost ghoulish-looking gangster. The dumbbell gunman, Barnett, had never acted before Hawks gave him his role in SCARFACE. His buffoonery on the set drove the professional, reserved Muni crazy, but Hawks thought Barnett was funny. As the crafty sub-boss, Perkins is slick, and Raft, with his tuxedo and pomaded hair parted in the middle, is excellent as Muni's right-hand man, a killer who does Muni's bidding without question. Muni and Raft became stars overnight because of SCARFACE, and both received lucrative long-term contracts from studios, Muni at Warners where he would see enormous success with such films as I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG, JUAREZ, THE GOOD EARTH, THE LIFE OF EMILE ZOLA, and THE STORY OF LOUIS PASTEUR, for which he would win an Oscar as Best Actor. Raft, on the other hand, appeared for Paramount in a host of rather mediocre films, but was nevertheless a solid leading man for two decades to come. Raft had hung around several New York gangs in the 1920s, including the Dutch Schultz mob. He had been fascinated by one of Schultz's lieutenants, Bo Weinberg, who had a habit of flipping a coin just before he shot someone, a trick Raft incorporated into his portrayal.

Authenticity was Hawks' middle name during the filming of SCARFACE. For the scene in which the coffee shop is riddled by the passing caravan of gangsters, the actors were called off the set, and machine gunners, using real bullets, shot the set to pieces. The actors were then brought back onto the set and the shot was superimposed as if they were right in the middle of the murderous fusillade. When Hawks saw rushes of a one-car smashup during a gang shootout, he insisted that more cars be wrecked, until a total of 19 cars were smashed into buildings, lampposts, and uprooted fire hydrants. Hawks used Fred Palsey, then the top crime reporter for the Chicago Tribune, as a sort of long-distance researcher (he received credit in the screenplay), checking almost daily with Palsey by phone to verify crime personalities and underworld techniques and procedures. When real gangsters heard that Hawks was making SCARFACE, they applied for jobs as extras or "advisers." Several of these underworld types were used to supply additional information on how the gangs operated. Capone himself, according to the director, later gave Hawks a special party in Chicago, honoring him for making SCARFACE. (Not only did Capone, according to Hawks, see SCARFACE five or six times, but he had his own print of it. He thought it was great.) SCARFACE remained Hawks' favorite film (as it was Hughes').

The film ran into censorship problems right from the beginning. Hollywood, which had practiced every conceivable excess on the screen, had still never experienced anything like SCARFACE, an utterly ferocious film of bloodshed and violence, not to mention the ultimate taboo--incest--even though no sexually incestuous act is shown. The powerful Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, Hollywood's moral custodian at the time, insisted upon dozens of cuts and a whole new ending where Muni's flagrant crimes are atoned for. Hawks refused to shoot this bowdlerization, but Hughes ordered more scenes shot, showing Muni (a stand-in, shown in silhouette, since Muni himself had left the production and returned to the Broadway stage at the time) being tried, sentenced, and then hanged as a mass murderer--this in spite of the fact that the State of Illinois had abandoned the gallows in 1922 and gone over to the electric chair. Moreover, moralistic speeches representing Hawks' movie as a "social lesson" instead of the stark and realistic profile the director always intended were delivered by newspaper editor Tully Marshall and police commissioner Edwin Maxwell. This watered down version of SCARFACE finally received a Seal of Approval, but when prints were shipped East for the film's premiere, the State Board of Censors in New York refused to let the movie be shown, demanding even more cuts and changes. In frustration, Hughes released both the original print as Hawks had shot it and the doctored, revised print with the prolog and epilog tacked on (these have long since disappeared from prints seen today), selecting which print to show depending on the reactions in various locations throughout the country. This resulted in confusion among film enthusiasts and endless arguing over how Muni dies at the end of the film. Almost all prints available today show Muni ending his bullet-laden career in the gutter. After all the commotion had died down, Hughes, who had spent well over $1 million to make SCARFACE, saw that returned double. All the fuss with censorship had boosted the box office greatly. Hughes jealously guarded future releases of SCARFACE, which he cherished as his most creative film production, and when he removed it from distribution, he refused to sell the rights to the story or allow exhibitors to show the classic production. Oddly, the prints Hughes kept locked up in his vaults were only copies. Hawks somehow got his hands on the original negative and refused to give it up to Hughes, hiding it. Upon Hughes' death the executors of his will were instructed to confiscate all copies of SCARFACE, meaning they were to get their hands on Hawks' negative. Not until 1979 did Hughes' Summa Corporation sell all the rights to SCARFACE to Universal Studios, thus making the film available once more to the public, who could only see this classic in pirated editions up to that time.

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