“It’s Poppy, boss. I got a name!”
When you hear the title Scarface, I’m sure the first thing that comes to your head is Al Pacino’s horrid Cuban accent turning the phrase, “Say, ‘ello to my little friend.” And while Oliver Stone’s adaptation of Armitage Trail’s novel depicting Al Capone’s rise to criminal infamy is an entertaining, over-the-top gangster flick, it’s really Ben Hecht’s screenplay—adapted and filmed by director Howard Hawks while Capone was still alive—that truly depicts the era and this larger-than-life monster’s reign. The gangster even caught wind of the production, confronting Hecht and actually being talked into giving his blessing to the point where some of his men served as consultants on the film. They do their job too because I can’t believe how violent the ratings board allowed this work to be, forcing producers to cut a ‘cleaner’ version for certain puritanical states. Machine-gun rat-tat-tats become the score, car chases abound, and the death count mounts as each kill is marked by an ‘X’ shown in frame.
One of the most impressive attributes to the film is Hawks’s direction. Besides the aesthetic choice to carry the ‘X’ from title card, to Tony’s (Paul Muni) face, to the not-so-subtle markers for death, he has a brilliant handle on using the shadows, sound, and the frenetic destruction a rain of bullets can bring. Right from the beginning we get a feeling of his style as a long take brings us into a stag party’s aftermath, following the lone employee bringing a sign in from the outside to start sweeping the confetti and streamers strewn about the interior. A trio of overly Italian mobsters sits and talks, the ‘leader’ of the group going to the telephone before leaving. The camera pans a little further right to show the shadowy figure of his killer enter the frame, the sound of the shots our only point of reference to the assassination. We pan back left to watch the employee carefully find his coat and get out while he’s still breathing. The mood is set, a change of the old guard is in effect, and the man hiding in the darkness soon won’t have to hide anymore.
Tony must work his way up, though, a common necessity for Al Capone as he must do so even in HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire”. Currently the second in charge to Johnny Lovo (Osgood Perkins), the man brave enough to take over the south side, but not to get his hands dirty himself, Tony has ideas and a complete lack of fear for his life. He wants to go north right now, take over every facet of the city by first acquiring the business of all the bars currently getting their prohibited alcohol elsewhere and then killing all the old competition. But Lovo doesn’t want to mess with things he can’t control, the north is too strong and Boris Karloff’s Gaffney a formidable foe unafraid to take out a city block to find retribution. So Tony goes out alone, ignoring the orders of his boss, and in effect becomes more prominent and feared in the underworld then the man supposedly at its rule. The neon sign across from his new house says, ‘The World Is Yours’, and Tony takes it to heart, willing to do anything to get what he wants.
It’s not only power, though, he also wants Poppy, his boss’s girl. Karen Morley plays the role with an air of haughty indifference, attracted to forceful men that can give her what she wants. Her love is for the status, for the man’s ability to command a room and strike fear in the hearts of those around him. Lovo had it at the start and Tony, although just the muscle at first, spills over—needing only the time to show the world. He and his coin flipping right hand Guino Rinaldo (George Raft) run amok together, but it is in love that they eventually find their downfall. Tony needs Poppy for an outlet from violence and Guino is forbidden his, having the misfortune to love his partner’s sister Cesca (Ann Dvorak). The Camontes are very close—almost incestuously so at times—and Tony is over-protective when it comes to little sis showing she’s 18 and dating. Guino knows this and tries to stay away, but once the town is theirs, once there is no one else to kill, something is needed to fill the void and unfortunately death comes easier than forgiveness to this breed of man.
The acting leaves a bit to be desired, but I think that goes more with the era than anything else. Broad interpretations of characters rule the screen and the Italian voices can get a tad grating, even though they’re appropriate alongside the aggressively menacing looks. Raft is the best of the bunch, his stoic presence hiding the storm beneath as well as the softer side even further below; Morley is fantastic as the girl playing with fire and a prize for whomever finds himself on top; and Muni has a way to make his crazed shifts from smiling fun to dark sociopath realistic despite the dramatics. Dvorak may be at an eleven when it comes to happy-go-lucky, especially with an over-protective brother at her throat, but I kind of liked her bubbly attitude cutting through the morose environment; it’s Vince Barnett’s Angelo, however, who’s the true comic relief with his illiterate lacky, always being asked to do tasks the complete absence of patience makes impossible.
In the end, though, the people inhabit the world Hawks has created, one I’m sure mirroring the actual time period outside. We’re thrust into this world and told it’s a parable to move us into action against the scum rising to rule us. We’re asked to take our democratic responsibilities seriously and vote in a government willing to tackle the problem head-on and not become either corrupt or lazy when it comes to facing a force of remorseless evil with machine-guns. All the violence occurs in the streets, innocents are injured or killed, and nothing is safe. With a few amazing scenes such as a side-by-side car duel driving toward the camera, the bullet-hole spattering in broad daylight as Gaffney’s men come in waves, and a beautifully shot finale showing that good guys can prevail, I can see why many call this Scarface the best gangster film ever made. It may be flawed and the emotional evolution of characters may occur as though with a flip of a switch, but on the whole it’s a testament to its era and still holds its own today.