*. Of the big three original gangster movies (the other two being The Public Enemy and Little Caesar), this is the best. What sets it apart is the direction and writing, so intelligent and alert, from Howard Hawks and Ben Hecht respectively. Not surprisingly they would be the dedicatees of Brian De Palma’s remake.
*. All three films are classic American fantasies of rising from rags to riches the fastest way possible: that is, through the wedding of crime and business. In the grim alternate ending Tony Camonte is specifically indicted for having “commercialized murder.” Audiences were torn. Was what Tony doing wrong then? Censors didn’t like this one bit, but there was little they could do when Hawks avoided showing the film in jurisdictions where he couldn’t get approval and made a fortune anyway. There’s a moral to that story.
*. Hawks did try to throw a sop to the censors, but it was a backhanded one. The introduction calls out not Tony and the criminal underclass but rather the “callous indifference of the government.” Specifically “your government”: the one that you the people elected. So if you don’t like it, you do something about it. Just don’t complain about my movie!
*. But of course “you” weren’t going to do anything about it. After all, you were paying to watch this movie. In Robert Warshow’s essay “The Gangster as Tragic Hero” he explains the cultural dynamic: “At bottom, the gangster is doomed because he is under the obligation to succeed, not because the means he employs are unlawful. In the deeper layers of the modern consciousness, all means are unlawful, every attempt to succeed is an act of aggression, leaving one alone and guilty and defenseless among enemies: one is punished for success.”
*. What an incredible opening shot. The long dolly reads like a comic strip, and makes us feel as though we’re being drawn in deeper and deeper, through jungle foliage even. Then there’s the appearance of that sinister shadow off to the far right — a threatening presence we pull back from but which pursues us until the climax and comic denouement.
*. Hawks was at the top of his game here, shooting everything with inventiveness, energy, and a fluid camera. I love the pan across the social club of the gangsters, the retreating dolly shot as Tony and Guino stalk Meehan in the hospital (a scene that would become a gangster film touchstone), and the way the pages being torn from the calendar seem to be getting blasted off by the firing of the Tommy gun.
*. Is the film too smart for its own good? I love the “X” motif used to signal or mark a violent end, but does it mean anything? I can’t think of a point to it aside from a display of visual cleverness.
*. Muni is no Cagney or Robinson, and you can call his performance hammy. He screws his face up like a monkey and indulges in lots of broad gestures with his hands. Is that a silent film technique, or is it supposed to be Italian? Probably both. It’s also possible that he knows being the boss means playing the part.
*. In any event, the problem I had was that the two sides of Tony, the dopey joker and the sadistic killer, never seem to meet. He’s always one or the other, and it’s hard to see how they join together. At some point we needed to see him transition from one to ther other, just to show how and in what context he changes gears. Instead we get a character whose different parts don’t add up.
*. I’m put off by Mama as the Italian (or is she Jewish?) mother. She’s a familiar background figure in gangster films, always cooking away in the kitchen even in The Godfather and Goodfellas (I’m thinking of Pesci’s mom in the latter film). Why was there such an emphasis on the family life of these criminals? It’s the way Capone always wanted to be seen, so perhaps that’s where it started. She was also there in The Public Enemy and played an even more active role in White Heat (when the convention was ripe for exaggeration).
*. Of all the early gangster films this is the one that tries hardest to be ethnic. It’s crude, mostly consisting of terrible fake Italian accents: “You-a just-a like-a heem!” But fifty years later, would Pacino’s Tony Montana be any improvement on these broad stereotypes?
*. It’s interesting how all of the big three early gangster films, all of which were loosely based on Al Capone, have such memorable final death scenes: “Mother of mercy, is this the end of Rico?”, Cagney trussed up like a roll of carpet and being dropped off at the door, and here Tony expiring beneath his corporate motto “The World Is Yours.” What makes this ironic is that Capone wasn’t dead in 1931. He was in prison and his career as a crime boss was over, but he hadn’t met any final justice.
*. It’s also interesting how all three films emphasize the gangster’s weakness at the end. “I ain’t so tough,” Cagney says. Rico can’t believe death has come for him of all people. And Cesca here seems positively disgusted with Tony’s loss of manhood. Guino, she tells him, wouldn’t have been afraid, wouldn’t have been such a pansy. She says she doesn’t want to stay (live) with such a wimp. Then she turns her head away and expires.
*. Rags to riches is also the Gatsby story, and I take it there’s a deliberate nod to Gatsby in the scene when Tony shows Poppy all his beautiful shirts. This is the emptiness of affluence and consumerism, a new shirt every day so he never has to wash them. I can’t help thinking that this ties in to his final lines, when he caps his despairing complaint about how all of his friends are dead with the statement that the steel shutters on his windows don’t work. You pay for quality and this is what you get! That’s the last straw!
*. Note that Tony doesn’t really care about all his compatriots being dead. When Angelo dies it’s done as a bit of comic business, as he we see him slowly collapsing from gunshot wounds behind Tony, who is entirely indifferent, in a world of his own. What upsets Tony is that his friends have left him on his own. A lot of use they turned out to be!
*. Boris Karloff is here, not doing much. In fact, not only does he look like he’d never bowled before, it seems as though no one even showed him how to do it. But I wonder if Muni, or Hawks, were thinking of his performance as the Monster in Frankenstein in this movie’s final scene. The cops outside are like the mob of angry villagers, Tony’s smoke-filled building like the burning windmill, and Tony himself like the Monster, staggering about blindly, his face scarred, waving his arms in impotent anger.
*. I wouldn’t lean on that connection too hard though. As near as I can determine the two films were being shot at much the same time, possibly overlapping. If anything, I believe Scarface got started and finished first. Then it had troubles with the censors.
*. But in the end this isn’t an actor’s film. They only have cues. Muni whistles. George Raft flips a coin. Vince Barnett can’t figure out how to use a telephone. The only actors worth watching are the women. Ann Dvorak’s Cesca is especially good: as hot-blooded as her brother but frustrated by his oppressive violence. And Karen Morley as Poppy works the same dynamic: a highly sexual woman soaking in a sauna of testosterone.
*. Is there a moral to be drawn? I don’t think so. It’s not a case of someone gaining the world but losing his soul. Tony had no soul to begin with, nor any friends or family that meant anything to him. The only point is that it means nothing to gain the world if you can’t keep it. As Warshow noted, one has to be punished for success because all success is violence: “the successful man is an outlaw.” Behind every great fortune is a great crime. So then, as Macbeth put it: To be thus is nothing; but to be safely thus. Perhaps this is what the censors really objected to. Tony doesn’t get his just desserts but only fails to win the big prize.