Scarface (1932)

Scarface 1932

Tony Camonte is a young, ambitious gangster, emphasis on the word ‘ambitious.’  When we first meet him in Scarface, he’s working for gangster Johnny Lovo.  Lovo sends Tony out to bump off Big Louie Costillo, the criminal kingpin who runs the South side of town.  With Costillo out of the picture, Lovo and Tony are the new reigning kings of the South side and supply lots of speakeasies with their bootleg booze.  But soon, Tony sets his sights higher than just running the South side of town.  He also wants to run the North side, but Lovo tells him not to mess with the Irish gangs that run the North side.  Tony doesn’t listen though and starts a gang war.  He manages to take down O’Hara, the original North side gang leader, but then Gaffney (Boris Karloff) takes over and orchestrates a massive attack on a cafe where Tony and his gang are.  Instead of killing him, they just introduce Tony to the exciting world of Tommy guns instead.

Realizing that Tony was completely out of control, Lovo decides the only way to stop him was to put a hit out on Tony.  But once again, Tony manages to escape death and in return, puts a hit out on Lovo.  At last Tony has exactly what he wanted: control of the city, Lovo’s position, and even Lovo’s girlfriend, Poppy.  But now he’s also got his younger sister Cesca (Ann Dvorak) to worry about.  She’s starting to take an interest in her brother’s lifestyle and at first, he’s not happy that she shows up at a nightclub he hangs out at.  But then while he’s out-of-town avoiding the law, she marries Tony’s best friend Guino (George Raft).  When Tony finds out about it, he kills Guino.  Later, when the police track Tony down and are ready for a shoot-out with him, a heartbroken Cesca shows up at Tony’s place ready to kill him.  But once she gets there, she can’t go through with it and instead, gets caught up in the frenzy and helps her brother fight off the police.

Gangster movies in the 1930s were often met with controversy because censorship boards were afraid that they glorified gangsters.  This explains why movies like Scarface and The Public Enemy have those messages at the beginning about how the movie is meant to expose the horrors of being a gangster and condemn that lifestyle.  But in spite of the controversy, three of the greatest gangster movies of all time came out of the early 1930s: Little Caesar, The Public Enemy, and Scarface.  Of the three, I think Scarface is definitely the  most shockingly violent.  What sets Tony Camonte apart from Tom Powers and Rico is Paul Muni’s unrestrained glee.  If he’s being fired at, Tony lights up like a kid in a candy store and truly delights in firing right back.  And am I the only one who finds Tony’s relationship with Cesca to be a little bit weird?  I believed him as the protective older brother when he drags her out of the nightclub, but then when he rips part of her dress off of her struck me as rather creepy.  But perhaps the most shocking thing about Scarface is that it actually has some funny moments in it.  Specifically, when the cafe is being fired at and Tony’s assistant is only concerned with making his phone call instead of the chaos that is going on all around him.

I’ve actually never seen the 1983 version of Scarface, so I don’t know how exactly how it compares, but the 1932 version is most definitely essential viewing for gangster movie fans.  I watched it for the first time specifically to write this review and I’m quite surprised that I managed to go this long without seeing it.

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2 comments

  1. Yeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah, Paul Muni. X^) Of course you know that I’m madly in love with him, but I’ll try to keep this comment as non-fangirly as possible.

    I DEFINITELY agree that Scarface is the best of the Big Three Gangster Movies, for its sheer shock value alone. The photography is also stunning, and the final shot of the film, of the travel agency sign, always gives me chills. I always like to show this movie to people when they say old movies are boring and uptight. 🙂 As for Tony’s relationship with Cesca: Howard Hawks and Ben Hecht (the screenwriter) specifically wanted incestuous overtones with them. Just look at the clinching hug they give each other after Cesca decides not to kill Tony! When I first saw this, I swear to God, I thought they were going to kiss. The incestuous overtones probably got the movie in more trouble with right-wing groups than even the violence did, although that is considerable (well, that and the scene where Tony is obviously trying to maneuver Poppy onto his bed). In fact, this movie was even banned across the country because of the sex ‘n’ violence, and only a few theaters in New York City played it (at least, if you can believe Jerome Lawrence’s biography of Muni, which is prone to some over-dramatization). But it was still a hit, and made Muni a superstar.

    So now you want to see more Muni films, right? ;^P One of Muni’s best films is also a Pre-Code—in fact, he made it right after Scarface: “I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang”. He sleeps with a hooker and his landlady in that one. X^) (Not at the same time.)

    1. This is definitely a good one to show people who think old movies are boring and sanitized, there’s nothing boring or clean about it. Definitely not surprised that it was banned in all sorts of places. And I’m glad to know I wasn’t just reading too much into Tony and Cesca’s relationship! Watching that scene after he drags her home from the nightclub, I was just like, “OK, he doesn’t want his little sister following in his footsteps, but calm down…wait…WHY IS HE TEARING HIS SISTER’S DRESS OFF?!”

      I loooove Fugitive from a Chain Gang! I originally thought of reviewing that this month, but then I decided to go with Scarface instead since I’d never seen it before but really wanted to.

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