With the death of gang leader Big Louie Costillo, the doors are open for major gang activity as various gangs fight to take control over the south side of Chicago’s bootlegging racket. Tony Camonte (Paul Muni) is the ruthlessly ambitious right hand man for gangster Johnny Lovo (Osgood Perkins). Johnny gains control of the south side with Tony’s help, but Tony isn’t content to settle for just the south side; he wants to control the north side, too, even though doing so would mean starting a war with some gangsters Johnny specifically told him to leave alone. Rival gang leader Tom Gaffney (Boris Karloff) tries to have Tony killed, but only ends up introducing Tony to tommy guns in the process.
Not only is Tony trying to oust Johnny for the title of Chicago’s top gang leader, he also has his sights on Jonny’s girlfriend Poppy (Karen Morley). Johnny realizes how dangerously out of control Tony is and tries to have him killed, but Tony once again survives and kills Johnny. Johnny finally has everything that he wants — complete control over Chicago and Poppy. But his antics haven’t gone unnoticed by the police, who are moving in on him. Tony also has to worry about his younger sister Cesca (Ann Dvorak), who has taken an interest in his lifestyle.
Paul Muni doesn’t seem to get enough credit for playing one of the all-time greatest movie gangsters. Cagney, Bogart, and Robinson were all great movie tough guys, but none of their characters had the unrestrained glee that Tony took in killing people. Cold blooded? Absolutely. But giddy about killing? Not quite. When faced with a hail of gunfire, Tony lights up like a kid on Christmas morning. I’m certainly no stranger to gangster movies, but this version of Scarface is really jaw dropping compared to many others (including ones made in the late 1960s and beyond, although I’ve actually never seen the Al Pacino version of Scarface) because of that fact.
And I certainly can’t neglect to mention Ann Dvorak, who is truly electrifying as Cesca.
The Definitive Pre-Code Moments
The pure joy Tony takes in killing people.
The incestuous tones to Tony’s relationship with Cesca.
Why It’s an Essential Pre-Code
Scarface was a nightmare for censors before it even started filming. The original screenplay included Tony’s mother being supportive of her son’s (for lack of a better word) career and featured a hypocritical politician who rallies against criminals like Tony by day, but goes to parties with him by night. The Hays Office insisted on so many script revisions, Howard Hughes eventually got so fed up with it, he told director Howard Hawks to just go ahead and make the movie as violent and as realistic as possible. There was a lot of concern that even though Tony dies at the end, the movie still glorified criminal lifestyles. An alternate ending was filmed where Tony turns himself in, but censors still objected to that version.
To make some effort to appease the censors, some of the violence was toned down, the subtitle “The Shame of a Nation” was added, and a text introduction condemning Tony’s behavior were added to the movie.