Watching the original Scarface today, you may snicker at its clichéd characters and the hackneyed dialogue. The movie is dated in a way that The Godfather never will be. It’s tough not to laugh out loud when Paul Muni, as mobster Tony Camonte, says: “What king of mug do you think I am? I don’t know nothin’, I don’t see nothin’ and I don’t hear nothin’. And when I do, I don’t tell a cop.”
Still, there’s something beyond the stereotypes and the arcane movie talk that makes this a great film. For one, the story it tells remains—as it was then—the American dream come to life: an immigrant from humble beginnings gets the money, gets the power, gets the women. The bad guy has always mesmerized audiences, and Muni is as magnetic as Robert De Niro and Al Pacino were a half-century later.
Beyond that, what you’re seeing here is the birth of a genre. Scarface: The Shame of a Nation has direct connections to GoodFellas (note the scene where Tony asks the moll, “How do you mean, you think I’m funny?”), to The Untouchables (Muni’s nod to Al Capone compares well to De Niro’s) and, of course, to Brian De Palma’s 1983 Scarface remake. Pacino’s Tony Montana is an updated version of Muni’s Tony Camonte—right down to the abnormal relationship with his sister and the wild-eyed final showdown.
“In that age of American film, there were no rules, and people had to find order in chaos,” said screenwriter Robert Benton (Bonnie and Clyde) in the documentary Public Enemies: The Golden Age of the Gangster Film. Talking about pioneers like Scarface director Howard Hawks and screenwriter Ben Hecht, Benton said, “Those great storytellers did it. They invented an art form. That’s an amazing thing to have done.”
Not that it came easily. Scarface was the brainchild of aviation tycoon Howard Hughes (before he became a recluse). Hughes had previously produced only a few noncontroversial air show films. But with Scarface, he envisioned a gangster movie that was bolder and more violent than any previously made.
But his dream clashed with the Hays Office, the powerful federal censorship board. The Office battled Hughes on issues large (whether the movie would end with Tony being captured or shot) and small (whether Tony and his girlfriend could sit together on a bed).
Hughes alternately ranted and capitulated. To meet the guideline that movies had to discourage crime, he added the words “The Shame of a Nation” to the original title and tacked a moral statement to the opening that began, “This picture is an indictment of gang rule in America.” The movie was anything but that and the censors saw through his linguistic ruse. After two years of battles and more than 30 script changes, Hughes still could not get Hays Office approval.
He finally decided to release Scarface without the panel’s endorsement—a move similar to trying to market an NC-17 movie to general audiences today. The film was banned in seven states (including New York) and dozens of cities (including Chicago, where its story is based). Hughes was so frustrated that he stormed out of Hollywood and didn’t produce another movie for more than a decade.
Still, the final product here is damned impressive.
Scarface’s plot is a thinly veiled biography of Al Capone. It was written in just 11 days by Hecht, who learned his craft covering crime for Chicago newspapers. It is based on a 1930 novel with the same title by Armitage Trail (a pseudonym for Maurice Coons) and includes reenactments of real-life episodes like the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, the hospital shooting of Legs Diamond (you’ll also note similarities to the hospital scene in The Godfather) and the 90th Street siege of “Two-Gun” Crowley in 1930.
The vehicle for the story is Muni’s character, Tony, a vicious mob enforcer who guns down his local sponsor in order to please the big South Side boss. Tony knows from the start that he is destined for greatness—his motto is inspired by a tour company’s neon advertising sign hanging across the street from his apartment reading, “The World is Yours.”
Tony’s violent streak sets off gang wars over the control of Chicago’s bootlegging business. No one is safe—not small time saloon owners who get slapped around, not innocent bystanders caught in the crossfire of machine guns, not rival gangsters. The most notable victim is played by Boris Karloff, who looks like a cross between Abe Vigoda’s Tessio and the Frankenstein monster. He gets gunned down while rolling a bowling ball. Gangsters bowled back then?
Anyway, Tony is rolling in dough, so he moves from a tenement he shares with his sister and mother—who keeps berating him as “a no-gooda boy”—into a townhouse with enough velvet and gold décor to stock a Vegas whorehouse. He kills his boss, steals that boss’s mistress and decides to take her down to Florida for a month while things cool off in Chicago.
It’s all going swimmingly—except for one hitch. Tony’s got this thing for his sister, Cesca (Ann Dvorak). Midway through the movie, he goes to celebrate a victory at the Paradise Club, where he happens to catch his sister dancing with a man. He smacks the poor jerk around, and then takes Cesca home and beats her too, saying, “Next time I catch you in a place like that, I’ll kill you.”
Nothing more occurs, but Tony’s leering look makes it clear that his motive is not exactly protecting his sister’s honor. And given that incest was as taboo in 1932 as it is today, it’s astounding that the censors’ list of objections to Scarface apparently didn’t include this thinly veiled relationship.
Later, upon his return from Florida, he discovers Cesca holed up with his best friend Guino (George Raft). Tony murders his pal in a rage—convinced that Guino has ruined his sister, as they used to say. Only after the murder does Tony learn that during the month he was tanning down South, Cesca and Guino fell in love, married and rented a place together. Sometimes, it pays to ask questions first.
It all sets off the climactic scene, back at Tony’s place, where he and Cesca laughingly fight off dozens of cops until she dies in his arms of a gunshot wound. Alone and overwhelmed by tear gas, he surrenders to the police—sniveling like a coward—before making one last foolish dash for freedom. He is gunned down and dies under that neon advertising sign bearing his motto.
Censors weren’t pleased with that ending and insisted on another one, in which Tony is captured, put on trial and executed for his sins. Director Hawks refused, so a stand-in director was hired—as well as a stand-in for Muni (filmed only from behind). Although Howard Hughes initially agreed to the Hays Office’s demand, the revised ending eventually became the final straw for him. He reinserted the original ending and stopped seeking the censorship panel’s seal of approval. In doing so, he guaranteed that Scarface would be a financial flop—although, by all accounts, Hughes didn’t have to switch to a cheaper brand of Scotch over that.
Everything about Scarface is over the top—just as it was in the 1983 remake. While filming the latter version, Pacino studied Muni’s scenery-chewing performance and decided to pay homage to it. Both men behave like animals—in fact, each is referred to as a “big ape.” De Palma dedicated his version to screenwriter Hecht and director Hawks.
HIT: Although he doesn’t get many lines in his supporting role of Guino Rinaldo, young George Raft establishes a tough-guy persona that served him well for the rest of his career. Watch him as he habitually flips a coin—a trademark move he reprised in several movies, including the 1959 comedy Some Like It Hot.
Raft was a childhood friend of mobster Bugsy Siegel and was, by some accounts, a gangster himself. He was barred from entering Great Britain in 1966 because of alleged Mafia ties.
MISS: Even today, mob movies stereotype in disturbing ways. But Scarface really set the standard. With the exception of one character (detective Ben Guarino), every Italian-American man is hot-tempered, sociopathic and either slyly cunning or dumber than a tree stump. The most egregious is the gang secretary, who can neither read nor field a phone call, speaks with an exaggerated accent and wears an Alpine hat stolen from Chico Marx’s wardrobe closet.
Remember, America was far less integrated and culturally sophisticated back in the 1930s. We can only imagine what an untraveled filmgoer from, say, Iowa, thought of Italian immigrants after viewing this film.
WHAT THEY WROTE AT THE TIME: “Scarface contains more cruelty than any of its gangster picture predecessors, but there’s a squarer for every killing. The blows are always softened by judicial preachments and sad endings for the sinners. . . . Presumably the last of the gangster films, it is going to make people sorry that there won’t be any more.”—Variety
GOOF: Make sure to check out the score sheet that’s shown right before Karloff’s murder at the bowling alley. It defies all laws of math.
REALITY CHECK: Let’s see now, the Camontes live in poverty, with no apparent access to education or the fine arts. But when sister Cesca sits down at the piano, she can tickle the ivories like George Gershwin. Where’d she learn to do that?
REPEATED WATCHING QUOTIENT: Once a decade or so, just to see where the genre was born.
PIVOTAL SCENE: After killing Louie, the local mob captain, Tony goes to collect his pay from the new South Side chief, Johnny Lovo. He is awed by Lovo’s plush apartment, his silk bathrobe and—most especially—his icy blond girlfriend, who plucks her eyebrows and reveals shapely legs while buffing her toenails.
Ambitious Tony tries to persuade Lovo to make a move on his rival, but Lovo appears timid. Quickly, Tony concludes that rather than work for the man, he should become the man. He wants it all—including the blond.
Soon after, he boasts to a fellow hit man, “This business is just waiting for some guy to run it right. And I got ideas.”
But we work for Lovo, his friend reminds him.
“Who’s Lovo? Just some guy who’s a little smarter than Big Louie, that’s all. Hey that guy is soft. I could see it in his face. . . . Someday, I’m gonna run the whole works.”
DON’T FAIL TO NOTICE: The use of the letter “X” to foreshadow killings throughout the movie—almost as The Godfather later used oranges. In the bowling alley scene, Karloff is shot right after marking a strike on his score sheet. In another, Tony goes to kill a rival in an apartment, entering through a door marked by the Roman numeral X. And the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre scene begins with the camera panning down from the roof of a garage supported by seven sets of intercrossing beams—one for each victim.
In another foreshadowing, Tony repeatedly prepares for his murders while whistling the beautiful theme from the Italian aria “Lucia di Lammermoor.” We appreciate his musical taste, if not his moral compass.
VIOLENCE LEVEL: For all the gunshots and thrown punches, there really isn’t much sadism or gore—in, say, a Pacino Scarface kind of way. Hughes had enough problems with the censors that he decided not to bathe victims in blood—or ink, considering this was a black-and-white film.
BEST LINE: Early on, Tony’s attorney gets him released from police questioning, leading the mobster to ask how he did it.
Lawyer: “A writ of Habeas corpus. Deliver the body. It means they can’t hold you without booking you—no matter what they think you’ve done.”
Tony: “That’s a fine idea. You tell them I want lots of them writs of hocus pocus.”
BODY COUNT: Twenty-eight on-screen, and at least that many implied off-screen.
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: During production, Capone got wind that a movie was being made based on his story and sent henchmen to visit screenwriter Hecht. Somehow, Hecht convinced them that a film about a vicious Chicago bootlegger with a scar across his cheek had nothing to do with their boss. Ultimately, Capone is said to have loved Scarface so much that he owned a copy and watched it repeatedly during his stay at the federal penitentiary in Atlanta.
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[Reprinted from The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies by George Anastasia and Glen Macnow. Available from Running Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011.]
George Anastasia is a crime reporter for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and author of several books, including “Blood and Honor” which Jimmy Breslin called “the best gangster book ever written.”
Glen Macnow was a writer for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and “Detroit Free Press.” He is currently a talk-radio host on 610-WIP in Philadelphia.
George and Glen have co-authored “The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies.”