Friday, November 18, 2016


(April 1932, U.S.)

When I was a high school kid growing up in the early 1980s, it never occurred to me or anyone else that I knew that Brian DePalma's 1983 film of SCARFACE was a remake. Turner Classic Movies didn't exist yet, and I don't recall it being shown on television or available for VHS rental. I'm not saying it wasn't, it's just that we didn't know about it. So to properly appreciate and write about the original 1932 classic black and white version of Howard Hawks' SCARFACE (and produced by Howard Hughes), it becomes necessary to put all previously-known elements of Brian DePalma, Al Pacino and "say hello to my little friend!" completely out of your mind and remember a time when the violent crimes associated with the era of Prohibition were the source of a film like this.

In the city of Chicago during the 1920s, Italian immigrant Tony Camonte (played by Paul Muni) is a mob enforcer acting on orders from his Italian boss Johnny Lovo. While he has no reservations about taking out the competing lead crime boss of the city's South Side, he has his own aspirations of taking control of that very territory himself, even if it goes against the wishes and demands of Lovo. Through intimidation and violence, Tony and his men push large quantities of their illegal beer to the local speakeasies and muscle in on such establishments run by rival proprietors. Ignoring all orders from Lovo, Tony makes a reputation for himself by shooting up and exploding bars belonging to his enemies all over the city. He inevitably declares all-out war to take over the entire North Side of the city and even kills his own boss Lovo when a failed attempt on his life by Lovo drives him to revenge.

Tony is also a man obsessed with his younger sister Francesca (played by Ann Dvorak), unable to stand the very thought of her being with another man. Although this film is a Pre-Code gangster film, any ideas or insinuations about incest are completely hidden from any realm of possibility. We can sense otherwise, however, and it's probably due to the fact that most of us who have seen the original version of SCARFACE very likely saw the 1983 remake first, so such an implication is evident. However, unlike the remake, by the time Tony has taken over just about all of the city of Chicago and finds himself with his back against the wall defending himself against the bullets of the police, his sister is actually there by his side to fight his deadly battle with him. We're not sure if it's just a matter of little sister standing up alongside big brother or if, perhaps, she realizes that she's also experiencing the same forbidden taboo feelings for her own brother. Again, this film at such a time in cinematic history would never give such an idea to its audience.

(Take note, by the way, of the electric billboard that says THE WORLD IS YOURS, obsessing Tony's aspirations of power and control. You've seen it before on a large blimp.)

SCARFACE, which by the way, paid reference to a large scar that real-life legendary gangster Al Capone had on his face, was released just about one year after two other popular gangster films, LITTLE CAESAR and THE PUBLIC ENEMY (both 1931). All films were meant to directly address the growing epidemic of crime and violence associated with the illegal flow of liquor in America. They were a public call to government and citizens alike to not only acknowledge the problem, but to take action against it, as well...

By that reckoning, such films may be regarded as genuine pieces of American history as well as escapist entertainment of the time. Certainly, SCARFACE, above all others, may be considered the most violent of the bunch, as it seems that the bullets never stop flying and the buildings never stop exploding. Pre-Code films of the time could get pretty nasty before film censorship stepped in and had its way with things.

Favorite line or dialogue:

Tony Camonte (pointing to a Tommy Gun): "There's only one thing that gets orders and gives orders...and this is it! That's how I got the South Side for you, and that's how I'm gonna get the North Side for you. It's a typewriter. I'm gonna write my name all over this town with it, in big letters!"

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