Friday, March 16, 2012

Scarface (1932)

First of all, I'd like to say that this past week marked the first anniversary of my first blog posting. I'd like to thank everyone who has visited my little corner of the Internet, and also thank everyone for their support, kind words, and comments. It's been a lot of fun and hopefully, like a fine wine, the blog has gotten better with age. I'm looking forward to continuing for as long as I can. So now that I've bored you kids with this long-winded sentimentalism, let's start the next year off with a rousing gangster film.

Scarface stars Paul Muni, George Raft, Boris Karloff, Ann Dvorak, and Karen Morley.  The film was released by United Artists and based on the novel by Armitage Trail.  The film was directed by Howard Hawks, produced by Howard Hughes and the screenplay was written by Ben Hecht.

The overall mood of the film is very dark as it chronicles the violent rise, and eventual fall, of a Capone-like Chicago gangster.  The story begins as gang boss Johnny Lovo (Osgood Perkins) persuades rival gangster Tony Camonte (Muni) to make a hit on his own boss, Big Louie Costillo (Harry J. Vejar), who he's supposed to be protecting.  Tony is seen only in shadow and silhouette and happily whistling a tune as he calmly walks up to Big Louie and "plugs him" several times.  The scene briefly reminded me of the Peter Lorre character in "M" (1931) who whistles while he stalks his victims.  In return Lovo promises Tony "a piece of the action" and he also becomes Johnny's second in command.  Camonte is cocky and vicious, sometimes humorous, but most of the time a psychotic thug who lives by only one rule -- "Do it first, do it yourself, and keep on doing it".

We're officially introduced to the Camonte character and his sidekick Guino "Little Boy" Rinaldo (Raft) as the police round up suspects in the Costillo murder case.  We see Camonte's total disrespect for the law when he strikes a match on the sergeant's badge to light a cigarette.  He kills and strong arms his way up the criminal ladder even making a play for Lovo's "girlfriend" Poppy (Morley) who's had her eye on Tony as well.  Success has its drawbacks and a rival gangster named Gaffney (Karloff) plans a hit on Camonte to prevent him from taking over any more territory.

 Gaffney's planning to use a new "persuader" to cut Tony down to size -- a submachine gun that fires "three hundred slugs a minute". The gangs exchange hits and the war between the rivals escalates. Tony catches his sister (Dvorak) with his sidekick "Little Boy" which gives the ending of the film a little unexpected twist. I actually viewed the alternate ending for the film and both endings were both pretty good so it's a toss up for me as to which one was better. Let me just say that justice was served, but in two different ways.

This film actually excels at proving the point that I've tried to make on quite a few occasions, that film makers can get their message across without the need of excessive graphic and gratuitous violence and language.  The film is violent but pretty tame compared to today's standards.  Some viewers believe there's some sort of incestuous affair between Tony and his sister Cesca.  I don't really see it that way.  I see it more as an immigrant family's siblings trying to keep each other safe in a new land.  Tony's affection for his sister does seem a little extreme, but I personally don't see anything that hints at incest.

Muni was incredible and really seemed to be enjoying himself, while Dvorak and Morley are both beautiful and great supporting players.  George Raft looks very comfortable in the type of role he would play many more times.  Karloff was pretty good and looked the part, but his voice just didn't seem to fit.  Every time I heard Karloff's voice I thought "horror" not "gangster".  Typecast?  Yeah ...  pretty much.  He was just really good in horror films.  Karloff appeared in Scarface only one year after his role as "The Monster" in Frankenstein (1931).

According to TCM's film oracle Robert Osborne, the film is of course based on the legendary crime boss of the day Al Capone.  When the film started production a couple of Capone's "associates" visited writer Ben Hecht and asked him if he "really thought it was wise to write a script about Capone". Hecht being a newspaper man from Chicago wasn't intimidated by the henchmen and actually convinced them to become consultants.  The creators of the film also had difficulty getting past the censors because of the violence, and the censorship boards thought that the film "glorified gangsters" (when in fact it was supposed to be an anti-gangster film) and they demanded several changes including the alternate ending.  Howard Hughes who had put a lot of his own money into the film ended up releasing it in states where the censors were a little more lenient.   The result -- very long lines at the box office.

Excellent film, don't miss it ...


  1. Happy blogiversary, Dave! I loved your post on Scarface, which I didn't discover until years after I'd seen the Al Pacino version. I simply loved it, and have seen it many times since. I totally agree about Boris Karloff -- it always throws me for a loop to see him in a non-horror (or non-Grinch!) film. Good stuff!

    1. Karen
      Karloff does seem a bit out of place, but otherwise it's a great film ...

  2. Muni makes a believable sociopath here. Yet, I am one of those viewers who thought his character had a thing for his sister--she was Ann Dvorak after all!

    1. Kim
      For some reason Muni's name never really comes up when folks talk about great actors. It's sad that he's so underrated ...

  3. Like fine wine, Howard Hawks' "Scarface" and "Dave's Classic Films" improve with age. May they both continue to thrive.

    1. CW
      Thanks for stopping by and for all the kind words ...

  4. Dave,
    First off! Congratulations on your one year anniversary. You've eked out a fine bit of real estate on the interwebs.

    It's always nice to read a serious and well thought out review of Scarface. When the younger generation think of Scarface, they seldom realize the Al Pacino blood and drug fest wasn't the first with the title. Quite opposite of the original which I prefer.

    Dvorack's character, with all of her flaws and the hidden innuendo's of what she's endured, really does make you root for her.

    When first seeing the film I was quite surprised that there were hints of violence, shadows during the massacre scene but we don't actually see the blood and guts. Then I realize that was how it was done in 1932.

    Muni, with that crazy hair, those suits and horseshoe tie pins, is quite the character and that's just in his looks. Raft or as I like to call him "Coin Toss" is such a likable character that I was bummed when he went down.

    As you mentioned, the incestuous implications. I didn't see that when watching the film nor have I ever gotten that impression although others would argue that it's there.

    A fine review of a must see film Dave.
    I did a snarky photo review of it awhile back if you care to have a laugh here's the link.


    1. Page
      It's always great to hear from you. I definitely prefer the 1932 version to the overhyped and vulgarity-laden remake. I can't wait to read your post, you always do an awesome job ...

  5. Glad to see your review. This is such a great film. I didn't know there was an alternate ending...!

    1. Both endings are pretty good but I enjoyed the "crime doesn't pay" type ending more myself.

      Thanks for visiting ...