Scarface (Hawks, 1932)

X marks the spot in one of the best of the early gangster films; Howard Hawks ultra-violent Scarface. Almost baroque in it’s sensibilities, Hawks is unafraid to go all out to in his portrayal of the life and times of a Chicago gangster. Paul Muni stars, giving one of the most deliciously over the top performance of the decade. His scarface is crude, arrogant, and just a wee bit incestuous. What’s even more impressive, is considering that while the film was released in 1932 it was made several years earlier, held back a few years because of concerns over the film’s portrayal of violence.

Scarface’s age in the classic Hollywood era, is only betrayed by a change in sensibilities that happened in the early part of the 1940s. It was around this time that the gangster became more of a conflicted noir hero, instead of a reckless but appealing villain that he was during the 1930s. In many ways, I think you could argue that the gangster was the city equivalent of the cowboy. Or the northern version of a southern idea… the appeal of the anti-hero during this period can be linked to a general distrust in government bodies, a lack of faith in banks, and a frenzied desperation for success. Inversely, they also hint at a suspicion of new immigrants, as well as perpetuating a fear of the urban environment. However, I this is a minor, if not completely inconsequential point as the film romanticizes the gangster lifestyle more so than any other film of the era. Even Tony Camonte’s demise is in a blaze of glory, opposed to a more surprising, if not muted death like Tom Powers. I’m still basking in the ironic idea that when the gangster dies, it somehow absolves the glamorization of the rest of the film in an instant. These films were also often accompanied with a disclaimer, claiming that the film is a “realistic” and “objective” portrayal of a current and apparently, unfortunate phenomena. Anyone who watches these films though, knows this is far from the case. *tangent over*

What really sets this film apart from the pack in my books, is no doubt Hawks’ idiocentric style. Even in doing something so simple, as using an “x” to mark the spot of a death creates an exciting visual dynamism, and a pervading sense of doom. Unlike most gangster films of the period, I feel that Hawks’ allows for his protagonist to be, in a way, stalked by death. This dread plays against the whimsy, and the moments of outright campiness that inhabit the film resulting in a confused but highly effective tone. Lending further to this strange discomfort is the fact that the sexy female lead is no less than Tony’s sister. Even what seems to be so early in cinematic history, Hawks is playing with genre stereotypes and conceptions. While their relationship is never overtly incestuous, he relies on the fact the audience will first and foremost fall on their knowledge of the gangster genre, and the necessary presence of a sexy female lead, while enough hints to let the slower audience members to catch up.

Roaring and exciting, Scarface embodies everything I love about Hawks. It’s roaring and exciting, while showing his knack for character, style and genre.

4 responses to “Scarface (Hawks, 1932)

  1. Awesome review. I’m taking on Scarface next month, & looking forward to comparing notes! I should do some in-depth Hawks sometime in the near future. Every time I take a brief look — Only Angels here, Rio Bravo there — I get a delicious piece of it, but I’m pretty sure I’d be overwhelmed with subversive awesomeness if I allowed myself to be!

  2. There are so many levels of Hawks, but most importantly I think you can take it straight on and not miss a thing. His intention was to entertain and he did it better than 98% of people out there. It’s his own tastes and sensibilities of things he likes and is interested in that bleed into to create that subversion. Brilliant man.

  3. Scarface definitely romanticizes the gangster lifestyle, but one thing that really got to me was the points when the movie just ground to an absolute halt so that cops or politicians or what have you practically preach to you about how to curb gang violence and the danger that it poses…basically telling to you write your congressman without literally saying so. Guess it was just a pre-code lack of subtlety thing 😕 . Other than that, though, I was really impressed and even a little shocked about how freely Hawks portrayed the violence. This was really much more gritty and dark and up-front than I expected for such an early gangster film, and for that it’s definitely the classic everyone says it is.

  4. It’s a little overwrought, but not un-characteristic of early talkies. They had “messages”, and I think it was the only way to get the message across at the time. Of course, it came back to bite them in the ass with the production code…

    The violence is… much. Easily some of the worst I had seen in Hollywood film. All Quiet on the Western Front, 2 years before is close, and then it takes a decade or two to come to Lang’s The Big Heat for it to be so immediate and well, painful.

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