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.