The original Scarface, loosely but boldly based on the notorious life and legend of Al Capone, didn’t invent the modern American gangster film. It blew it up. It reinvigorated and redefined the nascent genre, thanks to the rat-a-tat direction of Howard Hawks and scrappy performance of Paul Muni, a pug of an actor who packs his firecracker frame with dynamite.
The movie transformed the story of an insolent immigrant hood who blasts his way to the top spot of the Chicago crime world into a perverted twist in the American dream (“The World Is Yours,” flashes an advertisement outside the gangster’s new, bullet-proofed digs, a tease as much as a promise). And the film cast Tony Camonte, a scrappy street mutt of a gangland soldier with big ideas, bad taste and a dangerous lack of inhibitions, as its Horatio Alger.
Films like The Public Enemy and Little Caesar had whetted the American moviegoing appetite for crime movies that delivered a vicarious thrill before delivering a sentence of poetic justice. Scarface delivered something more dynamic and insidious, so much so that censors pressured producer Howard Hughes to cut out the more audacious elements. Hughes hired lesser hands to add sanctimonious lectures denouncing the criminal scourge, flat scenes that have all the impact of blanks in the film’s barrage of live ammunition.
What’s amazing is how much escaped the censors’ scissors: the incestuous attraction between Tony and his party-girl sister (Ann Dvorak); the real-life gangland events “ripped from the headlines” and referenced in Tony’s bloody climb to the top (Hawks brilliantly re-creates the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in an evocative scene of shadows and sound effects); the brutal montage of drive-by machine-gun hits in the mob war, with thrilling high-speed car chases and careening getaways through the rain-soaked streets of Chicago city sets, victims crumpling like paper in their wake.
The way Hawks marks Camonte’s victims with the shadow of an “X” (echoing the scar marking Camonte’s cheek) is still effective, and his inventive touches, from the death of Boris Karloff’s mob boss suggested in the falling of a bowling pin to a machine gun blasting away falling leaves of calendar pages, evoke the brutality of Camonte’s bloody reign without showing a single murder. In these days of blood-soaked gangster operas, this incendiary masterpiece still packs firepower.
Originally published as part of the “MSN Cadillac” series.