Scarface: The Shame of a Nation: Hawks Masterpiece, Starring Paul Muni

One of Howard Hawks’ undisputed masterpieces, Scarface is also a historical landmark as far as the depiction of crime and violence on screen is concerned.

Scarface
Tony and Johnny fight each other on a painted theatrical release poster.

Theatrical release poster

According to one historian, the number of deaths recorded in this film is 28, though many more violent acts occur off screen.

In the early 1930s, the gangster genre exploded with three films that also served as star vehicles: “Little Caesar” with Edward G. Robinson, “The Public Enemy” with James Cagney, and “Scarface” starring Paul Muni. But it was “Scarface” (subtitled “The Shame of a Nation”) that depicted the professional hoodlum as a murderous beast.

In earlier films of the genre, a great deal of attention was paid to developing the background of the criminal and placing the blame for his anti-social activities on his environment. But with “Scarface,” all of that was dispensed with to give audiences for the first time an adult, fully developed monster that thrives on murder and power.

The career depicted on screen resembled that of the notorious Al Capone. The first scene of “Scarface” shows Tony Camonte (Paul Muni) only in shadow, whistling a few bars of an Italian aria before shooting a victim and then walking calmly away.

Tony is portrayed as a typical gangster of his era. Brutal and arrogant, he’s a homicidal maniac who revels in gaudy clothes, fast cars, and machine guns, because their rapid fire allows him to kill more people at a single outing. (The French director Francois Truffaut, who admired the film and Hawks’ work, noted that Hawks directed Muni to look and move like an ape).

Tony is insanely jealous of his sister Casca (Ann Dvorak); by today’s standards his feelings would be considered incestuous. Tony works for Johnny Lovo (Osgood Perkins, father of actor Anthony of Psycho” fame), a more sophisticated and clever gangster. Lovo, in turn, is the chief lieutenant of Big Louis (Harry Vejar), the city’s crime boss. Lovo’s role is based on Johnny Torrio, “credited” with the creation of organized crime in America, and Big Louis on Chicago’s crime czar, Big Jim Colosimo.

Tony is arrested for the murder shown in the opening scene, but the mob lawyer has him free. Tony then encourages Johnny to kill Louis since he won’t take advantage of the new Prohibition law and go into bootlegging liquor. Johnny tells Tony to leave the North Side boss (Boris Karloff) alone, but after Tony meets Johnny’s sexy mistress Poppy (Karen Morley), his conduct becomes even more irrational.

Johnny and Tony sitting next to each other at a table both with matches in their hands

Osgood Perkins (Anthony’s real life father) as John “Johnny” Lovo and Paul Muni as Antonio “Tony” Camonte.

As noted, at the time, “Scarface” was considered the most violent and bloody gangster film. To capture the action, Hawks used his cameras in vivid tracking and dolly shots. Cinematographer Lee Garmes’s sharp contrasts create stark and haunting images. Note how Hawks uses the symbol of an X to indicate death, as in the rafters on the ceiling, in Karloff’s bowling score, and Raft’s apartment number.

Producer Howard Hughes spared no expense, but he also interfered with Hawks’ work, insisting on approving each and every move; the production was almost cancelled because of their fights.

Skillful scripter Ben Hecht was offered $20,000, but instead asked for $100 a day in cash, not realizing that he could finish the whole script in 11 days. Except for the title, little of the novel made it into the screen. Treating the gangster and his sister as modern-day Borgias is credited to Hawksincest is the catalyst that eventually weakens and destroys Tony the gangster.

The acting is superb. Paul Muni, a vet of the Yiddish theater in New York, is frighteningly compelling as the maniac killer, and Karen Morely is good as his moll. Raft, with his tuxedo and pomaded hair parted in the middle, also shines as Muni’s right-hand man, a killer who act first then asks questions. After that picture, Muni and Raft became stars overnight, and both received long-term contracts.

In its review, the trade magazine “Variety” (May 24, 1932) noted that, “Scarface” was “powerful and gripping,” but added that the picture would probably be the last gangster film for some time due to its intense contents that was “strong for adults, and not for children, mixing more blood with rum” than all previous crime drama combined. That said, the reviewer found the picture to be moral, with no “blaming of the environment” for gangster’s anti-social behavior. The writer also praised the closing condemnation and the famous disclaimer: “And what are you going to do about it”

History proved otherwise, and Scarface became part of a very influential cycle of films that also included “The Public Enemy” and “Little Caesar.” “Scarface” was completed and ready for theatrical release in late 1930, but due to fights between Hughes and Hawks, and problems with censorship, the picture’s released  was almost delayed by two years–until April of 1932.

Indeed, many changes were made before “Scarface” was released, delaying the process by a year or so. First, the subtitle, “Shame of a Nation” was added, after an earlier suggestion to call it “The Menace” had been considered and rejected. Then, a long, apologetic disclaimer was added to the beginning.

A few extra scenes were actually shot. One shows Tony Camonte’s mother disapproving of her son’s actions, while talking to her daughter. This occurs as Mother takes Cesca upstairs, after Tony had screamed at her for demonstrating overt sexuality.

Other additional scenes, all featuring speeches, were also inserted. The first involved a police chief, and the second and third involved a newspaper editor. Since Howard hawks refused to shot these added scenes, Hughes brought Richard Rosson, who was credited as “co-director.”

These scenes put the blame for gangsterism on the public, while refusing to even suggest or intimate that the corruption might as well be within the police force: “Don’t blame the police. They can’t stop machine guns from being run back and forth across the state lines!”

Other scenes were deleted from the theatrical release because they were deemed too intense for the public.

Cast

Tony (Paul Muni)
Cesca (Ann Dvorak)
Poppy (Karen Morley)
Lovo (Osgood Perkins)
Rinaldo (George Raft)
Guarino (C. Henry Gordon)
Gaffney (Boris Karloff)

Credits

A Howard Hughes production
Directed by Howard Hawks

Produced by Howard Hawks and Howard Hughes

Screenplay by W.R. Burnett, John Lee Mahin, Seton I. Miller, Ben Hecht, based on
Scarface by Armitage Trail

Music by Adolf Tandler, Gus Arnheim

Cinematography: Lee Garmes, L.W. O’Connell

Edited by Edward Curtiss

Production: The Caddo Company

Distributed by United Artists

Release date: April 9, 1932

Running time: 95 minutes