Directed by: Howard Hawks
Premise: The classic gangster film follows the rise and fall of Tony Camonte (Paul Muni) in 1930s Chicago.
What Works: Scarface is an example of classic moviemaking. The structure of the story is very solid, with a clearly defined three act structure and brisk storytelling. For a film that is seventy-five years old, its chases and shootouts are very exciting. The film’s portrayal of the gang war is effective and gets the point across in a concise way. The film also includes a great performance by Paul Muni as the antihero of the film and it stands with Marlon Brando in The Godfather as one of the quintessential film gangsters. He is able to be brooding at one moment and turn into a lighthearted jokester the next in ways that keep the character engaging and strangely likable, but also warn of the trouble to come. There are some subtle but well shot scenes in this Scarface that comply with the content rules of classic Hollywood but are so well staged that they use the restrictions to their advantage, such as Tony’s revenge on his employer (Osgood Perkins). Part of the fun of screening this film is in comparing it to Brian De Palma’s film and there are plenty of parallels to be found between the two. One of these parallels is in Tony’s relationship to his love interest, played by Karen Morley, and to his sister, played by Ann Dvorak. Dvorak is sultry but naïve and watching how Tony’s lawlessness infects his sister in this film is in some ways superior to the remake.
What Doesn’t: Those expecting a film identical to the 1983 film may be disappointed in that the violence is not as excessive and the film’s line between cops and criminals is clearly defined in this picture. While blurring this line has been the subject of the contemporary gangster film, these older pictures were produced under the Hays Code and such discrepancies would have been impossible.
DVD extras: Turner Classic Movies introduction, alternate ending.
Bottom Line: Howard Hawks version of Scarface is worth viewing by fans of Brian De Palma’s remake, The Untouchables, and the crime genre in general. Its energy and classic characters make it an important film that ought to be more widely appreciated.
Episode: #165 (November 4, 2007)