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Scarface (1932)


Paul Muni as Scarface
Paul Muni as Scarface

'Scarface' is an American gangster movie made in 1932, directed by Howard Hawks and starring Paul Muni, Ann Dvorak, George Raft, and Boris Karloff. It is also known as 'Scarface: The Shame of the Nation' and 'The Shame of a Nation'. The film depicts the struggle by rival gangs for control of Chicago's bootlegging business, and is loosely based on the career of Al Capone (whose nickname was 'Scarface').

In 1994, 'Scarface' was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the United States National Film Registry, as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". In The American Film Institute's list of Top Ten movies in the 'gangster' genre, it is placed at number six.

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Completed before Hollywood's conservative Production Code became more rigidly enforced in 1934, ex-journalist Ben Hecht's screenplay uses the Al Capone legend as source material staging recreations of the St. Valentine's Day Massacre and the murder of Big Jim Colosimo - to show Prohibition era Chicago as a modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah. Because of the Production Code the movie opens with an indictment of gang rule and a call to action to the individual to do something about it. For the same reason the film was given its subtitle 'The Shame of a Nation', to make it more acceptable and less of a glorification of gangsterism.

The violence depicted in the movie was so ground-breaking in its intensity and detail that, on release, the film was banned in most American states. Amorality is rampant: Cops are brutal and on the take, journalists are cynical muckrakers. In contrast, the Capone-like protagonist Tony 'Scarface' Camonte (Paul Muni) is at least frank and 'honest' in his greedy quest for power and the almighty dollar.

The ultimate irony of 'Scarface' is that everything goes well as long as psychotic Tony treats his killing spree as purely business. The moment his emotions come into play, he is doomed. Much can be made of the strange twist in the plot when Tony starts losing control because of his violent jealousy concerning the love affair between his sister Cesca (Ann Dvorak) and his best friend Guino Rinaldo (George Raft). This could stem from incestuous feelings for his sister, or indicate a repressed homosexual bond with his friend. Hawks effectively underlines Tony's road to ruin with heavy symbolism, achieved via expressive lighting and street signs. He was one of the first directors to use a recurring visual theme to reinforce his message. In this case almost every death is marked by an 'X' of some kind as the character is literally crossed out of life. Rather than just push the violence on the audience Hawks works on the subconscious mind. The 'X' takes different forms, the straps of a gown, wooden crossbeams and so on. At the end, his final showdown is marked by cross-shaped shadows and his dead body lying in the gutter under a Cook's travel sign that reads, ironically 'The world is yours.'

Main Cast

Paul Muni ... Antonio 'Tony' Camonte
Ann Dvorak ... Francesca 'Cesca' Camonte
Karen Morley ... Poppy
Osgood Perkins ... John 'Johnny' Lovo
C. Henry Gordon ... Insp. Ben Guarino
George Raft ... Guino Rinaldo
Vince Barnett ... Angelo
Boris Karloff ... Gaffney
Purnell Pratt ... Mr. Garston, publisher
Tully Marshall ... Managing editor
Inez Palange ... Mrs. Camonte
Edwin Maxwell ... Chief of detectives

Credits

Director ... Howard Hawks
Co-director ... Richard Rosson
Writers ... Armitage Trail (novel), Ben Hecht (screenplay)
Release Date ... 9 April 1932 (USA)
Runtime ... 93 mins.

Academy Awards

No Nominations