Universal // 1932 // 93 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Christopher Kulik (Retired) // November 16th, 2007
"In this business, there is only one law you gotta follow: Do it first, do it yourself, and keep on doing it!" -- -- Tony Camonte
The 1920s was a time of flappers, jazz and Prohibition. The 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act had made the consumption of alcohol illegal, and it was up to gangsters to provide the public with booze. Instead of bars, there were "speakeasies," which were owned by bootleggers. Perhaps the most infamous bootlegger of the time was Al Capone, who was determined to control the entire liquor market in Chicago. In May of 1920, Capone's boss James "Big Jim" Colosimo was gunned down, and in turn, Capone took over the business. While he was raking in millions of dollars of the year, he had to deal with the North Side, who wanted to provide their own bootleggers for the speakeasies.
As Capone's reputation grew, he not only became a target for the North Side, but also to the authorities. It was in 1929 in which Capone would be strongly linked to the St. Valentine's Day massacre, in which seven men were killed in a North side garage. Still, Capone was admired (if not loved) by the public, and it is true that he did many things to help out the community...including opening up soup kitchens to the homeless when the Great Depression came. Eventually, however, Capone became known as "Public Enemy #1" by the justice department, which led to Eliot Ness and his "untouchables" to nail him once and for all.
Several months before Capone would be caught, producer Howard Hughes (yes, The Aviator himself) wanted to make a film loosely based on Capone and his activities in the 1920s. First, Hawks hired a former newspaper man named Ben Hecht to write the screenplay, using a novel by Armitage Trail as a framework for the story. During the writing process, word got out to Capone's syndicate and several of its members approached Hecht to make sure their boss wouldn't be drawn in a negative light. Not only were the gangsters satisfied, Hecht even managed to convince them all to act as consultants on the film!
The result was Scarface, which was finished in 1930, though not released until two years later because of heated censorship battles between Hughes and the Hay's Office of Film Decency. When the film was finally released, it became a word-of-mouth success and, reportedly, Capone loved it so much that he owned his own copy! You know, it stuns me every day that when people think of Scarface, they think of the 1983 remake-cum-ripoff starring Al Pacino and directed by Brian de Palma...especially when those who view it as gospel have no clue that is a remake. Previously, the 1932 version was only available as a supplement in a deluxe gift set of the 1983 version. However, Universal finally decided to release Scarface by itself in 2007. On that note, it's time for all of you to say hello to MY little friend...
A Chicago speakeasy owned by Big Louis Costillo (a cinematic version of Colosimo) has just closed for the night. Costillo happens to be one of the biggest bootleggers in the city, though that night he is shot to death by a shadowy figure. The man responsible for the hit is Antonio 'Tony' Camonte (Paul Muni, I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang), a former Italian associate of Costillo's. When the local press eats up the story, they are convinced that a massive gang war will follow, because Costillo was the last of the "old-fashioned" bootleggers.
Police inspector Ben Guarino (C. Henry Gordon) is convinced that Camonte is responsible for Costillo's death, so he pays him a visit at a local barber shop, where Camonte is getting a shave with his best friend Guino Rinaldo (George Raft). Guarino demands that Camonte come downtown to the local precinct, and Tony responds by striking a match on Guarino's police badge. At the police station, Tony continues to exhibit his disrespect with his sarcasm and offensive candor while answering questions about the Costillo slaying. In the end, though, Tony provides a false alibi and is released.
Realizing that he is now under suspicion, Tony goes to his new boss Johnny Lovo (Osgood Perkins) for further instructions. Lovo tells Tony that he will be his number one when it comes to expanding his bootlegging business, though he warns him to stay out of the North Side. During the meeting, a knockout blonde enters the room and Tony is completely transfixed. Lovo introduces her as Poppy (Karen Morley), his moll of the moment. Tony is suave with her, and she responds by making a crack about his big facial scar. While he does manage to snag a few dates with her, Tony's ambitious nature has influenced him to start a massacre on the North Side competition, including a rival named Gaffney (Boris Karloff, Frankenstein). Soon enough, Tony Camonte becomes the richest and most dangerous gangster in the city, though he has a difficult time controlling his flirtatious sister Cesca (Ann Dvorak). Tony refuses to allow any man to touch her...though she has already begun to get romantically involved with Guino.
At only 93 minutes, Scarface moves along at a machine-gun pace combining strong violence with a harsh attitude. Indeed, this was probably the most violent movie released in the 1930s though, unlike today, it is done without an ounce of blood. However, in this film they actually used real bullets while firing all the tommy guns, which gives Scarface a sharp edge of realism. Plus, unlike the 1983 remake and other modern day gangster films, there are symbols employed for good measure. For example, the letter "X" is used many times as a dark foreshadowing to signal the fate of a character. The bowling alley sequence, in which Gaffney has acquired a large shipment of machine guns for the use of elminating Camonte, is especially well done with regard to the X-symbols. In this case, they serve as strikes, and after one gets marked on a scoresheet, Camonte and his gang ambush the place and brutally murder Gaffney and his henchman. The last one to get shot is the bowler who has just bowled. All the pins go down except one, followed by more gunshots, and the last pin finally drops, signaling that the bowler finally got killed. Genius!
Screenwriter Ben Hecht, along with several secondary writers, presents to us an intriguing window into Prohibition gangsters by making Camonte a reflection of Al Capone. Hecht gives his characters intelligent dialogue, and even manages to inject some humor in the form of character of Angelo, Tony's secretary...who is not the sharpest tool in the shed, needless to say. Probably the screenplay's greatest asset lies in the compelling character relationships, particulary between Camonte and the two women in his life: Cesca and Poppy.
Warner Bros. may have been successful with the gangster films starring James Cagney, though Scarface is no doubt about as close to an accurate presentation of Prohibition bootleggers you could hope for. The period detail is just incredible, showing the now long-gone speakeasies and sleazy side of Chicago in all its violent, sadistic glory. Howard Hughes is known to have been a perfectionist, as he invested quite a bit of money into this project...and it shows!
The film was directed by the legenedary Howard Hawks, who would become one of the most honored directors of all time. He later gave us such classics as Bringing Up Baby, The Big Sleep, and Gentleman Prefer Blondes. Hawks' style is original and layered, with action sequences that are expertly filmed, and his introduction to the title character is memorable. What distinguishes Hawks from other directors (i.e. De Palma) is that he doesn't linger on a set piece or plot point for too long, but just keeps the story moving, while at the same time effectively developing the characters. This was the first "talkie" he worked on (as silents had phased out by this time) and Hawks takes advantage of the film's brutal nature by enhancing the fights/gun battles with a riveting freshness. Kudos should also be given to his skilled editors: Edward Curtiss and an uncredited Lewis Milestone, the Oscar-winning director of All Quiet on the Western Front.
I wouldn't be surprised that those who worship the 1983 remake have a preconcieved notion about the actor that played Scarface here. In other words, they might think: "Whoever he is, he is no Al Pacino!" Those who think like that are truly misjudging the underrated Paul Muni, who was never an A-list star, though he did win a Best Actor Oscar in 1935 for The Story of Louis Pasteur. Some critics have noted that Muni occasionally goes over the top as Tony Camonte, though I must stipulate here that it is a powerhouse performance, combining believable menace with suggested insanity. Muni doesn't chew dialogue like Pacino does in the remake, but rather registers emotions while spouting his dialogue, which brings out the character's arrogance and initiative...though also a human side as well. Muni is at his best in the climactic sequence in which he truly realizes who and what he has become, though he still commmands throughout the entire picture.
The strong supporting cast includes George Raft, who was a staple in many gangster films of the 1930s, and he excels here as Tony's best friend. Guino has a habit of throwing a coin up in the air, and Raft would later poke fun at that trait when he played the head gangser Spats Colombo in Some Like It Hot. Remember the Florida gangster that is throwing a coin in the air and Raft snatches it and asks, "Where did you learn that cheap trick?" A cookie for you!
Audiences will also be treated to an early, non-horror performance by the celebrated Boris Karloff as Gaffney. The Uncanny had become famous a year before playing Frankenstein, and in the same year he played Imhotep in another Universal horror classic, The Mummy.
While it's true that the early years of Hollywood didn't offer strong, important roles for women due to sexism, the performances by the leading ladies in Scarface are really something to embrace, as they hold their own remarkably well against their male co-stars. Karen Morley, who passed away in 2003, is just superb as Poppy, the moll who at first doesn't think much of the slimy Tony, but does eventually become won over by his charm. (The Poppy character was later played by Michelle Pfeiffer in the remake, just to let you know.) Unfortunately, Morley was one of the unlucky actors whose career was shattered when she became blacklisted as a Communist. Despite all the grand performances in Scarface, the one that stands out for me is the unknown Ann Dvorak, who exudes equal parts tendersness, warmth, fear and sympathy as Tony's sister Cesca. While Mary Elizabeth Manstrantonio did a fine job in the '83 version as the troubled sister, Dvorak actually succeeded in making a tear come to my eye.
Even before shooting began in 1930, the Hays Office was determined to crack down of cinema indecency. To them, Scarface was the ultimate hot potato: a film that not only glorified gangsters but was also exceedingly violent. As a result, the release of the film was delayed and drastic edits were demanded. Apparantly, they thought that the film would be a bad influence on the public sphere, as it would inspire people to becom gangsters themselves, idealizing Tony's life. Hughes wasn't a man that was willing to give in too easily, so he actually contributed more money to bring the film back in production for re-shoots. As a result, an alternate ending was filmed which showed a different fate for Tony Camonte which emphasized proper justice. While Scarface seems tame today in terms of its violence, at the time it really pushed the envelope. The final death count was only about 30 people, which would make First Blood look like Driving Miss Daisy.
By 1932, the Hay's Office still demanded certain things, but by that time Hughes and Hawks had had enough and decided to release the film uncut (complete with the original ending) in areas which did not have censorship laws. Still, the studio insisted on an opening prologue, saying that the filmmakers were not glorifying gangsters in any way (sheesh!), and the title was changed to Scarface: The Shame of the Nation. However, the most important element that got softened in the final cut was the relationship between Tony and Cesca, which was strongly suggested to be incestuous. Granted, you can see a slightly disturbing undercurrent in the scenes with Muni and Dvorak though, needless to say, it got strengthened more in the remake. In the end, the film was a success though it was short-lived, and pressure from the Hay's Office resulted in United Artists removing Scarface from theaters. It wasn't until 1979, after Universal had acquired the film's rights, that the film was re-released to theaters. Oh, yeah, and among those who went to see the film were Brian de Palma and Al Pacino.
As for the DVD itself, Universal presents Scarface as part of its "Cinema Classics" collection, in its original 1.33:1 full frame. Considering the fact that this is a 75-year-old film, Universal has done a commendable job with the print, minimizing scratches and specks, and keeping the blacks and white equally saturated. The Dolby Digital 2.0 mono soundtrack serves the film well for the most part. English and french subtitles are provided.
My one quibble with the DVD is the lack of insightful special features, considering the fact that the '83 version has been released several times with documentaries, deleted scenes, etc. The "exclusive introduction" provided by Robert Osbourne (the host of Turner Classic Movies) is interesting, but unacceptable because it is all too obvious that it was recorded specifically for the DVD, and thus Osbourne could have added some more insight instead of just having the same dry, by the numbers style as his intros on TV. The only other bonus feature is the alternate ending that was filmed to satisfy the Hay's Office. While its inclusion is understandable, it is nowhere near as effective as the original ending. As a matter of fact, while watching it, I could almost feel the pressure that the actors were subjected to. This immortal film screams for an audio commentary or documentary, and it makes wanna me spit.
As many of you have guessed up until now, I'm not crazy about the 1983 remake directed by Brian de Palma. Being a film purist, I just don't understand why it has gotten so incredibly popular...so much that Pacino's Tony Montano, has become a bonafide My whole philosophy is that if films were great in the first place, then why remake them? Seriously, why? The answer is simple: Hollywood has no more originality and it's all about making money. We have had plenty of shitty remakes in recent years, like The Manchurian Candidate, Psycho, and Thirteen Ghosts.
Now, granted, I don't think that the remake of Scarface is a bad film, though it really is nothing more than an update with a 1980s makeover. I've seen both versions several times and have compared notes as to what has and has not been changed. The central storyline is pretty much the same, though the major difference is that 83 version has been blown up to three hours for no apparant reason and, quoting Leonard Maltin, it "contains no new insights except that crime doesn't pay."
What offends me the most, however, is the screenplay by Oliver Stone. Here is my theory as to what Stone did in writing the remake: he basically read Ben Hecht's original script, snorted some cocaine, changed the lead from being an Italian gangster to a Cooban Wefoogee, changed the business from bootlegging to drug dealing, expanded each scene to twice its length, added a chainsaw massacre, threw in a couple buckets of blood and finally, gave the revised character of Tony Montana dialogue that seems to consist of a one-word vocabulary (and the word rhymes with duck).
Stone also stole the motif of "The World is Yours" from the original and changed Camonte's "doing it" speech with this: "You gotta make the money first. Then when you get the money, you get the power. Then when you get the power, you get the woman!" The first time I heard this, I asked myself, "Who wrote that piece of shit?" Even though Stone did dedicate the script to Ben Hecht and Howard Hawks, I viewed it more as an insult than anything else. One more thing: compared to Tony Camonte, I found Montana to be a misogynist, uneducated asshole (just like Michelle Pfieffer's moll calls him), and found no reason to care about him, period. That is not to say that Pacino gave a good performance, though his extreme Cuban accent makes me snicker. Uncontrollably, to be honest.
People can say what they want though, in my opinion, I think that its absolutely shameful that the 1932 version of Scarface has been ignored and forgotten, particulalry when the remake would never have existed it it wasn't for the original. And, yes, I stand by that.
The film is acquitted, and Paul Muni is set free to spit and shoot up the neighborhood. However, Universal is found guilty of showing favortism to the remake and not including more special features for the original. Case dismissed.
Review content copyright © 2007 Christopher Kulik; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 93 Minutes
Release Year: 1932
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Exclusive Introduction by Turner Classics Host and Film Historian Robert Osbourne
* Rare Alternate Ending