It’s three weeks into my gangster movie film studies class and I’m already tiring of the genre. Throw in the fact that next week’s film is the 1980s remake of the movie I’m about to review (and a film that I think is super over-rated) and, well, to quote G.O.B., “I’ve made a huge mistake.” Perhaps, it isn’t the gangster genre itself that I’m tiring of though, and maybe this weariness I suddenly feel towards the genre is just directly related to how little I care for the film that I watched a couple days ago (and only now found the time to review), 1932’s Howard Hawks’ “classic” Scarface. With the exception of Paul Muni’s deliciously theatrical performance and occasional moments of shocking violence and action (for a film from the early 30s), I found Scarface to be a tired, cliche-ridden (though it probably made many of the cliches), somewhat racist and overblown picture lacking the fun energy of The Public Enemy or White Heat.
Paul Muni (The Life of Emile Zola) plays Tony Camonte, the tough-talking, sadistic, Italian stereotype gangster at the heart of the film. After murdering his old boss at the behest of ambitious crime boss Johnny Lovo (Osgood Perkins), Tony, the scar-marked psychopath, slowly gains power and respect in the criminal underworld which he lords mercilessly over civilians and criminals alike, including his kid sister Cesca (Ann Dvorak) who Tony sees as his own personal property. As Tony’s ambitions rise and he starts to fall for his boss’s girl (Karen Morley), it’s only a matter of time til Tony Camonte tries to take over the rackets as his own boss. But will his greed and insatiable lust for violence prove his downfall?
Paul Muni is almost the film’s only saving grace and even he takes his portrayal to cartoonish heights. Unlike James Cagney, who could take a psychopath like Cody Jarret or Tom Powers and make them feel human, Muni and the film’s writing turn Tony into a caricature. Which isn’t to say that it isn’t fun to watch him do his thing though. He’s flamboyant, seductive, and able to flip from charmer to brutal sadist at a switch. The xenophobic, racist writing at the heart of the film can be blamed for most of the deficiencies in Muni’s performance but he’s certainly no Cagney and this performance doesn’t reach the high mark he set later with The Life of Emile Zola. Karen Morley also had some good moments as the femme fatale whose affection Tony desperately seeks.
Sadly, everything in the film features the same heavy-handedness that defined Tony’s characterization. Every character feels like a sad racial stereotype of Italian-American’s in the early 1900s. At one point, a cop even comes out and says that most criminals of the time were foreigners. The film reeks of xenophobia and racism. At least, Tom Powers and Cody Jarret weren’t tired racial stereotypes. Although the worst offender in this department was Tony’s mother who can only be called whatever the Italian equivalent of “blackface” would be. There’s no subtlety in the film although that was never Howard Hawks’ strongsuit or Howard Hughes (who produced the film). They just want to beat you over the head with the violence, crime, and sex and not leave any room for character development or interesting social commentary.
Still, despite its egregious shortcomings, Scarface had its moments where everything seemed to click. When they allowed Paul Muni to menace and terrify, the film moved in the right direction. Particularly, when it explored his borderline incestuous relationship with his sister Cesca, Scarface brought something new to the table that other films weren’t handling much better. And, when it could temper its own excesses and overblown caricatures, it was a legitimately entertaining film that simply suffered from a fatally flawed structure holding those good pieces together. At the end of the day though, Scarface is held up as one of the defining films of the gangster movie genre. I honestly can’t figure out why, but if you consider yourself a student of the art, it’s probably worth a look or two. Just don’t be surprised when it hasn’t aged well.
Final Score: C+