One of the oldest film genres is the crime drama. Almost from the start of the talking pictures crazy of the early thirties portrayals of the outlaw criminals memorized audiences, permitting them to vicariously participate in the life of crime so prominent in the newspaper headlines. Without a doubt the film that cemented the formula for this type of film was the 1932 Scarface. When watching this film you really have to let go of the sensibilities we posses here in the beginning of the 21st century and look at as the audience did over seventy years ago. If you think the MPAA is tough with its guidelines the Production Code of Ethics reflected the moral touchstone for films back then. For example, although about 30 deaths are depicted you never see the blood. This is a far cry from the gallons of fake blood that are typical of films today. The film was pushed through to release due in large part to the force of will of the un-credited producer, Howard Hughes. The story was not so loosely based on the life and times of the bootleg criminal overlord Al Capone. Many of the characters of the film are thinly disguised real associates of this brutal man. Tony Camonte (Paul Muni) starts out as a poor but very determined young man. Tired of scratching out a meager living working for middle level gangsters he sets out to make a name for himself written in the (unseen here) blood of other criminals. Tony’s boss Johnny Lovo (Osgood Perkins) not only has the money and power that Tony desires but also the woman he wants, Poppy (Karen Morley). There is a very strange triangle set up here, especially consider the times. Besides wanting Poppy Tony has an implied incestuous relationship with his wild child sister Cesca (Ann Dvorak). Although the code of ethics did not demand this sub plot’s removal the director removed all but the hint of the relationship on his own. By just leaving the sub text here the stormy relationship between these two head strong siblings comes across in a subtle but powerful way. For its time this film was the epitome of violence. While comparisons to the eighties remake are inevitable try to refrain from making them. Take this film for what it was then and remains today, a look at a time in America where prohibition elevated criminals to cult hero status. The film goes out if its way to denounce this trend by being one of the first crime films and by showing the fatal, brutal reality of a life of crime. While many people saw these criminals as just someone supplying the need for the illegal alcohol this film demystifies these folk heroes as men drive by greed, lust and violence.
The acting in this film may seem contrived to many watching this film, especially those not familiar with the early days of movies. Still, the performances do hold up to cotemporary standards, they just don’t have actors like this anymore. Muni is perfectly cast as the almost psychotic Tony. While many performances in these early days were experimental, talkies were very new then, but here Muni shows a depth to his presentation. Tony is shown as a conflicted man, one torn between concern for his family and his lust for absolute power. George Raft is the typical tough guy, a role that he commanded throughout his career. His famous coin flipping affectation started in this film and became his trade mark. Dvorak plays the role of Cesca with flair. Her character is strong willed and wild, much to the dismay of her powerful brother. The incestuous aspects of her relationship with her brother are nicely underplayed. Now this would be pushed to the foreground to add shock the audience, here the theme comes across almost below the consciousness of the viewers. It’s a nice change to return to a time when movies permitted the audience to have some degree of intelligence rather than feeling the need to force feed every ‘dirty’ detail. Osgood Perkins, father of Tony Perkins, nails his role. As the current crime lord he embodies the character. This is the type of man that became a folk hero back then but he is shown by this performance as just another crook albeit with better clothes and more money than most.
Howard Hawks was one of the most ground breaking yet unheralded directors in the history of film. He was constantly passed over for the Oscar, nominated only once in 1942 for Sgt. York. In 1975 he finally received a long over due special Oscar for his body of work. His use of camera angles, lighting and the set up of every shot remains today a text book for young directors. Here he was one of the first directors to utilize a visual reoccurring theme or leitmotif to reinforce the action. With almost ever death an ‘X’ is seen, the character is literally crossed out of life. The ‘X’ takes many forms, a strike recorded on a bowling score sheet, the straps of a gown, wooden beams etc. Rather than just push the violence on the audience Hawks works on the subconscious mind. This was taken to a new level by Hitchcock but it all began here. The way Hawks moves the camera, the pans over the results of violence, the emotional close-ups all add to the overall effect of this film. Although talking movies was a new thing then Hawks had a grasp on how to blend the visual with the spoken word. He was able to give an indictment of the acceptability of mob related violence while still creating an entertaining movie that still holds together seventy years after its release. This film was so ground breaking that it was literally banned in much of the country back in 1932. Many did not get to see this opus until its re-release by Universal in 1979.
Previously the only way you can currently get this piece of film history is as an extra to the deluxe box set of the reissue of the 1983 remake. This was a shame since this release when this was a limited release that is now very difficult to obtain. The extra cost was worth the money, especially since the two films packaged together permits the viewer the experience of seeing both films back to back. Thankfully, this film is now available on its own DVD. The film is old and the ravages of time have taken their toll but overall the quality of this DVD holds up. The full frame video exhibited some flecks and flaws but the contrast between light and shadow remains. The mono sound track is flat, especially by today’s touchstones. I found that by passing the digital bitstream and Dolby mono and using the Prologic ‘theater’ mode added the feel of what this film must have sounded like for its initial release. Bottom line, this is a must have film.