Having recently seen Howard Hawks’s original Scarface, as well as Brian DePalma’s 1983 remake, for the second time each, I was struck by how similar they were. My foggy recollection was that DePalma’s campy version was, er, quite a loose imagining of Hawks’s version. As it turns out, I was half right—DePalma’s Scarface is faithful to the original’s characters and storyline far more than I remembered, but its aim is very different. While DePalma sought to entertain with a pulpy, over-the-top take, Hawks displayed balls of steel, using the filmic medium to challenge the free reign of mobsters in the 1930’s.
Completed in 1930 but released in 1932—when Al Capone ruled Chicago gangland—Hawks’s Scarface was pulled back after its first run, presumably for fear of mob repercussions. To even get it initially released, producer Howard Hughes was forced to significantly tone down the violence, add a subtitle (“Shame of a Nation”, which indicts America’s passive approach to ending Mafioso activity) to the opening credits, and insert some politically condemnations here and there. Despite these regulations, Scarface is still shockingly bold for its time, holding up marvelously today as an anti-gangster picture—it’s particularly strong, considering our current adverse situation in Iraq. Whether Capone would have deemed it prudent to take on a major Hollywood director is questionable—though in 1932, Hawks hadn’t really built his reputation yet—but it certainly must have been in Hawks’s mind while making Scarface. While Tony Camonte (Paul Muni) isn’t a mirror image of Capone, he’s clearly a symbolic, cinematic reincarnation of the legendary ringleader. Indeed, the alternate title—Scarface: The Shame of a Nation—speaks volumes about Hawks’s intentions, and his feelings about America in the Depression.
Set in Chicago, Scarface is the story of the aforementioned Camonte, a power-hungry mobster whose thirst for blood grows with every murder and blackmail he commits. Initially, Camonte is merely a bodyguard for warlord Big Louis Costillo—one of the last of the old-school mob leaders—but after Costillo is mysteriously snuffed out, presumably by Johnny Lovo (Osgood Perkins), Camonte graduates to assistant henchman, and shoots his way up the ladder until he’s capo. As Scarface draws to a close, Camonte is shot dead—a fantastical interpretation of what Hawks hopes to see, the demise of the Mafioso operation—but not until he’s instigated a bloody massacre that takes countless lives, including that of his sister Cesca (Ann Dvorak), a beautiful 19-year-old who rebelled against her overprotective, thuggish brother.
I’ve always thought of Hawks as a meat-and-potatoes director, but he really goes for broke in Scarface. I wonder…did that make the studios more wary of giving Hawks visual leeway in the future? His later work—Only Angels Have Wings (1939), His Girl Friday (1940), The Big Sleep (1946), for instance—is pretty much typical Hollywood in terms of the mise-en-scène: shot // reverse-shot, standard framing, etc. Great films, all, but I can’t think of a sequence that stands out as revolutionary or extraordinary. In Scarface, however, there are several: the St. Valentine’s Day massacre—where Camonte’s boys line up a slew of men and mow them down with machine gun fire; it’s a chilling shot of their shadows crumpling to the ground—is particularly memorable, and exceedingly violent for its time. Other gutsy highlights include a slaughter in a flower shop, Camonte’s titillating discovery of machine guns—he becomes starry-eyed like a kid in a candy store—and his evident incestuous feelings for his sister (despite his sexual pursuit of Poppy (Karen Morley), who was formerly Johnny’s mistress). I imagine Scarface was among the first pictures to present such controversial themes—and images— without blushing. Its subtlety and ability to tackle such a range of important societal issues keeps Hawks’ Scarface powerful today.
DePalma’s cultish remake keeps Hawks’s plot, but shifts the scene to 1980’s Miami, where Cuban refugee Tony Montana (Al Pacino) is climbing the proverbial ladder himself. With his friend Manny Ray (Steven Bauer) at his side, Montana blazes his way to the top of the drug ring. Along the way, he steals Elvira (Michelle Pfeiffer) from his boss Frank (Robert Loggia), and builds an empire the likes of which has never been seen. Unfortunately, his greed and power-hungry demeanor never take a break…nor does his need for cocaine. They ultimately lead to his downfall. Scarface (1983) glorifies and enhances everything about the original—the violence is frequent, furious, and vicious: chainsaws, pools of blood, severed limbs, non-stop cursing…. As a result, it’s difficult to view DePalma’s version as a social commentary, even though it’s certainly an indictment on the swelling drug smuggling problems of the 1980’s. Pacino’s hammy performance is a blast, but it lacks any restraint to make us care about Montana’s fate. When he finally falls in a smoky, gory finale, I didn’t really care—frankly, it was long overdue. Personally, I had nothing invested in Montana, which is genuinely how campy films operate—they’re a trip, but it’s rare that they inspire any lingering thought. Other souped-up elements in the remake include Tony’s relationship with his sister Gina (she actually bares herself to him near the end—there’s nothing ‘hinted’ at in the 1983 film), and Elvira’s important role. In Scarface (1932), Poppy is an object of Camonte’s hormonal urges and lust for power, but it’s brushed over delicately. DePalma’s version is rife with brief encounters between Pacino & Pfeiffer, and they’re often full of venom…when the two aren’t fucking, that is.
None of Scarface’s (1983) differences make it a bad film, though. Even though it’s overlong at 170 minutes, it’s still a lot of fun, the acting is perfect for the tone, and it’s richer than the majority of cult hits. Hey, DePalma loves blood and guts—nothing wrong with that! However, there are simply too many cinephiles out there who rank it among their favorite movies…without having seen Hawks’s far superior version! That’s inexcusable, and could possibly be more easily remedied if a DVD print was readily available here in America—unfortunately, I had to obtain my copy from Australia on e-bay, though it can be obtained in the deluxe Scarface (1983) DVD box set. That said, try your hardest to track down Scarface (1932)—anyone with a passing interest in Mafioso history, or top-notch early American cinema would do well to view it.
Scarface (1932) – 82/100
Scarface (1983) – 59/100