I love the first words you see on the screen but they really date the picture:
From the book
Howard Hughes has become such a mythical figure it's as if the movie were produced by Zorro. Then there's the below-the-title nod to the book on which the movie is based. Obviously Hollywood cared more for words back then.
What's not dated about the picture is the apparent controversy surrounding it. Public Enemy, remember, began with a wordy pronouncment from the studio condemning gangsters in general, a sort of "We're not really glorifying gangsters even though Jimmy Cagney is electrifying" sheepish proclamation.
Scarface takes the opposite tack. In another wordy pronouncement, it condemns gang violence and then demands of the government: "What are you going to do about it?" The controversy even seeps into the film. Halfway through, a newspaper publisher defends his supposed glamorization of mobster Tony Camonte (Paul Muni) by telling a committee in his office that we can't ignore the problem, that it's up to "the people" to do something. "You are the government," the movie tells us earlier. All of this detracts from Camonte's story but alludes to the probable tensions during the making of the picture. Even back then Hollywood, the media, and the government were all pointing fingers at one another about who was or was not perpetuating violence.
Something else not dated? The direction by Howard Hawks. Not all Hollywood cameras were frozen by the introduction of sound. Hawks gives us some nice angles on street signs and plays well with the black-and-white shadows on the walls. A creepy atmosphere is introduced early as a ward boss is gunned down, in silhouette, by a whistling mobster. This nonchalant whistle prefigures all deaths and is probably a rip-off of Peter Lorre's child-murderer in Fritz Lang's M, but it's still effective.
Hawks' visual symbol for murder is the letter "x." Before and after the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, seven "x's" in the garage's architecture are shown, representing the seven mob leaders gunned down in cold blood. The last mob boss to get it, Boris Karloff's Gaffney, is bowling and has just thrown a strike (an "x" on the scoresheet). Nice image of the final pin spinning and dropping to represent Gaffney. When Camonte sticks it to his former right-hand man, the original coin-tossing mobster, Guino (George Raft), Guino is standing in the dooryway of room ten, or "X," and as he falls a large shadow of an "x" plays against the wall behind him.
Since this is pre-code Hollywood there's an overt sexuality to the picture, particularly in scenes between Camonte and Poppy (Karen Morley), John Lovo's and Camonte's moll.
Where does the picture fail? In its stated purpose to condemn gang violence. Like Public Enemy, the most dynamic figure is Camonte. He is carefree, brazen, almost child-like in the face of death. Gunned at in a restaurant, he shouts admiringly about the rival mobster's weapons. When he discovers his office has been torn apart, he shouts, almost happy, "Hey lookit! They been here, too!" Everything is an adventure to him. He's a big kid and the world is his candy store. There's no one like him in the movie. Everyone else is comic Italians with accents worse than Chico Marx, or puritanical cops and reporters with maniacal gleams in their eyes.
The movie betrays itself, too, by having Camonte who has been fearless throughout, even in the face of death suddenly turn yella. Crying, fleeing, he is shot down by the police. The camera then holds on a neon advertising sign that Camonte had often commented upon. "The World is Yours," it says, and to Camonte it meant "for the taking." With his death, the you has become pluralized and is directed back at the audience. It's up to you to get rid of the entertaining Camontes of the world and leave behind only tight-assed, bullying cops. Another mixed message from Hollywood.
September 8, 1999
© 1999 Erik Lundegaard