Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Before I Die #574: Scarface: The Shame of a Nation (1932)

This is the 574th movie I've now seen from the 1,177 movies on the "Before You Die" list that I'm gradually working through. 

Yes, you're reading that right - Boris
Karloff of Frankenstein fame was in
this movie. 
Director: Howard Hawks

One of three films in the 1930s that marked a major historical turning point for gangster movies, and one that shows no small amount of technical skill. Still, the outdated elements and styles are impossible to ignore.

One of several films in the 1930s which used the infamous (and then still-living) Al Capone as its subject, Scarface: The Shame of a Nation was billed as a criticism of the gangster lifestyle and of society's glamorization of it. For the most part, the movie lives up to that claim. Similar to the the previous year's The Public Enemy, the movie even starts with a disclaimer and admonition of the "celebrity criminal", and states that the movie's protagonist, Tony, represents a type of disease in American society which must be wiped out. Even more than The Public Enemy, Scarface makes sure that it strips much of the glamour away from the oft-exploited cool gangster characters long popularized in U.S. culture.

Like James Cagney's Tom Powers character in The Public Enemy, the fictional Tony is inspired by the most infamous criminal of that time - Al Capone. From the first moments, it is clear that Tony is a cold-blooded killer, assassinating a rival gang boss while idly whistling a cheery tune. His vicious and power-hungry disposition is never in question at any moment. In his dealings with rival gang members, fellow gang members, or even friends and relatives, Tony makes no bones about how he will let nothing come between him and his acquisition of money and power. While he does show a mild dash of charm and subtlety when attempting to woo his boss's girlfriend, this is still a maneuver motivated by his own lust and recklessness. While the message is effectively delivered, it does become a bit of a one-note tone. There is a moment at the end when he shows a distorted form of affection for his sister, but for the most part, we are not meant to empathize with or admire him in any way. For these things, the movie was fairly unique for its time.

The technical aspects of the movie are a mixed bag. The movie still looks great, with brilliant uses of camera angles, visual storytelling, and shadows which evoke what the great noir movies would begin doing several years later. The pacing is also steady, clocking in at a brisk 93 minutes, during which there are almost no wasted scenes. However, the movie does suffer from the typical weaknesses of films from the era. Namely, occasionally-uninspired dialogue that is now silly from constant parody, and more than a few hammed-up performances. The legendary Paul Muni is often fiercely magnetic as Tony, but even he seemed to have trouble locking into the Italian-American accent that he was attempting to maintain. Many of the other actors are stuck in the exaggerated methods of the time, when movies were still only a few years removed from the advent of sound.

Tony (middle) puts on his sleazy charm to his boss's woman.
Handing his hat to his boss is a more subtle power move. 
It is interesting to note that there were two endings shot for the movie - the intended one which was actually shown in theaters, and one which was shot in an attempt to appease censors in states like New York, where the boards were threatening to boycott the film. The latter ending was actually still rejected by censors, leading the film producers to simply release the film only in states which had no censorship boards. It's a curious thing to watch both endings, for while Tony's ultimate fate is essentially unchanged, the way that it plays out sends two rather different messages to the audience.

One other curiosity is that this 1932 film is, as its name suggests, the original version of Brian De Palma's well-known 1983 remake starring Al Pacino as a Cuban-born immigrant who moves to take over the cocaine trade in Miami. It was rather fascinating to see just how many elements De Palma took from the original, despite its having been over 50 years old at the time. While I am often of two minds about De Palma, I think he did a masterful job of adapting the 1932 version for modern audiences, maintaining the spirit of the original while updating most of the aspects to which time had been rather unkind.

The movie is certainly worth checking out for anyone who appreciates the history of gangster movies, even if it hasn't completely stood the test of time.