Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): The Favorites - Scarface (#72)

Friday, January 15, 2016

The Favorites - Scarface (#72)


The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Scarface (1932/USA/dir. Howard Hawks) appeared at #72 on my original list.

What it is • Shot in black-and-white that glistens, and scored with a barrage of crackling machine-gun fire, Scarface is a talkie that exhibits all of the charm of Hollywood's early sound period and few of the drawbacks. Director Howard Hawks employs dozens of clever audiovisual ideas to illustrate the rise of Chicago hoodlum Tony Camonte (Paul Muni) during Prohibition. Many of these inventive techniques put a cinematic gloss on brutal murder: an opening long take that uses suggestive sound and shadow to "depict" the first of many killings; the repetition of Expressionistic "X"'s (created by crossbeams, doorways, and other props) atop dead gangsters; and the whip-pan execution of Camonte's final rival (a clipped, glowering Boris Karloff) as he bowls a perfect strike (which, of course, is marked on the score sheet as an "X"!). Collaborating with writer Ben Hecht (whose "Out of my way, Johnny, I'm gonna spit!" is pure pulp poetry), Hawks borrows from the Borgias to lend Camonte an unnatural feeling for his little sister (Ann Dvorak). Meanwhile, he pursues the moll (Karen Morley) of his boss (Osgood Perkins) whom Camonte will depose in bed, boardroom, and body. Producer Howard Hughes fought his way to big box office earnings through a minefield of censorship and opposition, filming two different endings, adding the subtitle "Shame of a Nation" and most absurdly, shoehorning in an extended sequence in which "upstanding citizen" types speak moralistically into the camera (my favorite character is the out-of-nowhere Italian-American who pops up in a cutaway to intone in a ridiculously exaggerated accent, "He is a disgrace-a to my people!"). Hawks disclaims any responsibility for this passage which stops the film cold not just narratively but aesthetically, shot as it is in a clumsy static wide shot, with poor lighting. But its unintentionally hilarity actually complements the surrounding film with its sharp contrast. Scarface is beautiful as hell, but it doesn't make a damn thing look pretty: not the stupidity of its protagonist, not the rather shocking level of violence, not the lust for power of Tony's relentless rise and fall.

Why I like it •
Like its remake (also included on this list), Scarface is cheerfully vulgar without being dumb. A sort of brutalist masterpiece, the film is a bit rough around the edges and makes no pretense of grandeur or romance. Ideas and moments arrive in jagged succession one after the other, like jigsaw puzzle pieces that don't quite cohere into any sort of slick package. Each moment thrives on its own terms: this is termite art at its finest and its pleasures are those of life lived in the unreflective present, on the knife's edge of death, without sentiment or apology but with plenty of good humor. Indeed, much of the film plays as comedy (upon this rewatch I was reminded of the standalone buddy routines and comic setpieces of The Wolf of Wall Street), from the obvious shenanigans of Tony's clueless henchman (Vince Barnett) to the leering, oblivious charisma of Tony himself. The "good guys" of the establishment, reduced to near-grotesque cameos, leave absolutely no positive impression. The film belongs entirely to Tony and his motley crew (including George Raft's star-making turn as a coin-flipping Lothario). The censor-inserted scene is all the more glaring because Scarface is a movie without any overt morality, or even self-conscious psychology. Tony's behavior isn't ever really explained, contextualized, or judged, it just is - the entire film exists as a burst of communicative energy linking his nervous system to ours. This is, perhaps above all else, Howard Hawks' achievement: the ability to imprint clear, precise, unpretentious images on our brain (think how simply yet effectively Muni's mug is revealed in the barber's chair, probably the moment that made me fall in love with Hawks' style after some initial resistance). Consistently able to craft economical masterpieces, Hawks was attuned to the central phenomenon of the movies: their ability, through gesture and expression, to fill us with a feeling. It may be high, it may be low (usually it's somewhere in between), but in his hands it's always deliciously pure.

How you can see it • Scarface is available on DVD from Netflix and can be viewed through a paywall on YouTube. I wrote about it early in my blogging career, pairing it in a hypothetical double feature with its similarly-themed (and -named) contemporary, Baby Face.

What do you think? • Do you prefer the original or the remake? What connections (and differences) do you see between the two? Does the acting style, pacing, or story construction take you out of the film or amplify your enjoyment? Do you sympathize with the characters, find them appalling, or enjoy observing them regardless of sympathy? Is the film a comedy, a tragedy, both, or neither? How does it compare with other early gangster classics like Little Caesar or The Public Enemy? How about with later, post-Production Code gangster films, or those of an even later era like The Godfather or Goodfellas? Does it feel of a piece with later Howard Hawks films, and if not how and why does it differ?

• • •

Next week: Jaws (#71)

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