DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: SCARFACE (1932)

Friday 11 July 2008


Scarface (1932) dir. Howard Hawks
Starring: Paul Muni


Despite 50 years between Howard Hawks’ “Scarface” and Brian De Palma’s “Scarface” they are surprisingly similar. This perhaps is due in part to Brian De Palma’s reverence for classic cinema (he is the master at ‘borrowing’ from the great films), but also the fact that the original is film still top notch dramatic entertainment.

Oliver Stone who wrote the new film retains the fundamental structure of Ben Hecht’s original screenplay (by way of Armitrage Trail’s novel). Tony “Scarface” Camonte (Paul Muni) is muscle for Chicago gangster Johnny Lovo – think Robert Loggia’s character Frank. Lovo and Camonte has consolidated the local mobsters in the south side to rival their bitter enemies in the north. With Camonte’s love of action and quest for power he can’t resist invading the territories in the north side against Lovo’s strict orders. A rift develops between Lovo and Camonte, and it only takes the slightest hesitation for Lovo to lose out to Camonte’s kill-first tactics. With Camonte leading the mob, it becomes an all out war in Chicago.

We also get to know Camonte’s family life – his best friend Rinaldi (George Raft) is his trusted ally – think Steven Bauer’s character Manny – his sister Cesca (Ann Dvorak), his mother, and like the Pacino version, Camonte aggressively pines after the boss' girlfriend, Poppy. Substitute Michelle Pfieffer for Karen Morely.

De Palma's version kept beat for beat intact the core relationship between Camonte, his best friend, and his sister. Like Tony Montana, Camonte is over protective of his sister, and when she disappears to marry his best friend Rinaldi, Camonte’s obsessed mind boils over with the Shakespearean-worthy tragedy. The climatic scene when he kills his best friend is equally powerful.

The film was produced by Howard Hughes, and his independent and maverick hands are all over the film. The violence was condemned back in the day, for glorifying the gangster lure which aggrandized thugs like Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly and John Dillinger. Perhaps this explains the conspicuous opening text crawl which tells the audience about their intentions and how to feel about organized crime. There’s also a blatantly political scene in the middle of the film when a group of politicians present a ‘call to action’ against organized crime. The orator even speaks directly to camera addressing ordinary citizens (ie. the audience) to stand up and against this tyranny.

Hughes was a smart man, and so perhaps this was appeasement for including his bloody and violent ending, which was toned down and reshot in an alternate but unused version. The Universal DVD has both, and I much prefer the original and more violent. Hughes stood by his guns to keep HIS ending, and it worked.

The greatest compliment De Palma/Stone paid to the original – other than De Palma's final dedication to Hecht/Hawks before the tail credits – is the inclusion of the thematic billboard which both Camonte and Montana look up to in the sky. Midway through “Scarface 83’ after Tony Montana takes over Frank’s business, he looks up and reads a sign off a blimp – it reads, “The World is Yours’ (embellished by that great pulsating Giorgio Moroder music sting!). Tony Camonte does the exact same thing. Instead of a blimp he takes inspiration from a billboard atop a building. This thematic reference of the 1932 “Scarface” was still relevant in 1983, and is still relevant today – a warning sign of how the American dream can easily be manipulated and distorted and create the evil monsters of Tony Montana and Tony Camonto. Enjoy

1 comment :

Big Mike Mendez said...

Funny, I recently watched the documentary F*ck in which a woman was talking about how remakes are often more vulgar and use harsher language than the original. They cited DePalma's Scarface as an example, to which I laughed out loud because of the controversy surrounding Hawks' version that they must have forgotten about.