Scarface: The Original Gangster Classic

Scarface (or Scarface: Shame of a Nation) is an American Pre-Code era gangster film, released by United Artists in 1932, and loosely based on the life of Al Capone. Scarface was produced by Howard Hughes, directed by Howard Hawks, with Paul Muni in the lead role of criminal Tony “Scarface” Camonte.

Tony Camonte has strong ambitions to rise through Chicago’s mob hierarchy by assassinating his enemies, beginning with the murder of the former head of the bootlegging crime syndicate Big Lou Costillo. We first get a close-up of Tony Camonte in a barber’s shop in Chicago, where he laughs off intense police questioning. Tony is willing to kill anybody and swiftly becomes bootlegging boss Johnny Lovo’s number two.

Tony has a controlling and possessive relationship with his headstrong sister Cesca, which borders on incestuous. Nevertheless, he pursues Johnny Lovo’s girlfriend Poppy and eventually wins her over.

Tony’s violent ambitions are raised when he decides to declare war on the North Side, sending his close friend Guino to kill O’Hara. Retaliation is inevitable from the newly installed North Side gang leader Gaffney.

In the background, the police are waiting for the chance to bring Tony to justice.

Based on the book Scarface by Armitage Trail, Ben Hecht wrote the screenplay and Howard Hawks directed the picture. Hecht and Hawks began their illustrious film careers in the 1920s and Scarface was the perfect platform to show off their talents.

Ben Hecht had previously worked as a journalist in Chicago and had met gangster Al Capone, who was the inspiration for the lead character. During filming, Hecht received a visit from a few mobsters who wanted to know if the movie would be a biography of Capone. On release, Al Capone reportedly loved the movie so much that he bought a private copy.

Along with Hecht, W.R. Burnett, John Lee Mahin, and Seton I. Miller contributed to the writing. The stunning cinematography is by Lee Garmes and L.W. O’Connell.

Howard Hughes had ensured that multiple action sequences and violence were inserted to keep the film exciting, but the Hays Office censorship was less than happy with the final product. Will Hays, chairman of the Hays Office (also known as the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors of America) aimed to censor sexuality, drug use, and crime and felt that Scarface had more than crossed the line. Scarface is a very violent film with at least 28 murders on screen.

To accommodate the Hays Office, there were many compromises made such as a reworded title from Scarface to Scarface: The Shame of the Nation, the deletion of the word “Scarface” from the dialogue (although you can visibly see Cisca mouthing the word “Scarface” when calling her brother a murderer) , and the inclusion of the customary pre-code disclaimer prologue.

The Hays Office wanted Scarface to be less sympathetic to the lead characters or have them punished or that they become apologetic for their crimes. After repeated demands for script rewriting, Howard Hughes ordered Hawks to direct the film and told him to “screw the Hays office, make it realistic, and grisly as possible”. This did not please the Hays Office and they were outraged at the screening because they felt it broke the Hays code by creating sympathy for the brutish Tony, the problematic brother-sister relationship, and the violence.

To receive approval, Howard Hughes deleted the more violent scenes, requested a new ending, and added a prologue but Hawks refused to re-film any sequences, which were left to Richard Rossen. Scarface was banned in numerous states, which forced Hughes to remove the film from circulation. The rights to the film were restored following Hughes’ death in 1976. Three versions of the film are available today although no unaltered versions are known to exist.

Scarface is a masterpiece of the genre. The dialogue is superb and is enhanced by the acting talents from the perfect cast, especially the brilliant Paul Muni playing Scarface with brutish ferocity. According to acclaimed French director François Truffaut, Hawks deliberately shot Muni as a wild animal to convey the brutality.

The supporting cast is splendid, most notably George Raft as the iconic coin flipping Guino Rinaldo, Ann Dvorak (as Tony’s sister Cesca), Karen Morley as Poppy, Osgood Perkins (as Johnny Lovo), and horror actor Boris Karloff as Irish gangster Tom Gaffney.

In 1983, director Brian De Palma released his remake of the film, which stars Al Pacino in the lead and moves the setting from Chicago to 1980s Miami. On the final shot of the remake, this tribute to the 1932 picture appears: “This film is dedicated to Howard Hawks and Ben Hecht”. That version has become a cult classic and is a decent remake.

The original 1932 version of Scarface is easily the best though and stands up to multiple viewings. The film was added to the National Film Registry in 1994 by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and it is also influential, inspiring the likes of Martin Scorsese who is a huge fan of the movie. There were other gangster films made before Howard Hawks’ original version of Scarface, but none were quite as violent or as powerful.

Paul Muni (1895 -1967) was an acclaimed actor who was nominated for an Academy Award five times with one win.
He was born in Lviv in Ukraine (formerly Lemberg in the Austria-Hungarian Empire).

Recommended other gangster classics from the early 1930s: Little Caesar (1931) starring Edward G. Robinson and Public Enemy (1931) starring James Cagney.

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