Filmsite Movie Review
Scarface: The Shame of the Nation (1932)
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Scarface: The Shame of the Nation (1932) is one of the boldest, most potent, raw and violently-brutal gangster-crime films ever made. Released by United Artists, this sensational production chronicles the predictable but tragic rise and fall of a notorious gangster figure.

The controversial film was in the planning stages in 1930 - to be produced by versatile co-producer/director Howard Hawks and co-producer Howard Hughes. A working script was readied by January 1931, and after about three months of filming, it was completed later in the year. Although the film was scheduled for release in January 1932, its opening was delayed for a few more months due to Hawks' and Hughes' continuing squabbles with industry censors over its sensationalism and glorification of the gangster menace, and issues regarding the film's retitling.

Therefore, this tough, pioneering film could not claim to be at the forefront of the gangster talking film craze in the early 30s. That honor fell to two earlier Warner Bros. films that defined the genre (the three films formed a trilogy, of sorts):

  • Little Caesar (1930) with Edward G. Robinson as snarling Chicago kingpin Caesar Enrico "Rico" Bandello, by director Mervyn LeRoy, with its famous last line: "Mother of Mercy - is this the end of Rico?"
  • Public Enemy (1931) with James Cagney as a pugnacious gangster, a sociological treatise by director William Wellman

Once again, a Howard Hawks-directed film was ignored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences - the film received no nominations. The screenplay for the violent, action-packed, visually expressionistic film was written in eleven days by Chicago native Ben Hecht using his Chicago newspaper experiences, with continuity and dialogue provided by Seton I. Miller, John Lee Mahin, and W. R. Burnett. The script was based on the 1930 novel Scarface by Armitage Trail (a pseudonym for Maurice Coons). But Trail's novel, although it was inspired by the exploits of Chicago's Depression-Era underworld vice lord/gangster Alfonso Capone (nicknamed "Scarface"), bore little resemblance to the finished film. Capone was already in jail beginning in 1931, and serving an eleven-year sentence in federal prison in Atlanta for income tax-evasion. He was released early in 1939 and died non-violently of syphilis in 1947.

Many similarities existed between the film's characters and actual organized crime figures and events of the time:

In the Film
Actual Crime Figures or Events
Antonio "Tony" Camonte (nicknamed "Scarface"), an Italian immigrant working for Johnny Lovo Al Capone, Chicago gangster
John "Johnny" Lovo, Tony's mobster boss Johnny Torrio, crime figure
Tony's murder of "Big Louis" Costillo, the crime boss of the city's South Side The murder of Capone's first boss, "Big Jim" Colosimo, a rackets crime czar
The hospital murder of wounded gang rival Meehan The 1931 murder of notorious gangster Legs Diamond while sleeping in a hotel room
Rival North Side Irish boss O'Hara's murder in his flower shop by Tony's right-hand man Guino (George Raft) The 1924 killing of Capone's Irish, North Side enemy Charles Dion O'Bannion in a flower shop
The restaurant drive-by shooting led by Gaffney (Boris Karloff), one of the last members of O'Hara's gang The 1927 drive-by shooting of a restaurant led by Capone's rival, Hymie Weiss
Assassination of seven men in a garage (including two who impersonated officers) The notorious St. Valentine's Day massacre (the slaughter of seven members of George "Bugs" Moran's gang on February 14, 1929)
The murder of Gaffney by Tony's gang in a bowling alley The 1936 murder of Capone's former mobster "Machine Gun" Jack McGurn in a bowling alley

The gangsters in the film are often portrayed as ignorant, remorseless, and childish criminals who couldn't comprehend the enormity of their transgressions. Tribute was paid to the film by Brian De Palma's remake Scarface (1983) with Al Pacino as the scar-faced title character - who was redefined as an exile from Castro's Cuba to Florida in the early 1980s. (De Palma's film was dedicated to Ben Hecht.)

To give the violent, tragi-comedy film respectability, to de-glamorize the folk-hero nature of the gangster, and to appease the forces of censorship, a number of restrictions or changes were imposed before the film could be released with the MPAA seal of approval:

  • an added sub-title was required [its original title was simply Scarface, and the first suggested retitle was The Menace] to illustrate that the film was not a glorification, but an indictment of gangsterism
  • an apologetic, moral statement was tacked to the beginning of the film
  • various cuts, erasures, voice-overs and changes were made throughout
  • Tony Camonte's mother was shown expressing disapproval of her son's behavior - she calls him "bad" and "no-good"
  • although there were almost 30 deaths in the film, blood was never shown, and even more deaths occurred off-screen
  • moralistic, denunciatory speeches, in a prologue and epilogue, were added by a Chief of Detectives and a newspaper publisher (several scenes were directed by Richard Rosson),
  • "the public" was blamed for the existence of gangs, rather than law enforcement officials: "Don't blame the police. They can't stop machine guns from being run back and forth across the state lines. They can't enforce laws that don't exist"
  • an alternative, moralistic, sermonizing (and emasculated) second ending (substituted for the shootout) was created to condemn the gangster as cowardly and show his sentencing and retributory punishment (hanging) by an effective justice system
  • muted hints of an incestuous attachment between the main protagonist and his sister, one of the film's sub-themes, supposedly went uncontested, or the most obvious references to incest were removed by Hawks himself

The film was heralded as an example of the kind of protection the Hollywood Production Code of Ethics could provide to the movie-going public when implemented in 1934. Due to squabbles over the film's release and the hue and cry over its depiction of the world of gangsterism, the film ultimately didn't do well at the box office. It was banned in several states, versions varied from state to state (due to varying boards of censors) and showings were delayed over a year in Chicago. Foreign sales were also limited, and Nazi Germany permanently prohibited the film's showing. After Hughes withdrew it from circulation, it was rarely seen in the United States for almost fifty years, and wasn't widely available until it was reissued by Universal Studios in 1979.

Black humor was provided by a number of elements, including: the main character's single-minded and loyal secretary Angelo, and a blonde moll who visibly admired and was turned on by the ape-like, power-mad gangster's violent spells. This film also contained the first instance of George Raft's trademark coin-flipping (reprised in Raft's later film Some Like It Hot (1959)). The film inventively used a visual "X" motif throughout to signal that a murder was imminent. The X symbol took such varied, prolific forms as shadows, gown straps, wooden cross-beams, a facial scar, a door number, and a strike symbol on a bowling score sheet. These instances will be illustrated in the text below.

Plot Synopsis

The film's opening title credits are presented above a large painted black X, scrawled in the background of the frame. Scarface is prefaced with a critical, written statement to indict gangster hoodlumism and the public's and government's indifference. The audience is blamed (and then challenged) for promoting the role of the gangster with its perverse fascination in the phenomenon of mob activity:

This picture is an indictment of gang rule in America and of the callous indifference of the government to this constantly increasing menace to our safety and our liberty. Every incident in this picture is the reproduction of an actual occurrence, and the purpose of this picture is to demand of the government: 'What are you going to do about it?' The government is your government. What are YOU going to do about it?

The film quickly sets the scene of the Chicago underworld and its major characters in seven short sequences:

(1) The Murder of a Local Crime Figure: In the early morning as dawn approaches, the electrical lamp post on 22nd Street outside a big-city cafe is extinguished. A milkman delivers his wares from a horse-drawn cart (with the clanking of milk bottles) - he departs with the sound effects of the horses' hooves clip-clopping off-screen. An all-night Stag Party (New Years' Eve?) has been held by the 1st Ward. The camera tracks to the right following a tired, yawning janitor-waiter (Gino Corrado) as he goes about his work, sweeping debris and collecting remnants of confetti that dangle from the ceiling and lie in piles on the floor. He picks up a large white brassiere from the floor with his left hand, and stashes a falsie (nipple cover) inside his shirt. The camera continues to move to the right where three drunken men (the last remaining group) are engaged in conversation at one of the tables. "Big Louis (Louie)" Costillo (Harry J. Vejar), an old-style gangster/boss on "top of the world" [the highest level of achievement that gangsters aspire to] tells his colleagues of all his materialistic pleasures: "I've got all I want" - he regards rival Johnny Lovo as a "foolish" threat who is "lookin' for trouble" and trying to encroach on his area:

Look at me. A man-a always gotta know what he's got-a enough. I've gotta plenty. I gotta house, I gotta automobile, I gotta nice-a girl, (burp), I gotta stomach trouble, too. [This is a foreshadowing of how the vulgar man will die.]

When the others leave, the camera follows Costillo as he enters a telephone booth to make a call. Down a long hallway, a doorway opens and a shadowy, expressionistically-filmed figure appears. The camera tracks closer to Costillo, but then pans to the right - attracted to an enlarged, black silhouette that is approaching and whistling the theme tune of the sextet from the Italian aria Lucia di Lammermoor. This is the introduction of Scarface himself - first only a shadow that materializes from the darkness. [His whistling throughout the film hints that a murder is about to take place.] Behind a glass door, the full-figured shadow greets Costillo: "Hello, Louie," and then pulls out a gun at waist-level. Scarface (Louie's traitorous body-guard) shoots his victim to death with three bullets. At the moment of the shooting, Scarface's shadow overlaps directly with the shadow of a large upright X or cross -- thereby signifying that from now on, all killings will be identified by this X-motif. The camera pans over to the left to where the actual body is lying on the floor. The janitor discovers the corpse, hurriedly removes his apron and cap, puts on his coat and hat, and runs to the left - tracked by the camera as he reaches the front door.

(2) A Prediction from the Press of a Coming Mob War: In The Daily Record newspaper office, the camera again travels from right to left, following the path of a newspaperman. He hands large-lettered headlines to the publisher (Purnell Pratt), who likewise is tracked to the left to the desk of his wise city editor (Tully Marshall). The editor crumples up the proposed headlines for the next paper - abandoning the newspaper's code of neutrality and arguing that they should stimulate the idea of developing gang warfare, fuel the public's fears, and sell more newspapers with tabloid journalism. He predicts a coming gang war for "the control of the booze business."

That's rotten. COSTILLO SLAYING STARTS GANG WAR...You'll need 40 men on this story for the next five years. Do you know what's happening? This town is up for the grabs. Get me? You know, Costillo was the last of the old-fashioned gangleaders. There's a new crew coming out. And every guy that's got money enough to buy a gun is gonna try to step into his place. You see? They'll be shooting each other like rabbits for the control of the booze business. Do you get it? It will be just like war. That's it! WAR! You put that in the lead! WAR - GANG WAR.

(3) The Arrest of Gangsters Tony Camonte and Guino Rinaldo: The printed newspaper headlines of the current edition, sitting on a chair in a barber shop, read: "COSTILLO MURDER TO START GANG WAR!" In a barber's chair with his face and body wrapped in a towel and sheet, Tony Camonte (Paul Muni in his first major film role) is relaxing, with his coin-flipping, unflappable and dapper right-hand man Guino Rinaldo (George Raft) at his side. The "coppers," led by Ben Guarino (C. Henry Gordon), arrive to arrest them and take them to police headquarters to be questioned by the Police Chief.

Camonte unwraps his face, and reveals an immigrant face, an ugly X-shaped scar on his left upper cheek, and slicked-back, pomaded oily hair. The X on his face identifies him as the title character of Scarface. Defiant and insolent, Camonte calls the police chief "that kidney foot" and strikes his wooden match on the investigating cop's badge to non-chalantly light his cigarette. [This gesture was paid tribute and duplicated in the Coen Brothers' gangster film Miller's Crossing (1990).] The two gangsters are dragged off to the police station.

(4) Tony Camonte Refuses to Talk: In the police station, Camonte's long criminal record is read by the Chief of Detectives (Edwin Maxwell):

Tony Camonte - aliases...Rooney, Joe Black. Assault, Carrying Brass Knuckles and Sap...Disturbing Peace, Straight Robbery on Three Counts...Burglary, Violation Volstead Act. Indicted for Murder of Buck Kempner. Member of Five Points Gang. Came from New York in 1920. Present Body-guard and Strong-Arm for Louis Costillo.

Camonte denies everything and claims he is innocent of charges of turning traitor to murder Louis Costillo - his alibi? "I was having my the lady's house." The Chief is suspicious that Camonte has switched bosses and is now allied with Johnny Lovo (who "split" from Costillo). He was seen being paid by Lovo the previous night at Spinetti's Barber Shop. The brutish Camonte, with stunted speech, denies any implication and won't talk:

Now listen, you. What kinda mug do you think I am? I don't know nuthin', I don't see nuthin', I don't hear nuthin'. And when I do, I don't tell the cops - do ya understand?

Just in time, Lovo's counsel Epstein (Bert Starkey) presents the Chief with a legal writ of habeas corpus for their release ("They can't hold you without booking you no matter what they think you've done"). As Tony is freed from custody, the powerless Chief prophetically warns of Tony's fate "down in the gutter":

You've come into this town and you think you're headed somewhere, don't you? You think you're gonna get there with a gun, but you're not. Get me? You know why? Because you've got thousand dollars bills pasted right across your eyes. And someday you're gonna stumble and fall down in the gutter, right where the horses have been standing, right where you belong...I've spent my life mixing with your breed and I don't like it. Get me? You can hide behind a lot of red tape, crooked lawyers and politicians with the gimmes, writs of habeas corpus, witnesses that don't remember overnight, but we'll get through to you just like we got all the rest.

In another retort, Guarino predicts Camonte's cowardly demise: "Take your gun away and get you in a tough spot and you'll squeal like all the other rats."

(5) Tony's Visit to Mobster Boss Johnny Lovo, and His Infatuation With Poppy (Lovo's Girlfriend): Tony visits his new boss, bushy mustached Johnny Lovo (Osgood Perkins, father of Anthony Perkins) at his garish apartment. Wearing only a cheap suit himself, he admires Lovo's "pretty hot" silk robe ("Expensive, huh?") and explains how he was released on a "rid of hocus pocus" (comically mis-pronounced). He also leers at Lovo's tall, slender blonde mistress Poppy (Karen Morley) wearing a satiny white dressing gown - she sits between them (in the frame) in her inner dressing room:

Tony: Hey, that's pretty hot.
Johnny: That's Poppy. Hey, Poppy. Meet Tony Camonte.

When they are first introduced, she completely disregards him, responding to his "Hi" with obvious indifference ("Unh, huh") while inspecting her nails. Tony is proud of his picture in the media:

The News has got-a best story. Pictures of you, and one of me, too.

The icy, flat-chested blonde moll insults his scarred face by mentioning that his picture must be in the "razor ads" section of the newspaper. Lovo chuckles that Camonte must have received the scar in a "war with a blonde in a Brooklyn speakeasy." [The real Al Capone did have a slash on his left cheek from a knife fight over a woman with a rival gangster, not on the battlefields of France during World War I.] Lovo's second-in-command receives a cash bonus for "a fine job" and is enticed to seek greater wealth and power by 'playing square':

Remember, that's only chicken-feed. You've stepped into big company. You stick to me and do what I say and play square, you'll be walkin' around with lace pants and a gold hat. Do you know what I mean?...I'm gonna cut you in on a percentage, give you a raise. Doubles.

The beer boss Lovo tells Tony that his plans are to expand into the South Side of town, but they must avoid a confrontation with O'Hara ("too big a guy to buck now") on the North Side - Tony briefly argues strategy with him:

Johnny: The South Side is rollin' in jack. All we gotta do is step in and take it.
Tony: Yeah, and have some fun with O'Hara too, huh?
Johnny: Who? Now wait a minute. O'Hara's too big a guy to buck now.
Tony: There's lots of jack on the North Side.
Johnny: Now listen you, you let me think up the ideas. I'll take care of that big hop in my own way when the time comes. I say we stay out of the North Side. I say we leave O'Hara alone, and what I say goes. Don't ever forget that.
Tony: (shrugging) You're the boss.
Johnny: That's better. From now on, next to me, the boys take orders from you.
Tony: Yeah, me and you, huh? That's fine talk, boss...
Johnny: They'll be plenty of work for everybody. Costillo slowed down too much.
Tony: Yeah - and now he come to a dead stop.

Lovo asks Tony to send some flowers to Big Louie's funeral - another X symbol - "a cross of white carnations from me." As Tony is leaving, he waves goodbye ("See ya again") to Lovo's "expensive" possession and status symbol - Poppy:

Johnny: She don't like anybody but me.
Tony: She's a very busy girl. Expensive, huh?

(6) Tony's Ambition: During a brief car ride with his friend Guino, Tony shares part of the bonus money for killing Costillo: "Easy dough, huh, for just standing outside and listening to a gun go off." Trigger-happy Camonte is anxious to expand his influence and "run the whole works" - he espouses his motto and philosophy:

Tony: There's business just waiting for some guy to come and run it right. And I got ideas.
Guino: We're workin' for Lovo, ain't we?
Tony: Lovo, who's Lovo? Just some guy who was a little bit more smart than Big Louie, that's all. Hey, that guy is soft. I could just see it in his face. He's got a set-up, that's all, and we're gonna wait. Someday, I'm gonna run the whole works.
Guino: Yeah? Remember, those monkeys on the North Side ain't so soft.
Tony: Say, they're satisfied, ain't they? Why didn't they come and take Big Louie before we did? Listen, l'il Boy, in this business there's only one law you gotta follow to keep out of trouble. (He pats his gun in his coat pocket and cocks his thumb and finger - and fires.) Do it first, do it yourself, and keep on doin' it.

(7) Tony's Relationship With His Sister Cesca: In his immigrant home, Tony's peasant Italian mother (Inez Palange) - wearing an ethnic shawl - pours wine for Tony's dinner as he stuffs spaghetti into his mouth. He is passionately angered that his strong-willed sister Cesca (Ann Dvorak) isn't home for dinner. In the hallway, he catches his attractive sister kissing a suitor and chases the young man out the door - he is instinctively possessive of her honor and sexuality and wants to control her. Outraged and with a quick-witted mind of her own, the fiery, dark and big-eyed Cesca boldly stands up to her brother with her hands on her hips. She denounces his kinky dominance that doesn't permit her to have any "fun":

Tony: That's a nice way of catchin', huh?
Cesca: What do you mean, catch me? I wasn't doin' nuthin'.
Tony: You was kissin' him.
Cesca: Sure, what of it?
Tony: (growling) I don't like it.
Cesca: You're missing lots of fun, Tony.
Tony: (He grabs her wrist and erupts) Listen, I don't want anybody kissin' my sister, do you understand?...I don't want anybody puttin' their hands on you.

Rather than acting like her brother, she is about to describe his unnatural protectiveness and sexual jealousy when she is interrupted: "You act more like...I don't know. Sometimes I think..." To give her "real fun" and to prohibit her from having "more fellas," he places a wad of bills in her hand. The passing of "bad money" is witnessed by their mother. Cesca thanks him: "Tony, you're swell," but Tony's mother criticizes him for being "crazy."

At the top of the stairs, Mrs. Camonte warns her daughter about the indebtedness she will have toward her "no-good" brother, and she compares their likenesses. She pleads with Cesca not to be "bad" and "no good" like her brother:

Mother: What for you take that money, huh?
Cesca: Cause I want it, that's why.
Mother: Give it-a back. It's-a bad money. Tony no got it in a no-good way. Gonna bring you lots of trouble.
Cesca: What do I care where he gets it? There's nothing wrong with his giving it to me. Tony wants me to have a good time.
Mother: Oh yes? You listen! Tony no love you like he make you believe. All the time he smile on top but what he thinks. Oh, he's got-a lots of tricks. He don't give money to nobody for nothing.
Cesca: He would to his sister!
Mother: Sister! Hah! That make-a no difference. To him, you're just another girl. Someday when he need you, he mix you up and...just like anyone else. And it's gonna make you bad like-a him.
Cesca: He can't make me do anything I don't want to. I'm gonna live my own life. I can take care of myself.
Mother: Yeah! All of the time, Tony say like that. Afterward, he no belong to me no more. He's a-no good. And now you start to be just-a like-a him.
Cesca: No, I'm not. Don't worry about me. I'll get along all right.

In her bedroom, Cesca places the money in her change purse in her dresser drawer while listening to the music of an organ-grinder (with monkey) on the street outside her window. She glances out, catches a glimpse of Guino sitting next to the street entertainer. An X shape appears in the grillwork of the balcony railing.

She calls out "Hey!", and tosses a coin in their direction - it is caught by Guino. He flips her coin once into the air. To retain her coin, he exchanges it with one in his own pocket, and gives the organ-grinder his own coin (after flipping it once). Then, as he repetitively tosses her coin and smiles back, their glances toward each other are imbued with mutual attraction. She moves back from the open window and sits on her bed, filled with hope and desire.

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