"The shame of a nation..."
How does one distinguish an anti-hero from a villain? I am not sure that there are any clear lines that make this possible. The very first line of Scarface: The Shame of the Nation tells us that this is not a film about any kind of (anti) hero. "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." We are not supposed to be cheering for the men and women in Scarface: The Shame of the Nation, but this film has so much working for it that not cheering seems impossible.
This is the exact problem that director Howard Hawks faced when he made this film. Though it was filmed in 1930,Scarface was forced into heavy edits and was not released until 1932. Why did it need the edits? 1930 was a dangerous time in American history, and political figures were afraid that this film would promote the idolization of gang members. I think their worries were somewhat warranted.
Scarface is loosely based on the life of the famous gangster, Al Capone, and follows the story of a young gang member named Antonio 'Tony' Camonte. Played brilliantly by Paul Muni, Camonte is not unlike the more famous "Scarface" played by Al Pacino. They start small, are obsessed with their sister and meet a tragic end. The biggest difference in these characters is that Muni's Scarface has a sort of underlying fear inside that Pacino's was not responsible enough to possess. He lacked an understanding of what it took to be a man in the mixed up underground. He probably had these qualities because Hawks did not want the audience to side with him. As it turns out, we almost sympathized with him.
Camonte is obsessed with his sister, Francesca 'Cesca' Camonte. He is continuously using power and intimidation to force his will on Cesca. She is an eighteen year old girl who is stumbling through an age where sex is becoming more acceptable. Tony disagrees with the whole idea. He tears her clothes, slaps her when she acts out, locks her in her room and even murders her lovers. Some critics and historians have argued that Tony is secretly in love with his sister - who is very sexy. But I don't think that incest was a bubbling theme in 1932. And even if it was, I didn't notice it in Scarface.
What I did notice was the fact that this is an incredibly violent film. Scarface features a slew of gun crimes and drive by shooting scenes. It is no doubt that all of this was viewed as controversial in the early 30's. Characters are harmed or killed by a wide range of weapons from grenades to tommy guns. And though there is absolutely no blood or gore in Scarface, some of the scenes are so blatant that they make the audience uncomfortable.
At this point we are all familiar with how the story of Tony Camonte ends. It is obvious that Hawks is trying to make Tony look crazed and pathetic by the end of the film, but I almost feel sorry for the guy. He has lost everything. He thought the world was his, but he never actually stood a chance.
Scarface is one of the most infamous gangster films ever made. And though the "remake" is a better known picture, the original tries to be much more responsible. The message may be clearly stated, but it is hard to find during the action. If you look at this film like a movie and not like a public service announcement - you will enjoy it. This is an example of simple and excellent filmmaking. It is well acted, directed and put together.
Scarface: The Shame of the Nation: B
My Next Film...The Naked Spur (Mann. 1953)