Monday, February 18, 2013

This Scarface is in Chicago, Not Miami

Living dangerously - Tony muscles in on his boss's girlfriend.
"Scarface" (1932) is still one of the most thrilling gangster stories on film. Don't confuse it with the remake with Al Pacino. About the only thing the 1983 version has in common with the original is the title.

Howard Hawks directed the earlier one, and Ben Hecht wrote a script that is just as break-neck paced and witty as the writer's comic masterpiece, "His Girl Friday," which Hawks also directed. There's plenty of violence in this Scarface. The film had to sit on the shelf for two years after its completion because the studio was reluctant to release this cinematic extravaganza of bloodshed. Come to think of it, violence is another thing other than the title that the 1932 and 1983 Scarface films share, although Hawks's Scarface is not nearly as graphically cringe-inducing as is the Pacino film.

Paul Muni is terrific as the wisecracking Tony, a gangster who wants to control all of Chicago's bootlegging. He must step over or crush many other hoods to get the job done, and like any successful gangster, he will rub out even a longtime pal if he stands in the way.

Tony flirts with his boss's girlfriend, and talks of taking over the North Side of Chicago's bootlegging business -- both actions suggest that the guy has a death wish. But pretty soon he makes good on both ambitions.

Tony (Paul Muni) likes the feel of a machine gun in 'Scarface.'
Despite his penchant for deep-sixing his rivals, Tony has a goofy side that few filmmakers could integrate into such a dubious movie hero. The newly rich Tony shows off his fancy new digs to the girl he's taken a shine to, and she tells the vocabulary-challenged mobster it's sort of gaudy, which he takes as a compliment.

When Tony gets his hands on a Thompson machine gun, the first one he's ever seen, he's like a kid with a new toy. He takes delight in shooting up the room with a spray of bullets, but it doesn't take long before he starts training the weapon on human targets.

Like many a movie gangster, Tony is devoted to his mother -- do all gangsters have mother issues? He's also a fierce overlord to his younger sister, demanding that she never go on dates with young men. His fixation with his attractive sibling ultimately becomes a key part of his undoing.

Tony's fancy townhouse is equipped with steel shutters, making the joint a fortress to stave off bullets and bombs that rivals and the police fire in his direction, but he can never completely shut out the threats that will ultimately rain down upon him.

By virtue of his own paranoia he ultimately finishes off his friends as well as other hoods looking to put out his lights. Alone, he's no longer a force to be reckoned with, and he pays the ultimate price for his misdeeds. A fitting end to a strangely likeable bad guy. Score another one for Hawks.

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