Scarface (1932)

Genres - Crime  |   Sub-Genres - Gangster Film, Film a Clef, Crime Drama  |   Run Time - 99 min.  |   Countries - United States   |   MPAA Rating - NR
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Review by Dan Jardine

Scarface is a potent, uncompromising portrait of the gangster life. While journalists often romanticized them, and many in the public made mobsters into folk heroes, director Howard Hawks' portrayal of the brutish and ambitious Capone-inspired titular character, played with terrific ferocity by Paul Muni (this movie made him a star, and it is easy to see why) is brutal and stark. The pre-noir gangster genre was in many ways defined by the innovative approaches taken by Hawks in Scarface. Tracking and dolly shots, relatively unknown at the time, contribute to the film's kinetic energy and excellent pacing. The expressionistic black-and-white cinematography by Lee Garmes is married to a screenplay (written by a team led by Ben Hecht) packed with symbolism as well as a rare combination of humor, sex, and violence. This extremely violent film (28 murders are recorded onscreen) also grafts a racy incest theme (Muni's character has Caligula-like feelings for his sister, played with remarkable sexual confidence by Ann Dvorak) onto the story line, resulting in considerable pressure from censors (the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America) coming to bear on the filmmakers (in this pre-Hays Production Code era). However, after considerable squabbling, producer Howard Hughes finally released Scarface in two formats: one with censor approval and one without, leading to confusion among Scarface audiences at the time. Ironically, though the movie indicts the violence of the mob figures it portrays, it became very popular largely because of this: in the end, the mobsters lead a very exciting lifestyle and seem to be having a lot of fun wreaking havoc on the world. And, of course, the movie is grand entertainment itself.