Thursday, September 9, 2010

Scarface (1932)

The Howard Hawks-directed, Howard Hughes-produced precursor to the '83 Depalma-Stone-Pacino remake about a gangster rising up in the contraband distribution rackets, this time selling Prohibition-era hooch. Allegedly based on Al Capone, whose cut-up face inspired the title, Paul Muni plays Tony Camonte as a crude, morally indifferent, ambitious tough guy whose balls of steel are actually a form of self-destruction; he is less of an inebriated slave to his impulses as Pacino was, and more of a hollow, aimless shell of a man who seeks to prove himself through terror and violence, rather than respect. The incestuous relationship with the sister is here, as well as the attraction to the boss' lady (who, surprisingly, comes off as more appealing and less plain stuffy and hard-to-get as Pfeiffer). Steven Bauer's Manolo is George Raft's Guino, and his, along with Muni, is the strongest performance in the film; constantly flipping his coin and silently backing up Camonte, Guino proves to be more like a real tough-guy, the spitting image of unflappable, unreactionary cool. The pace of the film is where it surprised me the most; about half the running time of its epic remake, this picture is relentless, opening up with Camonte doing his first hit and continuing with almost non-stop, shocking (even for today) violence, punctuated by scenes of Muni's snakey, amoral gangster usurping his superiors. The ending, while a cliche, is a prime example of noir iconography, and is expertly (and in very modern fashion) performed by Muni.

Highly Recommended to fans of noir, '30s gangster pictures, or, of course, Pacino's Scarface. I have not seen any of Hughes' other productions, but of Hawk's work, I have seen Rio Bravo and The Big Sleep, both more popular and heralded films than Scarface, and both more bloated and self-satisfied pictures; the level of slime here along with a general trailblazing violent energy distinguish, and contemporize, this film far more than those more famous works.

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