SCARFACE : SHAME OF A NATION directed by Howard Hawks (USA, 1932)

 

The original, pre-Pacino, Scarface is included on the syllabus of the  The Language of Hollywood  Coursera MOOC to show how Howard Hawks’ daring and innovative use of screen sound and expressionistic symbolism was a revelation in the early 1930s.

To complain about the movie’s  relentless and gratuitous violence  is the miss the point.

Producer Howard Hughes set out to offend (and entertain) by making a gangster movie that celebrated the orchestrated killing sprees of rival gangs which is loosely based on the exploits of Al Capone in the prohibition era.

Hughes and director Hawks weren’t too concerned with drawing any  lessons from all this blood-letting.

The title card at the opening was a sop to the censors with a reference to “the callous indifference of the government to this constantly increasing menace to our safety and our liberty”.

Paul Muni as Tony Camonte is a thug in a suit who shoots down everyone in his path, showing a softer side only for the glamorous moll Poppy (Karen Morley) and sister Cesca (Ann Dvorak).

Just like Brian De Palm’s remake, there is no moral agenda here; it is a cynical exploitation film pure and simple. It wins its notoriety and praise for the no holds barred portrayal of the criminal world who literally laugh in the face of police’s vain attempt to keep the peace.

The performances and the movie as a whole look crude and unsubtle now. While it’s easy to imagine how this was a sensation in its day, it’s not a film I have a great love for.

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