Scarface (1932)
Scarface (1932)

Genre: Gangster Running Time: 1 hr. 33 min.

Release Date: April 9th, 1932 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: Howard Hawks Actors: Paul Muni, Ann Dvorak, Karen Morley, Osgood Perkins, C. Henry Gordon, George Raft, Vince Barnett, Boris Karloff, Inez Palange




he opening title cards state that the following picture is an indictment of gang rule in America and of the callous indifference of the government to this constantly increasing menace to safety and liberty. The various events are reproductions of actual occurrences, which serve to demand from the government: what are you going to do about it? The opening scene, which shows the remnants of a lavish party by one Big Louis Costillo – a visual glutton – is something of an example of that complacency, while also suggesting, in a contrasting manner, that the gormandizing elites (at least those who belong to criminal organizations) can be victims to lawlessness as well. No one is immune to the effects of organized crime.

The next day, Police Inspector Ben Guarino (C. Henry Gordon) rounds up the usual suspects, including Guino Rinaldo (George Raft) and Antonio “Tony” Camonte (Paul Muni) – unveiled in an exquisite shot that finds a newspaper being whisked aside to reveal a dramatically scarred face. The death of Costillo incites a gang war, as former partner Johnny Lovo (Osgood Perkins) has broken off into a separate faction interested in taking over the South side – and they don’t want the competition around. The North side, however, run by O’Hara, is off limits – a command that riles Camonte. The younger gangster isn’t content being an underling forever; his ultimate goal is to run the entire city, taking orders from no one.

Muni is instantly awe-inspiring, challenging the screen presence and ferocity of Edward G. Robinson from “Little Caesar” the year before. Here, Muni creates a brand new offshoot – a ruthless crook in search of power, fearsomeness, and glorious infamy, with a bulldozing personality rarely matched onscreen, but one also boasting a notable physical deformity and convincing idiosyncrasies (something “The Petrified Forest” picked up on a few years later). He’s just as merciless and violent, but he’s also oddly likable; rather than simply mowing down enemies – which he surely does – he also flirts (primarily with Lovo’s moll, Poppy [Karen Morley]) and suffocatingly chaperones his sister Cesca’s (Ann Dvorak) activities. His sarcasm, cockiness, comically oblivious lack of taste, and perpetually calculating mind aid an engaging, complex character, even if it’s one who is inevitably doomed to absolute ruin.

Though the picture is predominantly comprised of violent interactions – from fistfights to shootouts to assassinations to drive-by shootings to bombings – it also occupies itself with a love story, familial woes, and an uncommon dose of humor (ranging from the ludicrousness of a thug-cum-secretary who can’t answer phones or write [the goofy Vince Barnett], to Tony’s house and suits, whose respective gaudiness and garishness are sources of pride). There’s also the artsiness of machine gun fire that blows through calendar dates, camera shots that peer through bullet-riddled windows, silhouettes getting gunned down as a change-up to the standard actors dancing from the absorption of bullets, and an unequaled moment in which Tony rifles through a stack of bribery bills while waiting for his accomplice to say “when.” Additionally, the supporting cast is unusually inspired, particularly with background roles that employ perfectly ugly mobsters (like panels from “Dick Tracy” come to life) and with the casting of Boris Karloff as the main North side brute.

There’s a certain ceaseless recklessness and destruction to the film, keeping the pacing sharp and the tension high. The action is consistent and boisterous (some of the car chases and spontaneous attacks are spectacular considering the fact that this was made in the early ’30s). As if to counter the nonstop excitement and Tony’s unusual charisma, the police chief verbally reinforces the notion that too many people glorify gangsters, just as they did with Old West badmen. “They think these big hoodlums are some sort of demigods.” Unfortunately, the characters on the right side of the law aren’t nearly as captivating as the villain with the blemished visage or as thrilling in their pursuits of objectives. But, of course, everyone surrounding Tony is destined to suffer the same fate as the spectacularly entertaining, titular monster (exemplifying the dangers of idolizing killers). This is a preeminent, seminal gangster flick.

– Mike Massie

  • 10/10