Another chaotic day of shooting Scarface wrapped and Ben Hecht wearily retired to his L.A. hotel room. What he wanted was peace, what he got was two henchmen demanding to know why he wrote a film about Capone. Hecht assured them he didn’t and that ‘if you call the movie Scarface, people will think it’s about Capone and come to see it. It’s part of the racket we call show business’. Hecht held his breath and cool as the hoodlums mulled this over. Finally they left, placated by the appreciation of a good scam.
Scarface is about Capone as much as it is about any hoodlum, real or fictional, on his way up and down the illicit ladder of success. Tony (Paul Muni) is a violent wannabe with vision and guts who blasts his way higher and higher, struggles with family, falls for femme fatales, and faces a comeuppance. Take these jigsaw pieces and see how comfortably it fits the picture of filmmakers from Mervyn LeRoy to Martin Scorsese.
Although based on the novel of the same name by Armitage Trail, ex-Chicago reporter Ben Hecht brought a wealth of nefarious knowledge from his time covering headline stories of Big Jim Colismo’s assassination to the St Valentine’s Day Massacre. The result is a sprawling account weaving shocking fact and audacious fiction of, as Hecht put it, the ‘Modern Borgias’.
The man behind the Tommy Gun blasting his way to success is Tony. A gangster not unlike Edward G. Robinson’s machine gun mouthed Little Caesar or Cagney’s rage incarnate. However, Hecht does not define Tony by violence, rather he delves into that all-too-easily applied label ‘Psycho’.
Outside the realm of slasher, Psycho has steadily become synonymous with dangerous charm and deadly sex appeal. But rather than a burning attraction, Tony puts his interactions in uncomfortable positions. Take his first meeting with the moll Poppy (Karen Morely). Tony flirts and makes eyes as romantically as whistling labourers on building sites. His efforts are met initially with puzzlement, which develop into sarcasm.
Muni’s dangerous charm is not mysterious and intelligent, but played like an old fiend, laughing at jokes and slapping pals so hard on the back it knocks the wind out of them. But Muni uses this lightness to illuminate just how dark Tony can be as the joviality accompanies his bombings and assassinations.
The man capturing these explosive events is Hollywood Legend Howard Hawks prior to his stunning collection featuring The Big Sleep, His Girl Friday and Rio Bravo. From the opening pan through a club ending in assassination, it is clear Scarface is the product of an intelligent and ambitious director. Although moving with the pace and punch of a hard hitting entertainment, Hawks revels in playful idiosyncrasies. Namely the expressionistic hidden Xs warning imminent death, a device Scorsese would use in The Departed and Coppola would alter to oranges in The Godfather.
Scarface is an astounding achievement in production and the context in which it was created. Hawks constantly wrestled with the choking grip of the Hays Code, reshooting endings to meet the requirements of confessor boards. Finally, Hawks went ahead without approval and created a classic, explosive farewell to the days of freedom.
Of course, crime pictures never disappeared. Trilby wearing gangsters of by gone ages hold an modern allure akin to a fairytale. But when Tommy Gun wielders were a reality splashed across front pages, when Capone was a celebrity and Dillinger a hero, when they lived like Wild West Bandits of the concrete era, audiences still flocked to see their exploits. Censorship insisted on black and white morality, often opening with a title card plea for order. But any viewer with a ticket and popcorn was guilty of an enamour with the grey palette of crime.
Hetch succinctly addresses this point:
Chief of Detectives: They think these hoodlums are some sort of demigods. What do they do about a guy like Camonte? They sentimentalise, romance, make jokes about him. They had some excuse to glorify our old Western bad men. They met in the middle of the street at high noon and waited for each other to draw. But these things sneak up and shoot a guy in the back and then run away.
Strangely, the connecting link between gangster pictures of this time and our is: they don’t run. Gnagsters fight it out bitterly and die in a blaze of glory. Whether they liked it or not, the movies did more to idolise gangsters than any other medium or reality could dream.
Tony: You see that?
A sign outside reads: The World Is Yours
Tony: Someday I look at that sign and I say ‘Okay, she’s mine’.