Scarface (1932)

 “This picture is an indictment of gang rule in America and of the callous indifference of the government to this constantly increasing menace to our safety and our liberty. Every incident in this picture is the reproduction of an actual occurrence, and the purpose of this picture is to demand of the government: ‘What are you going to do about it?’ The government is your government. What are YOU going to do about it?”

‘Scarface’, directed by Howard Hawks and Richard Rosson in 1932, is an American gangster movie starring Paul Muni as Antonio “Tony” Camonte, an Italian mobster who climbs his way up the criminal gang he works for. It’s a dark and violent movie with a cynical sense of right and wrong that achieves an ambiguity about who the viewer is supposed to root for. The ironic moral at the heart of the film, “The World is Yours”, appears on an advertising billboard opposite Camonte’s apartment, and this summarises what Hawks and Rosson are trying to do. The film is a commentary on the organised crime epidemic during prohibition and a sideways (at times on the nose) biography of real mobster Al Capone, but the way the film analyses this period means that the audience is forced into empathy with the violent characters, and, even more disturbing, encouraged to share their excitement at the carnage and death throughout. It fetishizes the murders and weaponry in the same way that the mobsters fetishize them. This is not really a criticism, because the film is interspersed with references to the American Dream and parallels with a less criminal career progression that, to an attentive viewer, means that they get the joke and the final scenes carry weight beyond a simple death. It’s filmed with energy and pace, the stunts are on a large scale and the fight scenes are genuinely threatening. In a way, it’s like an insight into a dark, pre-war American before the Motion Picture Production Code censorship guidelines were brought into force in 1934 and turned movies into more saccharine and less visceral productions.

Would I recommend it? Yes – it’s brave, energetic and fun with a searing central message and an ambiguity that it both disturbing and absorbing.

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