Written by: Carroll Jenkins on May 6th, 2008
Theatrical Release Date: USA, May 31st, 1932
Director: Howard Hawks
Writers: Ben Hecht, Seton I. Miller, W.R. Burnett, John Lee Mahin
Cast: Paul Muni, Boris Karloff, Ann Dvorak, George Raft
DVD released: May 25th, 2007
Approximate running time: 94 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1 Full Frame
Sound: Dolby Digital mono English
DVD Release: Universal Studios
Region Coding: Region 1 NTSC
Retail Price: $14.98
Synopsis: ruthless and vicious hooligan becomes enamored with wealth, power, and women. His climb through the ranks results in dead mobsters, newspaper headlines, and gang warfare.
Howard Hawks’ Scarface is generally regarded as the third of the ‘big three’ early sound gangster pictures along with Little Caesar and Public Enemy. Though finally released in 1932, this independent production suffered long and protracted battles with censors that resulted in script changes, new scenes, a prologue, title change, and an alternate ending. All this before strict enforcement of the production code began in 1934. In fact, Scarface, along with Baby Face and She Done Him Wrong were cited as major reasons for the crackdown.
The aforementioned Warner Brothers films present complete stories of the rise and fall of each protagonist. This tends to explain and/or blame the circumstances leading to the inevitable downfall and makes the character more human. Scarface starts with a murder less than 5 seconds after Paul Muni’s introduction as the title character. There is no back-story of a slide into crime, he’s a cold blooded killer from the onset. His character is like a humanoid ape, a beast that knows only lust and greed. As his ambitions grow, so does the body count, and he has grand ambitions.
Unlike most early sound pictures (including to some extent Little Caesar), Scarface is not a static picture. There is no musical score but there is always background patter, street noise, explosions, machine gun fire. The camera work is fluid with pans, dolly shots, truck shots, and closeups. You can spot the non-Hawks directed scenes that were added to appease censors, but they are fortunately brief and not too intrusive. Those scenes are actually funnier than the comic relief character of the illiterate seketary [sic] who can’t answer the phone (he later went to work at the Bada Bing). Otherwise this is a fast paced and well directed story from an excellent (and subversive) script.
Robinson and Cagney are household names even now as a result of their breakthrough roles in Little Caesar and Public Enemy. Muni immersed himself so deeply in each role that he didn’t project an identifiable star image. Despite another unforgettable turn in I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang, he is largely forgotten today. Equally forgotten are most of the supporting cast with the glaring exception of George Raft. His iconic performance here, repeatedly flipping a coin into the air, wasn’t a cliché then – this is where it started. He would later parody this mannerism in Some Like It Hot. Also recognizable is Boris Karloff as a rival gangster.
For years the only DVD release was as a bonus in the remake collectors set. Finally it was given this stand-alone release. The picture quality is okay, as is the sound. Subtitles are provided. The only significant extra is the alternate ending.
One of the most violent films of pre-modern cinema, Scarface is one of the most important, influential, and unfortunately obscure as well. You must see it, after all, for YOU are to blame!