“They’ll be shooting each other like rabbits.”
Scarface charts the rise and fall of career gangster Tony Camonte (Paul Muni). The story includes several incidents from the life of Al Capone (The St Valentine’s Day Massacre, for example), but the film is not the Capone story by any means. Tony Camonte is ambitious, violent, and unbalanced. Paul Muni portrays Camonte as ignorant, animalistic, and exploding with sheer reactive impulse. He’s unpleasant, and even his unquenchable craving for material possessions seems ignorant, pointless greed.
The film begins with Tony murdering one crime boss to make way for a takeover by Johnny Lovo. Prohibition is in full swing, so the gangsters deal in the contraband trafficking of alcohol. Soon Tony and fellow henchman, coin-tossing Guino Rinaldo (George Raft) take over more and more of Chicago’s shady business. Tony understands that Johnny stands in the way of his ruthless ambition–plus Tony covets Johnny’s sarcastic blonde girlfriend, Poppy ….
This original 30s version of Scarface directed by Howard Hawks is fascinating, entertaining stuff with Paul Muni dominating the screen. It’s inevitable that comparisons are made between the Howard Hawks film and De Palma’s 1983 remake, and the two film versions act as companion pieces for one another. Censorship dictated a strong moralistic tone for the 30s viewers just in case they got the wrong idea about a life of crime, so the film begins with a heavy moral message. Muni’s Scarface claws his way to the top, but we don’t really see him in action at the pinnacle of his success. Poppy, Tony’s girlfriend is a fairly minor character, and there’s no real follow-up of their life together. Al Pacino’s Scarface, Cuban Tony Montana, makes it to the top, and a large portion of the film deals with exactly what he does with his success. De Palma’s film gave a much larger role to Tony’s girlfriend, Elvira played by Michelle Pfeiffer. Also in De Palma’s version, Tony’s relationship with his sister lends him some humanity. Paul Muni’s Scarface is much more brutal with his sister Cesca (Ann Dvorak), and even censorship can’t completely bleach out the obvious overtones of incest. Keep an eye open for the “X” motif which is used to signify a murder throughout the film. Watching this 30s version is a must for all fans of the 1983 version, and creates a clear appreciation for both films.