[This was a program note written to accompany the October 10, 1972, showing of Scarface in “The Cinema of Howard Hawks,” an Office of Lectures & Concerts Film Series at the University of Washington. At that time Scarface was a very rara avis; indeed, the print shown was the property of a private collector. It still bore the censor-imposed subtitle “The Shame of a Nation,” which was mercifully dropped when the Howard Hughes estate licensed the film for distribution by Universal a few years later. Unfortunately, the preachy foreword and extraneous lecture by an unnamed newspaper publisher played by Purnell Pratt were not removed.]
NOTE: The subtitle “The Shame of a Nation” has very little to do with Scarface as conceived and realized by Howard Hawks. The picture was about to be released at a time when forces for The Public Decency were becoming concerned over the glorification of gangsters in American life, most especially in movies. Against the director’s wishes, a conscience-stirring prologue (“What are you going to do about it?”—gangsterism, that is) and a couple of ludicrously preachy scenes were added to the film. Hawks has clearly declared his intention to remove this “stuff the censors made me put in” before reissuing the movie, as he hopes to do soon.
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A recent interview with Howard Hawks quoted him as naming Scarface his favorite among his forty or so films. The preference is a trifle surprising, for in some respects Scarface is uncharacteristic of him. Then again, Hitchcock cherishes the comparatively neorealistic (in circumstances of shooting and some particulars of casting) Shadow of a Doubt among his own largely soundstage-circumscribed work, and Ford persists in believing in the tacky peasant romanticism of The Fugitive, which most of his admirers find embarrassing. Not that Scarface is, like the Ford, a failure or in any way even a misjudged film. It simply evidences some features, whether the results of emulation or ambitions peculiar to this picture, which are not to be found in other Hawks movies.
Most particularly, Scarface bears the influence of Josef von Sternberg. Although Hawks has subsequently declared that he told Lee Garmes how he wanted the shots to look and Garmes made them happen that way, Sternberg’s most distinguished cameraman brought to the film a lushness of light and shade and a voluptuous fluidity of camera movement uncharacteristic of Hawks’s customary unostentatious methods. There is a Germanically lit and angled shot of Poppy (Karen Morley) descending a drab stairway and imposing her brashly self-possessed femininity on the title character, who is suddenly, touchingly outclassed at this moment; the male response prefigures far more stumbling instances of abashed masculine bravado to come in Hawks’s career, but the awed camera angle would be more at home in a cinema consecrated to Dietrichian idolatry than Hawks’s normal eye-level mise-en-scène that translates the two-shot into a sexual sparring-ground. Then there is the matter of screenwriter Ben Hecht, who would work often with Hawks after this but had worked previously for Sternberg, most particularly winning an Oscar for his screen story of the 1927 Underworld. Underworld opens with an exercise in abstract metropolitanism very like Hawks’s vehemently Expressionistic manipulation of a streetlight observed at a disorienting angle against a background of tilted/painted skyline, from which he pans to an apparently midget milkman thrown in to further dislocate the viewer; and the Cook’sTours sign, THE WORLD IS YOURS, that punctuated Tony Camonte’s rise and fall is a direct lift from the earlier picture (where the sign in question reads: THE CITY IS YOURS).*
Still, Hawks manages to make that opening streetlight and movement and the closing sign very much his own. The initial symbolism is ambiguous. A streetlight goes out: there is a suggestion of the city’s power being cut off, the urban environment left somehow vulnerable; yet the light is going out because morning is arriving and natural light is displacing the artificial. And yet again, the light is about to go out for one of the film’s characters, whose entire screen life is to be lived in the single, continuous take that begins with that streetlight winking out, travels through walls and around corners, niggles a killer into the scene, then terminates casually after a custodian notices a newly dead body among the refuse of an all-night party and circumspectly flees—after pausing to put on his hat and coat. The ambiguity inheres in the killer, Tony Camonte. For while he is a merciless assassin capable of killing in hot blood or cold, he is also definitely “natural,” pre-civilized, almost pre-evolutionary—much is made of his simian build and features (though police and gangsters alike are called “monkeys” throughout the film). And he is attractive, sympathetic, as all film creatures of a compelling dynamism are attractive and sympathetic. The audience, like Poppy, can observe him, judge him, chuckle at him on occasion, but must respond to his forceful presence. In that first take, Camonte is a vaguely perceived presence at a back door just before the camera pans away from it, then a shadow moving on the wall, then a silhouette for an instant, then a shadow once more as the camera makes its serpentine adjustments in space and direction. Barely seen himself, he is virtually identified with the very camera movement that insinuates its self-aware way through this remarkable opening sequence. But at the end of the film Camonte himself “can’t see,” and his story terminates on another light against the urban night: a neon globe pulsing and glowing after it has ceased to be—if it ever was—Tony Camonte’s world.
Light is, of course, inevitably a key value to any practitioner of the cinematic art, and for Hawks it has always possessed an elemental meaning. Light and warmth both are generated by the matches obsessively demanded by the less-than-self-sufficient leader in Only Angels Have Wings, a light and warmth immediately and lucidly translatable into the more ineffable but not less real comforts of human contact. Human contact tends in nearly every case to be lethal in Scarface. Indeed, for Hawks, Tony Camonte’s essential hubris lies in his insistence on his own singularity, his failure to realize until too late that he is “no good alone.” But far more expressive is the director’s treatment of light as a conceptual pun on enlightenment, illumination. And we might as well get it straight right now: With the insistent exceptions of Hitchcock and Godard, no other filmmaker has more—no other filmmaker approaches having as much—awareness of and interest in the process of discovering and toying with punlike arcs of implicit analogy that leap from level to level, from dialogue to specific action to structure and back again. (It is worth noting, too, that Hawks and Hitchcock indulge their intellectual curiosity and stylistic playfulness with absolutely none of the pedantry that characterizes Godard, even at his best). Every good Hawks film achieves an essential definition of terms on both the verbal and the practical levels. Here a newspaper editor has to explain to his headline-writer the meaning of “gang war,” and the movie proceeds to take up the challenge of his reiterated phrase and effect such a definition for us. (Similarly, Hawks’s “contribution to the war effort,” the 1943 Air Force, is about air force before it is about the capitalized branch of the Armed Services, as one of the characters makes explicitly clear in the climactic battle by saying to an observer only partially assimilated into the Hawks group, “Now we’ll show you what air force can do!”)
Here Hawks’s penchant for analyzing and appreciating the semantics of human existence neatly coincides with one of his most direct examinations of intellect itself, of knowledge and ignorance and the capacity for sophistication, of lack of self-awareness and self-irony that comes ironically home. Hawks’s characters need to know—not to know in the sense of being certain, because there is very little in Hawks’s fluid universe about which one can enjoy the luxury of being certain; but rather, to know what they can get away with and what they can’t, what chances they ought to take and what chances they shouldn’t, where their power leaves off and the big black void begins. His characters are held in an existential pressure-cooker. Time is short: people keep talking about making up for lost time, and that incredibly suggestive opening sequence is, in its single-shot realization, a profound comment on (to take a Hoagy Carmichael lyric from To Have and Have Not) “how little we understand, how little we know”: Big Louie Costillo is telling a couple cronies: “A man always gotta know what he’s-a gotta know…. Well, she was a pooty good party…. Everybody she’s-a say, ‘Ah, Big Louie, he’s-a sittin’ on top of the world, eh?’ Good-a-bye, boys, I see you some more.” But Louie almost immediately ceases to “see” anymore; so far from knowing what he has to know, he is murdered by his own bodyguard. And, in time, the exact same pattern of gunfire that terminates Costillo’s existence recurs at the demise of his successor, the man who paid Camonte to betray Costillo, the man of whom Camonte had said, “Lovo—who’s Lovo? Just some guy who’s a little smarter than Big Louie.” And briefly Tony Camonte, who had “ideas,” will sit on top of the world, in his medievally dressed upstairs fortress with steel shutters designed to keep out contradicting reality, the fortress to which he will return at the end mumbling, “I didn’t know. I didn’t know.” There is much that Tony doesn’t know, concepts he can’t even recognize. To him, a writ of habeas corpus is truly magical, “hocus pocus,” but the same materialistic sense that persuades him to invest in steel shutters, increasingly gaudy clothes, and a real mattress with inside springs implies the natural assumption that such writs can be bought up in advance (“I’m gonna need lotsa those!”). Dutifully attending the performance of a play (with a wonderful parody of Hawksian group dynamics: Tony goes out for a smoke and a half-dozen tuxedoed goons move into each aisle of the theater to cover him), he is first moved to comment appreciatively on the literalness of Maugham’s “rain”: “Comes from a pipe!” His interpretive remarks are just as literal, earnest studies of smart chat: “This Sadie Thompson she’s got whaddayacall a problem … she’s whaddayacall ‘disillusioned’…” In Hawks dialogue those “whaddayacallits” function as more than incidental reminders that we are listening to a first-generation American mutilate the English language. Tony is groping for epistemological orientation; he’ll insist on Sadie Thompson’s “disillusionment” in the hope that that phrase means something, the same agreeable good faith that leads him to accept Poppy’s observation that a man’s wearing jewelry is “kinda effeminate.”
During intermission at the play, Tony works to convince himself he’s enthusiastic: “That’s a fine show. ‘Serious.’” Angelo, the more comical of his two sidekicks, protests: “It ain’t got no jokes. I like a show with jokes.” The director thoroughly agrees, and doesn’t hesitate to express himself through a character who’s freely acknowledged to be a “dope.” Indeed, Angelo is not only one of the most likable characters but also a very meaningful one. He is the one person Tony can intellectually dominate, correcting his pronunciation and insisting on the necessity of “edge-you-kayshun” if Angelo is to be a successful “secretary.” Angelo, talking into the wrong end of a phone, prefigures the delightful syntactical and referential confusion Hawks will perpetrate in later duels between the sexes. Told to have the unknown caller “state his business,” he sets his jaw in the certainty that he has just been provided the ultimate in smart-talking putdowns and snarls, “Go state-a you’ business!”—and hangs up! He is absolutely committed to whatever task he’s assigned, seizing a secretarial pencil when ordered, even though he can’t write, and offering to shoot the telephone in lieu of the party who won’t let him complete his job satisfactorily. Throughout the film Angelo fails to “get a name” when somebody calls. But Hawks’s comic tactics unexpectedly escalate into a touching appreciation of the little man who, after Tony’s self-shattering slaughter of Guino, gives the orders his speechless boss cannot convey and dutifully locks the door against the cops, even though he’s received a mortal wound. Tony’s ascension of the stairs is grotesquely shadowed in the dark, crumpling form of Angelo (cf. the opening scene where Tony was both shadow and silhouette): Angelo is one of several “other halves” of Camonte in the film. The telephone rings a last time; Angelo crawls to answer it and, dying, bleats his triumph: “It’s Poppy, boss. Boss! I got a name!” Again, the language is not casual for Hawks: in completing his job, Angelo has indeed found himself, made his own name.
The job is all-important, even if you happen to be in the gangster business. The criticism Tony levels at Johnny Lovo will be flung later at the villains of Rio Bravo and El Dorado: when Lovo protests, “I never hurt anybody!” Tony replies, “Yeah, you got somebody else to do it for ya!” Whether Tony immediately betrays his own dictum in the next moment is open to discussion; even though he once told Little Boy that the secret of success is to “Do it first, do it yourself, and keep on doin’ it,” he walks out and leaves the killing of Lovo to Little Boy. But Little Boy is not a hired man, he is Tony’s best friend, and the film is rife with gestures of their solidarity. That it should be Little Boy who “betrays” Tony with his sister is only one of several poetic means of suggesting Tony divided against and destroyed by himself.
Of course the most conspicuous secret sharer of Tony’s identity is his sister, Cesca, who is explicitly likened to him in the dialogue time and again. Hawks’s treatment of their belatedly comprehended incestuous love is deservedly famous: the discreet yet doubly suggestive cut away from the two of them at one point so that we just miss seeing her kiss him; the two vivid confrontations in near-darkness—the one stormy and violent, the other fatalistic about their inevitable mutual eradication. They are linked in the films most striking imagistic motif, the recurrence of X’s or crosses at key instances of real or threatened mortality.** Again, this sort of blatant stylization is uncharacteristic of the director, yet once one sees past the gimmickiness (Hawks was offering five bucks a throw for anybody who could think up a new way of getting an X into the appropriate scenes), the image stands revealed as the most resonant in cinema up to and maybe including Rosebud. The crucial sign, as it were, is gouged out of Tony Camonte’s cheek and lends the film its name. (Yes yes, Tony Camonte is also “Scarface” Al Capone.) It recurs not only at murder sites but also in significant encounters between Cesca and Guino: when she tosses him a coin from the fire escape (one of many exchanges in the film), the railing grid forms an X; she wears a gown with crossed straps in back when tempting Guino to dance, and the wall lines behind them as they converse in Tony’s absence form a cross (a pattern not noticeable in other scenes set in the office). It’s as if this especially bizarre mortality were waiting to explode in tragically destructive splendor once the upward mobility of the gangster success story exhausts itself. Cesca is struck by a bullet meant for Tony, a bullet he accidentally causes to ricochet. Their love, their death, is consummated in a welter of real and shadowy crosses.
There is scarcely any comparison between Scarface and the other historical classics of the great gangster-film era. No other gangster movie approaches its density or poetic force, its unforced dynamism and muscular rhythm, its sheer modernity. For here, a mere two years after his first talkie, Hawks has already achieved mastery of that realistically stylized dialogue that insures his films of sounding contemporary — rather, of not sounding anachronistic—whenever and wherever they are seen and heard, as long as the American language survives. In its command of flow and feeling for inhabited spaces, too, the film is utterly fine. Watch, as just one example, the scene at the Athletic Club when the new president and his enforcer “change the name on the door” and tell how it’s gonna be (“So you’re it!” “yeah, it!”—go make dialogue out of the word ‘it’!). There’s not a dull face in the room, not a hat brim that doesn’t lead the eye or arrest the eye, depending on the needs of the shot and the moment. Corners are filled, blocked up, black: one reaches up to touch one’s face and make sure he isn’t wearing 3-D glasses, so deep and textured are the compositions. There was almost nothing else like it in 1932. There is almost nothing else like it in 1972.
* The heritage was charmingly taken one step further in the classic Ealing comedy The Lavender Hill Mob when, atop the Eiffel Tower, Stanley Holloway turns to Alec Guinness and says, “Dutch, the world is ours!”
** A partial list: Tony Camonte’s shadow lines up on the crossed leading of a window as he shoots Louie Costillo. A streetsign, shot from above, casts a black X over the corpse of a man machine-gunned on the sidewalk. The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre is commemorated in seven crossbeams in the rafters of the Clark Street garage, and a luminous X is somehow projected on one of the corpses as the police examine the site. Most outrageously, Gaffney (Boris Karloff) scores a strike just before he’s cut down in a bowling alley. Most subtly, an out-of-focus fan glows faintly silver over Camonte’s shoulder as he menaces Johnny Lovo about two-fifteen in the morning of his last day of life.
SCARFACE. Howard Hughes, 1932. Directed by Howard Hawks. Screenplay: Ben Hecht, after a novel by Armitage Trail; adaptation and dialogue by Seton I. Miller, John Lee Mahin, and W.R. Burnett. Cinematography: Lee Garmes, L.W. O’Connell. Co-director: Richard Rosson. A United Artists Release.
Tony Camonte: Paul Muni; Guino Rinaldo, “Little Boy”: George Raft; Johnny Lovo: Osgood Perkins; Poppy: Karen Morley; Cesca: Ann Dvorak; Angelo: Vince Barnett; Guarino: C. Henry Gordon; Police Chief: Edwin Maxwell; Gaffney: Boris Karloff; Pietro: Henry Armetta; Mrs. Camonte: Inez Palange; Big Louie Costillo: Harry J. Vejar; A managing editor: Tully Marshall; MacArthur of the Journal: John Lee Mahin.
Copyright © 1972 by Richard T. Jameson