Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Early Hawks Blogathon: Scarface (1932)

This post is part of the Early Howard Hawks Blogathon over at Only the Cinema. Enjoy and check out the interesting posts there.

Firstly I'm gonna list the Howard Hawks films that I have seen, and then I'm gonna start discussing Scarface, which I caught the other day. Incidentally, I like all of these films, although I'd say that they get worse throughout the chronological list:-

Bringing Up Baby (1938)
Only Angels Have Wings (1939)
His Girl Friday (1940)
To Have and Have Not (1944)
I Was a Male War Bride (1949)
Monkey Business (1952)

It's incredibly poignant that Scarface should end with a closeup of the slogan "The World Is Yours", a statement displayed on the lit sign of a travel company. Howard Hawks' 1932 original tells the story of a man who thought the world was his, Tony Camonte, played here by Paul Muni and later most famously by Al Pacino. It's clear throughout the 90-minute wave of death and corruption that Tony has an obsession with obtaining more and more power, respect, authority -- he seems most proud of his "possessions" (guns, women, bulletproof vehicles, steel window covers), which collectively encourage him to buy into his own invincible aura. The aforementioned slogan takes pride of place in view of Tony's apartment and, as far as he's concerned, he owns that as well. In fact, he owns the world. Hence the slogan.

But this isn't the only reason why the slogan emerges as one of the most resonant features of Scarface, a film that Howard Hawks frames with messages in order to hammer a point home about crime and social problems in post-depression era America. It begins with a preface about these problems, and as such proceeds to address them, but the lingering directness and clear purpose of its style did surprise me as the Hawks films that I've seen feel a lot freer in theme. The screwball comedy was to an extent formulaic but I suppose a lot easier to manage, given the responsibility that Scarface seems to pose as both a spectacle and a statement. Tying in with that idea is the IMDB listing of The Shame of a Nation as an alternatively used title for the film, which brazenly wraps both the drama and the message into one.

The plot itself is very repetitive; that familiar pattern of brotherhood, betrayal, and death rearing its ugly head on more than one occasion, much like we've come to expect from imitations such as The Godfather etc. Scarface isn't as together, grand, or epic in scope as Coppola's film (this was 1932, so really, how could it be?) b
ut the legacy it has created is plain for all to see. Having said that (and in part because of such imitations) it often feels a little too predictable and melodramatic, and the absence of sound for large pockets does hurt the effect of Scarface and make its violent sequences feel more cheeky than pulpy. Still, the stolid rules about blood etc. on screen makes the film often feel more visually enthralling in that it forces Hawks to think of new ways to capture death. Much to do with light and shade (like silent films), but you can't really beat a good silhouette murder, can you? There's just something wonderfully gothic and clever about watching someone's shadow disappear.

Amongst all the burly men vying for control Tony has a couple of women to consider. His mother, whom we actually don't see a lot of (and he doesn't seem that bothered about her, honestly), his 18 year-old sister Cesca, whom he is fiercely protective of, and love interest Poppy, who begins the film romantically involved with Tony's boss but switches allegiances when it's clear who the top dog is going to be. By far the most interesting of these relationships is his love for Cesca, which extends to turfing her out of every social event she dares to attend, giving
her money to stay away from men, and murdering those men that she does take a fancy to. Although never overtly addressed (again, this is 1932) there's a hint of incestuousness on the part of Tony, as he seems to revere her and keep her to himself in a way that perhaps surpasses brotherly love. In one heated scene she accuses him of not treating her like a sister and "more like a...". If we're supposed to fill in the blank, my vote goes to "mistress", or something of that ilk. It feels it to me anyway. But regardless of their tempestuous relationship a scene towards the end demonstrates their affection for each other, and reminded me a lot of Bonnie and Clyde.

Hawks wants a little too desperately at times for us (or 30's America) to see the world's failures. Sometimes it's distracting but largely it's more than a preface and a closing remark. We're encouraged to see the world through Tony's eyes; expansive, a commodity, rather than looking on at his actions and shaking our heads in disapproval. If Scarface was all about the message then Muni's leading man wouldn't feel so close-to-the-heart and irretrievable. He wants the world to do what Tony can't -- wake up before it's past the point of no return.


Ed Howard said...

Thanks for the writeup, Cal. You're right to pick up on the tensions in the film between its "message" and the more direct sensibility at work in the rest of the film. That's because the film was subjected to one of the most prolonged and complicated censorship battles of the time, with the Hays Office (the Hollywood censorship body of the time) enforcing many changes on the film. These include the announcement at the beginning of the film, the periodic scenes in which government officials give moralizing speeches, and many other changes to lessen the violence, sexuality, and "amoral" implications of the film. The ending was even rewritten from the original to make Tony appear more cowardly. Hawks had nothing to do with a lot of these changes; he made adjustments during shooting to make the film more censor-friendly, but many more changes were made and even new scenes shot without his input after he turned in his completed version. Hawks was never a director prone to "social message" films, and he was interested in Tony's story primarily for its violent action, sexual subtexts, and the portrayal of a man overcome by his lust for power.

What's most striking about the film is that, despite all these compromises, its original brutal, violent, cheerfully amoral character comes through loud and clear anyway, including the incestuous subtext between Tony and Cesca, which becomes impossible to ignore during the final shootout. It helps that Ann Dvorak is so naturally lascivious; that sexy, eel-like dance she does at one point is impossible to forget, and suggests everything that the censors wanted to play down.

Cal said...

The censorship certainly makes the more confused and restricted parts of the film make sense. Hawks does a very good job of getting around it, anyway.

I didn't want to go into the acting too much but I loved Ann Dvorak and Muni did get better as it went on.

Thanks for encouraging me to see the film, and I'll try and get a hold of some more early Hawks flicks.

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