Scarface (1932)

The original and highly superior Scarface opens with a lengthy disclaimer telling the audience that the events depicted here are in no ways meant to glorify the criminal life which the film depicts. In fact, this is a point made across three intertitle cards. As director Howard Hawks jabs the audience in the ribs and gives them a bit of the old wink wink, nudge nudge, it’s clear that the intertitle cards are ironic.

After all, Tony Camonte (Paul Muni) is a likable guy. Sure, he’s a bit rough around the edges, a know-it-all punk, but he isn’t preoccupied with being as serious as the police and gangsters who surround him. His devil-may-care air and goofy smile as he saunters into the police chief’s office instantly makes him a charming guy. After the stern grilling they give him, devoid of any levity or humanity, it practically makes Tony the entire hero of the piece.

We admire the way he casts off authority, both when he lights his match on a police officer’s badge and when he disregards the lectures his mobster boss gives him. He’s his own man, a true Americana boy; he’ll pull himself by his own bootstraps even if it means crossing the line. And so even in the 1930s we have a film about the perversion of the American dream of prosperity through exploitation.

It’s a film that exists outside the confines of the law and throws the legal issue back at the audience. This is you’re government letting gangsters run free, why don’t you do something about it. Step up, be your own Tony and work the system. Sure, you’ll be working through the guise of politics while Tony uses organized crime to achieve his ends.

 

It’s still that narcissistic, individualism at work, that invincible feeling of being able to take on the world. When Tony discovers the existence of the Tommy Gun, he wants one immediately. Once he has one, he gleefully sprays it across the room, relishing the act of destruction and the sense of empowerment it gives him. He’s unstoppable. As the sign outside his window says “The World is Yours.”

And Tony will never be able to stop himself. As endearing as this terrible killer can be, he’s also quite the scumbag when it comes to the ladies. He makes a move for his boss’s girl upon their first meeting, persisting long beyond the point of being a creep. Furthermore, he can’t stand the thought of his sister being out with strange men and he uses everything in his power to sabotage her romantic endeavors at every turn.

But more than that, he can’t escape his own ambition. He wants the world and it’s within his grasp. It wouldn’t be hard for him to simply maintain what he has, sit upon the profitable business of making sure speakeasies only buy beer from the suppliers his boss provides, but that isn’t enough. As Tony says,“I’ve got everything but what I want.”

Scarface is more than just a highly entertaining gangster flick, but a parable. Tony represents the pure ambition, the drive for wealth, power and sex. But it will never be enough he needs the world, can’t stop till he has it. This proves his undoing. He who lives by the Tommy Gun must die by the Tommy Gun.

© 2011 James Blake Ewing