One of the seminal gangster films of the 1930s, along with Public Enemy and Little Caesar, stars Paul Muni as a fast rising bootlegger Tony Cammante on Chicago's South Side. The role was obviously modeled after Al Capone. Scarface contained much more graphic screen violence than the other two films; so much so that director Howard Hughes had many battles with the Hollywood Production Code and was forced to tone
As played by Muni, Tony is a ferocious, contemptible thug, a blunt instrument who lets his guns do the talking. Even in his personal life, Tony is reckless; the relationship he has with his kid sister, Cesca (Ann Dvorak), is borderline incestuous, and their scenes together have a sexual energy that's downright disturbing. Yet, in spite of all this, Muni somehow makes Tony an appealing character, a guy who gets such a kick out of being a gangster that his enthusiasm spills off the screen (you can't help but smile at the scene where he first gets his hands on a Tommy Gun, acting as excited as a kid on Christmas morning). As far as the violence is concerned, director Howard Hawks rarely shows any on-screen killings, yet presents each murder in a manner that's just as poignant. When Boris Karloff's character, Gaffney, is gunned down in a bowling alley, we hear the shots that finish him off, but what we see is a bowling ball rolling down the lane, and a single pin toppling over, as if to signify the deed's been done.
Scarface is full of delicious imagery, like the "X" symbol that shows up whenever anyone is dead or as good as dead. Or the scene in which Camonte's men are roughing up a bootleg bartender. Hawks zeroes in not on the violence, but on the beer tap running over onto the floor. Or the scene that Truffaut immortalized, when rival gang leader Boris Karloff gets rubbed out while bowling, and a single pin remains spinning and standing for a second longer before falling.
Paul Muni gives a towering performance as the brutish and heartless Tony Camonte, making the character utterly despicable and leaving all likable traits at the door. Despite its relentless violence and perverse scenes involving Camonte and his sister (Ann Dvorak), there are some lighter scenes played to wondrous comic effect such as when Muni's secretary (Vince Barnett) fumbles with the telephone or when Muni returns to the theater after a hit to see how it ended.
The cinematography is notable for its 'X' motif. In many of the murder scenes, an overtly visible X is present on the screen. This takes the form of shadows, window lattices, iron railings and slithers of light but it's almost always present. It's a really interesting visual and matches the scar found on Tony's left cheek. Martin Scorsese paid homage to this idea in his Oscar winning The Departed, putting the same X on screen during his movie's death scenes. Overall the film looks very good. There are several fast paced action scenes which look expensive and the interior sets are well designed. The costumes too, look fantastic. Gangsters always look great on screen but Camonte and his cohort look incredibly well dressed. Likewise the female cast members are attired in stunning gowns and have excellent hair.
Paul Muni delivers a near career best performance as Tony. He's the right amount or arrogant and his single minded goal drives his character to the edge several times. He wonderfully portrays nonchalance under fire and a conceited attitude towards the police. Despite being nominated for six Oscars, he was snubbed for this role. George Raft plays a quiet and reserved role but his coin flipping is scarily ominous. He plays a realistic character and is slightly underused in my opinion. Ann Dvorak excels in the role of Tony's vivacious sister while Karen Morley is slightly more wooden, although her Poppy ismore window dressing than fully fledged character in the script. Osgood Perkins plays the downtrodden boss role very well and there's a small role for Boris Karloff.
Occasionally I found Scarface a little dull and I had the same opinion on my first watch a few years ago. Perhaps it's because I was aware of the story through the 1983 remake but I found that many of the scenes felt like a slog to get through until the final shootout. Even so, there's a lot to like about the film and it contains some well written characters and themes which were pertinent to the time. It generally fails in its attempts to de-glamorise the gangster lifestyle but it delivers a strong message as it does so. Eighty years on, Scarface is a film which is still worth watching and its influence lives on strongly in the films of today.