Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Scarface



aka Scarface The Shame of the Nation : USA 1932 : Howard HAWKS : 90 mins

Semi-legendary gangster film has enough fast-moving thriller elements (most scenes are short) to still hold up pretty well seven decades on, despite some absurdities in Ben Hechts script. Hawks (who supposedly has a cameo as man on bed) handles things with his usual efficiency and has a lot of fun seeing how many crosses he can sneak into the frame in countless different forms. A religious subtext? References to the anti-heros scar? Or an exhortation to the viewer/voter, reminding us of our ballot-box duty? Democracy, were told, means the people must hold the government to account on the subject of organised crime rampant, then as now.

Supposedly based on Al Capone, the movie traces the not-so-meteoric rise of crime-boss Tony Camonte (Paul Muni). It takes a while for Camonte to bump off his boss Lomo (Osgood Perkins, father of Anthony), and (implausibly) seduce Lomos sophisticated mistress Poppy (Karen Morley). In fact, so late in the day does Camonte take over as Chicagos top dog memorably disposing of gimlet-eyed English crook Gaffney (Boris Karloff!) in a bowling-alley along the way – that his reign is surprisingly brief. In hardly any time, it seems, he’s holed up in his (amusingly) heavily-armoured apartment with his sister Cesca (Ann Dvorak) while the cops unleash their firepower from the street below.

Much has been made over the years of Tonys supposedly incestuous (but unconsummated) interest in Cesca. His excessive protectiveness is, however, more a function of his general macho ignorance than any kind of taboo sexual perversion. Camonte must be among the most knuckle-headed of movie heroes – he’s only a fraction smarter than his hapless, illiterate secretary Angelo (Vince Barnett), a stooge who functions as the films main comic relief. Hes certainly much more doltish than his laconic best pal and second-in-command Guino (George Raft) whose love-affair with Cesca ends in (predictably) tragic circumstances when Tony (predictably) discovers it, gets the wrong end of the stick, and murderously over-reacts.

Tonys killing of Guino neatly sets up Cesca as a steely-eyed angel of vengeance so its ludicrous when she abruptly changes her mind, and takes up arms alongside Tony as he battles the cops. Then again, this fickle turnaround is no less unlikely than Poppys volte-face: amused contempt at Tonys brute inarticulacy one minute, swooning passion the next. So much for those strong Hawks women!

23rd October, 2003
(seen 19th October : CineSide, Newcastle)

by Neil Young