Scarface (1932 version)

Paul-Muni-in-Scarface-1932

There is something about an early sound picture that gets me excited to see it. I can’t quite put my finger on it but I believe that early sound pictures are better than later Hollywood pictures. They exert this energy that is hard to find in later movies. Maybe the energy comes from finding the voices (literally) or from the fresh faces in the pictures that usually weren’t as much of a presence in silent pictures but what ever it is these movies make me fall in love with movies all over again.

Scarface is about an Al Capone like character who infiltrates the Chicago underground during Prohibition. The movie starts with a warning and a call to action that seems to contradict the rest of the film. It says that the movie was made in order to show the amount of violence someone can inflict if the government won’t do anything about it. It also tells the audience to contact their local government and call them to action. After this long introduction, you see Tony (played so well by Paul Muni) wise cracking his way through the system. His wise cracks endear him to the audience so much so that you don’t want him to get caught. You want him to succeed, to take away the business from his boss and to enjoy a reconciliation with his sister. He is a human character, no doubt but he is also a larger than life character. His thirst for violence and for control is almost cartoonish in its outrageous escapades. Take for instance the scene where he first gets his hands on a tommy gun. He falls in love with a gun that will easily take ten or more shots without you having to reload it. He utters a short love speech and sprays some bullets around the room purely out of enjoyment. He is also a lovable character who will always keep even the most incompetent worker with him purely because he likes the guy. I am talking of course about his secretary who doesn’t know how to write. He is constantly picking the phone up for Tony and asking who it is but not being able to get the name. He gets so hostile that he usually ends up slamming the phone down. In a movie that is for the most part about some serious things, this is only a couple of moments of some really great comedy. This movie also gives us the wise guy constantly flipping his coin. This is Tony’s right hand man. He creates this menacing air purely because he listens to the coin flips in front of him. Should he kill the boss? Well the coin flip says yes so you might as well do it. This film originates so many different cultural aspects of the gangster that it was fun to watch just so you can point them out.

I have been making my way (slowly) through the first season of Boardwalk Empire. This series does with roughly the same time period. It is fascinating how much this series borrows from Scarface, especially when characterizing Al Capone. Scarface had made such an undeniable impression on American culture that borrowing from it would make way more sense than any other movie out there. It also had such a visual influence. This movie with their extreme shadows and dark hulking men who are on the way to kill people clearly made an impression on film noir that began to crop up in the forties. Scarface is by far one of the best gangster films I have ever seen and I hope that more people choose to watch it over the shitty remake by di Palma.

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