Thursday, October 30, 2008

Scarface (1932)

  In the reality that is Howard Hawks' Scarface the world is yours, but at a price. X marks death. There were gangster movies before this film's release and plenty afterwards, but no other gangster movie could get away with such comic violence masked as social problem picture. Every spray from a Tommy gun elicits a laugh not just from the hoods who are doing the shooting, but also from the audience who relishes watching every bloody death.

  All gangster movies are, in some capacity, skewed American dream stories. The gangsters are usually immigrants and thus not part of the status quo society. The goal of the immigrant gangster is to assimilate and to do this they have to acquire all the status symbol accoutrement's that the rich and powerful have deemed as mandatory for all those successful to have.

  Of course the rub is that the very club they want to enter has closed their doors to them. Paul Muni plays Tony Camonte as a high-energy go-getter who is completely ignorant of how repugnant his actions are. His entire body is expressive and with just a raise of an eyebrow or tap from his cigar tells whoever is watching that this is a man of action.

  For his second in command, Camonte has Guino Rinaldo, played by George Raft, who menacingly flips a coin, letting the coin toss decide whether he should listen to his angels or the devils that are neatly tucked into his gun holster.

  Both Camonte and Rinaldo share the same goal, to takeover the city. To do this they spark a gang war and in doing so kill just as many civilians as they do rival gangsters. Camonte is so desperate to be accepted by his adopted country that he tries to change the way he speaks, the way he dresses, and even takes up with a blonde, Poppy, who represents the type of respectability he craves but can never really have.

  Poppy, played by Karen Morley, is repulsed at first by how Camonte physically looks and also by his uncouth behavior yet as the story moves along and Tony bludgeons his way to the top she becomes more and more attracted to him. She is, in a way, a stand-in for the audience who were equally disgusted by the stories of gangland violence that newspapers would peddle around on a daily basis, but the idea of somebody bucking the system and getting away with it, even if only for a short while, is a very attractive story.

  The other woman in Tony's life is his sister, Francesca 'Cesca' Camonte, played by Ann Dvorak. Tony's feelings for Cesca have been interpreted by many as incestuous, but it may be less lascivious than that. Whereas Poppy is the "civilized" society that Tony wants to belong to Cesca represents his roots, where he came from and ultimately where he feels safest. Cesca, like Tony, is hyper sexual and quite expressive with her body. He pushes away any man that shows interest in her not because he wants to have her sexually, but to keep her from being tainted or, even worse, diluted by a society that does not look so kindly on those that act differently.

  Although the picture was made to be an indictment of gangsterism it is difficult not to root for Tony as he is surrounded by cops who are all too anxious to storm his home and drag his body out on the street to parade around for those "proper" Americans who were quite threatened by the immigrant menace. Tony Camonte is labeled as the shame of the nation in this picture, but he became that way because of a system that rejected him. The American dream is an engine that is fueled by many immigrants that come into the country wanting a better life. Tony Camonte took what he wanted, he did it the illegal way, but his actions were no worse than the public's whose apathy for the downtrodden poor helped to create the gangsters that they vilified.

No comments: