May 02, 2007

Scarface (1932)

Scarface has gone down in history more for its disturbing portrayel of violence and the reign of Al Capone in twenties and thirties Chicago than for its qualities as a film. Despite that it is worth analysing the film as a film rather than as a moment in the history Hollywood censorship. The central point of this film is the performance of its star- Paul Muni- and the way that that performance captures what for Howard Hawks the director was the essense of the gangster's character. Muni's Tony Carmonte is surrounded by almost no gangster organisation- we see a little bootlegging (scenes reminscent of the later Jimmy Cagney film The Roaring Twenties and a scene whereby the gangsters of Chicago are bullied into backing a local boss but for the purposes of Scarface, the organisation of organised crime is less important than the individuals who make up the crime syndicates. As a journalist says in one of the first scenes 'every guy that's got money enough to buy a gun is going to try and step into his place'. This is the thirties gangster as Martin Scorsese envisions him in his journey through American movies, the individual with a gun who wants things and doesn't have the means to acheive them at this point.

The policemen following these gangsters view them with absolute contempt, within the confines of the movie, the policemen personally hate the gangster and want to 'slap it out of him' in order to get evidence. At one point one of them makes an interesting analogy between the gangster and the cowboy: he tells us that the gangster unlike the cowboy is a coward- his shooting is done behind the suspect's back or during a moment of surprise not face to face down the mainstreet of some Western town. Indeed most of the shootings in the film- a full 28 people get shot on screen in this film- are done as the gangsters race past in vehicles machine gunning shops or when they trick others to line up against a wall. But 'take your gun away and you'll squeel just like the other rats' at least that's the policeman's view of Tony Carmonte.

Its a true view as well- Tony Carmonte is a hustler in the same frame as those of the old west. He is an inventive man- his language is under his arm but he has a certain ability to distinguish a good strategy- unlike his boss he can see that expanding an empire is easy- fear and the odd killing can make a criminal empire thrive. He has the ability to bind henchmen close to him- two in particular a comic but hopeless bald guy with a slow tongue and a quick gun and George Raft in one of his first important roles as Rinaldo a coin tossing thug, the definition of cool, and Tony's murderous sidekick. He can see a sign which says that the world is yours and seeks to acheive it. Carmonte though is not merely a charismatic opportunist- he is also almost wholly an animal- lacking any feeling for anyone besides himself. Cars, suits and jewelry, he lavishes it all upon himself. Muni even strides like an ape moving his limbs with a large swinging motion, but maintaining throughout a viscious and brutal command of all his relationships.

Relationships between Tony and women stand at the heart of this film. He wants his boss's woman- and takes her when he takes him down. Poppy, the girl pictured here is a mess of materialistic ambition and low cunning- her respect for men derives purely from their value to her- the ultimate gangster's moll, she is an impassive shrew demanding good clothes and good jewels no matter who gets them for her. As Tony comments at one point, she is expensive- a gangster's pet. Tony treats her almost as an inanimate object- she is there to be taken and used- there is no love between them, only desire. She seems bored by his company- irritated that he messes up her clothes and mildly amused by his bravado- but she goes along with him because he offers gifts.

If Tony's relations with Poppy are purely artificial and reflect the materialistic, grasping element of his nature- then his relations with his sister represent another part of his animal nature- his desire to control and hold his sister to what she wants. He beats up her and her boyfriends. Gives her money to win her affection, but desires her to render everything she does to him. There is a faint degree of incestuousness about their relationship- Tony certainly has an unbreakable jealousy for her boyfriends that might derive from lust, but also might derive from control. In a paroxym of rage, he even slays his own best friend Rinaldo after Rinaldo gets married to his sister whilst he (Tony) is out of town.

Tony's failure is therefore not a failure to stand up for himself in the true American way- to be a Western hero- but its the failure to translate that into principles. Lacking any sense of consequences, he will murder and attack his way through the city looking as if he is courageous but he can't translate that into actual courage. Kindnesses too are not real kindness because there is no principles behind them. Its often thought that films like this attack capitalism- but actually they provide a justification for Smith's point of view that capitalist competition has to be accompanied by moral sense- because Tony lacks any empathy and any advance from feeling to principled thought, he cannot operate morally in the marketplace. Because of that ultimately his career is destroyed- as he himself is gunned down at the end of the film.

Away from such political meditations, the film functions as a meditation on the life of the gangster- unmediated through meditation, Tony lives from day to day, minute to minute. His responses are instinctive. The film sets the tone for later films- like Tarantino's Pulp Fiction- the same amorality pervades the characters in the film from the thirties and the film from the nineties and Scarface seems to have established an ethic running right through to the modern day, whereby gangsters and their molls are shown as lacking the feeling and empathy that goes along with modern life and our present regime. Tony has the cunning that the world demands- but what he lacks is any sense of empathy or fellow feeling.

The film is summed up in a moment- Tony takes his moll Poppy out to dinner, and the resturant ends up being shot to pieces- he doesn't have the empathy to fear that she is dead or injured or that anyone else is, nor does he have the imagination to speculate on an alternative future where he is shot through with bullets- what he has is the sense that what the opposing gang has done is really cool and the desire to acquire his own machine guns so he can do the same. The lack of empathy and imagination are the source of his power, the source of his danger for society and ultimately the source of his fall from power and eventual death.