Welcome to a new feature: Pre-Code Crazy, where Karen of Shadows & Satin and I pick pre-Codes for you to watch on TCM every month.
We’ve long discussed some way to feature our favourite movies from this wild era and what they mean to us, over a longer period than a blogathon, in more depth than a top ten list, so we decided to team up and present pre-Code picks at the start of each month. Neither of us has told the other what our picks are until posting, so prepare for the possibility of us both picking the same movie (which means you shouldn’t just watch it but REALLY watch it). So look for the banners on our blogs and click this tag to see the series, and join us to revisit or discover the best of the great pre-Code era.
For October I pick Scarface: The Shame of a Nation (1932), on tcm Oct 5th.
Say hello to the original Tony in this seminal gangster movie. As a huge fan of crime movies this one is special to me and a good one to start this series on. For me this was THE gateway picture that had me wanting to discover more pre-Codes. By that point I’d seen Little Caesar and Public Enemy but this one seemed rare, forbidden (as many other pre-Codes were marketed on vhs release) and dangerous, more electric and lively, and opened up all these amazing new faces to me –Ann Dvorak, Paul Muni (I only knew who Boris Karloff was back then). Unlike some early discoveries that disappoint when you go back to rewatch, Scarface never seems to lose its effect.
Scarface’s plot is archetypal: low level ambitious gangster rises by backstabbing, mowing down and climbing over the bodies of his superiors, assumes top position and then, thrown off balance by an abundance of hubris, tumbles off the peak in epic style. Muni’s Tony is one of the most potent examples of the gangster type, a dumb but laser focused ambitious thug, always keyed up to full bravado and fight mode, with an insatiable appetite for the hottest women, gaudiest clothes, fastest machine guns, and full control of the city. He has a telling scene early on when he visits gangster Osgood Perkins, and cant hide his lust for Perkins’ moll Karen Morley. He openly declares his interest in her, in front of Perkins, brazenly tells her she must be interested too. She pretends he’s ridiculous but can’t long pretend to have no interest in him. As he grows in daring and stature she grows more excited, signalling her shift of affection to him in a great moment where, presented with both men’s lights, she barely even pauses before pointing her cigarette toward Muni. Love the way she milks her responses to Muni’s advances, “do ya miiiiiind?” and “yeaaaaah?”–the girl who’s too cool for school can’t help but lose her head and get caught up in Muni’s consuming desire to conquer the world.
Ann Dvorak is on fire as Muni’s little sister who’s grown aware of her assets, is ready to venture out into the world of clubs and men, and out from under Muni’s suffocating and bizarre jealousy. Dvorak gets so many memorable moments: her intro, as those wide eyes peer over the shoulder of the man she’s kissing, conveying both horror and defiance of Muni. There’s that scene where she spots Muni’s right hand man George Raft down on the street below, sending him a little smile backed up with powerful interest, watching him flip the coin and smiling back up despite knowing she’s off limits. Or that sultry little dance she does in front of Raft at the nightclub, to show she’s an adult, (inspired by the same event in real life as witnessed by director Howard Hawks). She knows the danger, and wants in anyway.
From the moment you hear Mama Camonte’s plea to Dvorak not to go to the dark side like her brother, you just know both siblings are doomed and we’re going to watch a glorious flameout. For all his criminal flamboyance, it’s Muni’s obsession and loss of control when it comes to his little sister, that lead to his downfall. The episode of Muni’s rage after catching Dvorak dancing with a man makes him so careless that he leaves himself open to an assassination attempt by Perkins. Later when he learns Dvorak and Raft are living together (not knowing they were married) he murders Raft in blind rage. Like Mama foresaw, their fates are bound together, to kill each other or die together, and Muni just barely dodges being shot by Dvorak when they both end up cornered in a shootout with police, united again by blood. It’s the stuff of classical tragedy, and rewatching it so many times now I still marvel at how the combination of tight direction and acting brings the players to life in such a short and fast movie.
I recall Martin Scorsese saying* that Scarface is an example of the silver screen actually seeming to have a silvery glow. It is luminous and striking, courtesy of cinematographer Lee Garmes’ painting in shadows and stark contrasts. It’s a world of night shot through by gunfire and neon flash, street lights reflected on faces and rain slicked roads. Muni instantly sees the machine gun as a tool with which to mark his name all over town, writing in lines of bullets like the bulbs that make up that sign he admires, “the world is yours.” Hawks has bullets cut through gangster and and the newspaper he’s reading, has shots hack through a lineup of shadows to show that the men casting them have been cut in half. Bodies fall in the shadow of an undertaker’s sign, or in the case of Karloff’s assassination, a killing is represented by the teetering, spinning bowling pin that finally tips over, the last of a set knocked down. Look closely when you watch the movie, and count all the X’s formed in images related to death: by grates, railings, shadows, lights, by Dvorak’s dress straps, marking strikes at the bowling alley, opening and end titles, the very scar on Tony’s face, Scarface is brought to you by the letter X (if you must cheat you can see some of them here, you cheater). Scorsese paid homage by sprinkling X’s all through The Departed.
Hawks wanted more, MORE car crashes, more realism from picking the brains of actual gangsters, more dialogue flying as fast as the bullets, from thugs, cops and news reporters alike, as they try to keep up with the flurry of evil holding the city in its crossfire. The great casting gives you a unique and memorable actor in every role, or a fascinating face for those who don’t speak. C. Henry Gordon plays a detective, bringing to the side of justice the same intensity and steely gaze that made him so effective in criminal roles. Boris Karloff is menacing, gaunt, elegant, with that indeterminable accent that doesn’t fit in this city. He makes for a sympathetic gangster, one beside himself with shock when his crew are massacred, which sets him apart from the monster Muni.
Vince Barnett plays Muni’s faithful, illiterate, bumbling hot tempered secretary whom Muni scolds for never getting a caller’s name. Before Scarface, Barnett had a kind of jester act around Hollywood, making himself available for hire to appear as a prankster and general troublemaker at parties and events, there to pull some stunt or engage in boss level trolling. Hawks remembered Barnett from those appearances and used him here to inject some silliness and comic relief into the relentless conflict and murder. Barnett’s ridiculous but elicits sympathy when he tries to power through a gunshot wound to take one last phone call for his boss– he’s so proud of himself for finally getting that caller’s name. George Raft seems made of patent leather, slick and polished, the perfect lackey, contained, quiet and ready to carry out orders, with enough dark bad boy appeal to believably lure Dvorak.
Muni is just amazing, and through sheer intensity and charisma makes this unlikable character a riveting attraction. Like Morley, you can’t look away, can’t help but get sucked in by his pure hubris and confidence in his philosophy: “do it first, do it yourself and keep on doing it.” From the moment he’s introduced with a smirk and strikes his match on Gordon’s badge, he believes the world is already his. What he lacks in brains he overcompensates for with brutishness, and his talent for torturing and terrifying people, as when he keeps Perkins alive long enough to see his name smashed off the office door and hear the whistled tune that marked Muni as a fearless killer before we ever “met” him. He’s gaudy and excessive in every area, played with relish and abandon and no redeeming qualities, yet is more raw and real than most things in the DePalma version which spends more minutes, drugs, sex and blood to achieve the same.
Scarface launched the careers of its leads, helped cement the gangster cachet (despite any tacked-on warnings instructing you to remain unimpressed), and back when I still needed convincing, it sure showed me that “old” movies could be just as, if not more, dangerous and exciting.
*I tried to find where I heard this, but no luck. I’m pretty sure it was in A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies