Scarface — Directed by Howard Hawks. Gangland Drama. A homicidal punk rises through the ranks to a gilded gutter. 93 minutes Black and White 1931.
* * * *
The rhythm of screen acting is not yet implanted in Paul Muni, here in practically his first film, until a reel or so elapses. Hawks cast virtual unknowns, Ann Dvorak, Boris Karloff, and George Raft whose first film this also almost was. And Muni was an actor from the Yiddish theater in New York and remained a big Broadway star. Because I never liked him in film I never went to see him on the stage. I should have. (I remember having coffee with Billie Dee Williams when he was understudying and him telling me how kind and helpful Muni was to him.) Muni is never believable as Italian-American, and there are times when you feel he thinks he is slumming, but there are other times when his willingness to expose the character supersedes any cavil one may harbor about his technique, which is the surface technique serviceable for the stage. Muni went on to play many “disguise” roles in film, an actor like Olivier, but he’s not my sort of an actor. The film is beautifully shot by Lee Garmes and edited by Edward Curtiss and Lewis Milestone (Hawks was never interested in editing his own films). The picture is A Gangster Is Born about a hood who takes over from his boss, here played by Osgood Perkins, who is more at home in front of the camera than Muni, and who resembles his more famous son, Anthony Perkins, in his mein and something about the eyes. Beautiful Karen Morley is sensational as the kept woman; Ann Dvorak (one of the few female actors Hawks used more than once) is excellent as the incested sister, and George Raft plays the manikin he played forever after. The minor actors tend to be stagey. But the best parts of the film are the automobile scenes in cars of the period, which seem flimsy and rattletrap and all the more vulnerable. These sequences were shot by L. William O’Connell and directed by Richard Rosson (who did the same for many of Hawks’ pictures) and are the most exciting of their kind ever filmed. Those were days when they used real bullets in movies, so the shoot-em-ups are startling. (One man was actually killed by them.) Sometimes there’s a certain clunkiness about Hawks’ direction, but this may be a function of early sound, for all the scenes are beautifully lit. This one of the Ur-Gangster pictures; Robinson’s and Cagney’s were first appearing at this moment. The film had huge problems with the New York Censors and The Film Review Board, but Howard Hughes finally said To hell with it; I won’t release in New York, and opening it where there were no censors, and was a big hit. It still is.