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Scarface: Shame of the Nation, or Mirror of the Nation?

April 8, 2010

Scarface (Paul Muni) was the ultimate Depression-era antihero.

In 2010, our long-standing familiarity with the conventions of crime film has provided us with a template for how to respond to a movie like Scarface (1932): we root for the antihero’s success secure in the knowledge that he will be destroyed in the end. The punitive coda makes it easy to avoid thinking about why we’re so attracted to gangsters in the first place. It’s the moral equivalent of the physical thrill of riding a roller coaster: we engage in danger knowing that we’re actually quite safe. But for audiences seeing the film in 1932, the second year of the first gangster movie cycle, such security was not guaranteed.

Hollywood’s interest in gangster films was the product of a number of trends, some of them predating the Depression. During Prohibition, gangsters had become an object of national fascination. The most famous, of course, was Al Capone, who provided the inspiration for many key scenes in Scarface. Meanwhile, the transition to sound provided the technological means to dramatize violence more vividly.

By the time Scarface began production in 1931, the country had already been mired in a terrible economic slowdown for over a year. Gangster films were one of many ways that a desperate and financially tottering Hollywood sought to lure back audiences. Hollywood was simply applying a lesson that newspapers had known for years, that violence sells. And the only thing that sells better than violence is controversy over whether that violence should be sold in the first place. Howard Hughes, the producer of Scarface, exploited this situation brilliantly. Following a public battle with the censors, he released the film without censor approval, claiming that “ulterior and political motives” were behind opposition to the film. (Thomas Doherty. Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema 1930-1934 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999): 150.)

Scarface opens with the exculpatory preface typical to gangster films and other sensitive pre-Code films. Scarface’s preface provides cover for just about every potential criticism. The film glamorizes criminals? No, actually “This picture is an indictment of gang rule in America.” The violence is too graphic? That’s only because “every incident in this picture is the reproduction of an actual occurrence.” The film is exploitative? No, it has a political goal–“the purpose of this picture is to demand of the government: ‘What are you going to do about it?’” And just for good measure, to subtly remind audiences that do-nothing elites (possessed of “callous indifference”) didn’t want you to see the film, the preface ends: “This government is your government. What are YOU going to do about it?” This populist appeal also exploits a general sense that Herbert Hoover’s government had done little to counteract the human damage of the Great Depression. It foreshadows Frederick Delano Roosevelt’s successful electoral message later that year.

The film opens with a janitor cleaning up after a party at a social club. It’s an apt metaphor for the stock market crash, commonly seen as the “end of the party” for the Jazz Age and financial speculation. It’s appropriate that a janitor is doing the sweeping, showing how the working class had to clean up the financiers’ mess. (Then again, with the unemployment rate in 1932 reaching 25%, the janitor is probably happy just to have a job.)

The opening dialogue is an appeal to moderation that could have come from the mouth of a disgruntled worker. “What are we going to do with the South Side? Let some of the other boys get theirs too. I got all I want,” says mob boss Louis Costillo. “A man’s always got to know when he has enough. I’ve got the plenty. I’ve got the house, I got an automobile, I got a nice girl.” Moments later, Costillo is dead, much like the middle class dream he has just espoused.

Both the opening scene in the club and the following scene in a newsroom are filmed in slow, panning takes, shot from a medium distance. The visual rhyming suggests a functional, and possibly moral, equivalence between gangsters who kill each other and newspaper editors who demand 40-point headlines declaring “GANG WAR!” Both play their part in fueling the cycle of violence; both help turn horror into spectator sport. By linking journalists with criminals, the film taps into a Depression-era distrust of newspapers. In his overview of 1930s media in Documentary Extremism and Thirties America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), William Stott writes, “What the press published then was generally felt to be propaganda serving a special interest.” (77)

In both scenes, the camera effortlessly moves through walls, suggesting that the perspective of the film will be omniscient, and therefore, objective. It reinforces the film’s documentary claims from the preface. Adding to the film’s claim to high-mindedness is the late-film interlude where the good citizens of the city gather to discuss what to do about Tony Camonte (AKA “Scarface”). As transparent as these tactics appear now, contemporary audiences may have seen Scarface’s unprecedented depiction of violence as a vital exposé of a major urban problem.

The filmmakers’ strategies to generate sympathy for Tony, on the other hand, are much subtler. While director Howard Hawks and screenwriter Ben Hecht never shy away from Tony’s evil, they also continually magnify traits that will resonate with contemporary audiences. When Tony lights his match on a policeman’s badge, his disrespect for authority echoes the Depression-era distrust of the government and big business. At the same time, the police’s inability to keep Tony in custody reflects a contradictory Depression-era feeling, the sense that government was impotent.

Hawks positions Tony and Johnny Lovo as surrogates for the working class and the upper class, respectively. When we first see Johnny, he’s in a luxuriously appointed apartment, wearing a robe and offering Cuban cigars. In contrast, Tony’s first home is the rundown apartment he shares with his mother and sister. Where Tony and Costillo speak with the telltale accents of recent (read: recently poor) immigrants, Johnny’s accent is not foreign. Despite his criminality, he appears to the manor born.

Tony has a non-aristocrat’s consciousness of status and price. He repeatedly remarks about the expensiveness of things—his suits, his shirts, his bed, Johnny’s girlfriend—while also showing an appreciation of value. He says both his bed and his rings were “a bargain.” Even if one assumes his claims to get “bargains” at “auction” are just a euphemism for stealing, Tony still seems more in touch with working class values.

The contrast between upper-class Johnny and working-class Tony is subtly continued in the scene where Johnny takes over Costillo’s bootlegger racket. In a self-serious tone, Johnny tells the bootleggers, “Running beer ain’t a nickel game anymore, it’s a business. And I’m going to run it like a business,” and rattles off figures relating to supply and demand to justify his claim. Tony’s actions are fully supportive—he beats up the lone dissenting bootlegger—but his tone is sarcastic. He uses terminology from the world of legitimate business as euphemisms for violence. After throwing a spittoon through the window of the club, he says, “That’s alright, boys. Just changing the name on the door.” When the bootleggers ask how Tony’s going to get orders for the new racket, he says, “I’m what you call a good salesman,” in the same winking tone.

Through the contrast in their tones, the film positions Johnny as a figure who looks to the world of business as a model and Tony as someone who has no illusions about the nature of his profession. It’s a violent contest of wills, no more. As he tells Guino earlier, “In this business, there’s only one law you gotta follow to keep out of trouble. (He points to his concealed gun and makes a shooting gesture.) Do it first, do it yourself, and keep on doing it.” In an era when trust of big business was at an all-time ebb, Johnny’s mimicry of the legitimate business world looks foolish. Tony’s Nietzschean individualism seems more credible in an age grasping at radical solutions. At the minimum, we trust Tony more than we trust Johnny because we know Tony has no illusions about what he does.

The association of crime with capitalism can be read in a number of ways. Organized crime can operate as a metaphor for legitimate business, led by men suspected of lying, cheating and stealing their way to riches. Or, the association may illustrate how the only hope for making money in a ruined economy is through crime. In Pre-Code Hollywood, Doherty notes that both interpretations of the gangster film were made by Marxists of the time.

But gangster films are not only critiques, they are also fantasies. They allow the spectator to engage in a fantasy of unrepressed desire, of taking violent revenge against those who wrong us, of taking anything we want when we want it. Tony goes from obscure bodyguard to wealthy kingpin, with the clothes, cars and women to match. What Depression-era spectator didn’t fantasize about his life? When Tony looks out his window and sees a billboard that reads, “The World Is Yours,” he believes it. We can’t help but marvel at, and possibly envy, that kind of self-confidence and fearlessness. Tony’s trajectory represents the (near-)triumph of the id over both ego and superego.

The appeal of the criminal fantasy is common to most gangster films. Scarface, though, goes a step further than its partners in crime Little Caesar (1931) and The Public Enemy (1931). Unlike those films, Scarface offers no sympathetic moral counterweight to its antihero. Despite the film’s early claims to objectivity, it does everything in its power to invite identification with its antihero.

In Murray Smith’s cognitive theory of identification (“Altered States: Character and Emotional Response in the Cinema.” Cinema Journal, Summer 1994, 34-56), we sympathize with characters because we recognize them as coherent, motivated people (“recognition”), because we have significant access to their spatial and psychological perspective (“alignment”) and because the film sets up a moral structure that privileges their actions (“allegiance”). None of Tony’s rivals in Scarface meets a sufficient threshold in all three categories. The police are barely recognizable as human beings. The same goes for Tony’s one-note mother. Tony’s sidekick Guino is so undercharacterized that the one independent choice he makes—his decision to enter a relationship with Tony’s sister Cesca—is not dramatized. Johnny Lovo, as we saw earlier, is identified with the upper class and the world of business, positioning him lower in the film’s moral structure. Tony’s other criminal nemeses are barely seen. The only character who offers a plausible alternative source of identification is Cesca.

Cesca is the prototypical “bad girl” obsessed with men and money. Neither innocent nor noble, she at least she doesn’t kill to get her way, positioning her ever so slightly higher in the film’s moral structure.

Therefore, the only moments in the film when audience identification is complicated are when Tony lashes out at Cesca’s promiscuity. I would argue that identification detours from Tony for good when he kills Guino for sleeping with Cesca. It is no coincidence that this moment directly precedes Tony’s death. While his death comes at the hands of the police, it feels more like punishment for his murder of Guino and his treatment of Cesca than for his crime spree.

Because Tony has irreparably hurt the one other character who makes a legitimate claim on the audience’s sympathy, viewers are inclined to want to see Tony punished. At the minimum, now that our investment in Tony has been significantly compromised, we’re less likely to mourn when Tony dies. The shooting of Guino acts as an escape hatch for viewers entranced by the fantasy of Tony’s life. Since viewers don’t identify with Tony at the time of his death, they don’t have to deal with the ugly truth that they’ve been rooting for a sociopathic murderer for an hour and a half. By cleverly exploiting the tools of audience identification, Scarface allowed Depression-era viewers to sidestep the threat of cognitive dissonance. They got their tommy gun and got to shoot it too.

In typical Hollywood fashion, Scarface contains its ideological threat with a bait-and-switch in the final reel. The film does a brilliant job of echoing the fears and anxieties of a country that had lost its faith in capitalism and democracy without forcing viewers to question their faith in their own decency. Scarface is a demonstration of Hollywood’s expertise at employing contradictory narrative, visual and marketing strategies to capture the widest possible audience. For some viewers, Scarface is a fear. For some, he is a fantasy. For most, he is both.

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