14 SCARFACE – USA 1932, Director Howard Hawks
Maurice R Coons was haunted by something. Perhaps the self-hatred began well before the film offer for his book Scarface. Armitage Trail was the name he used for his novel. The stories he wrote for pulp magazines were an excuse to use other names. The rumour is that he filled a whole magazine with his own stories and used alternative pseudonyms for every one. The family of Maurice R Coons was nomadic but the young man was still restless. He left home and settled in Chicago. Maurice Coons never met Capone but socialised with gangsters. A brother called Hannibal claimed that Maurice was obsessed with gangsters and crime. The novel Scarface is not a literary achievement but it has an authentic hard boiled edge. Armitage Trail moved to Hollywood after he sold Scarface to Hollywood producer Howard Hughes. Out in California the troubled author lived in a way that has been described as flamboyant. He drank more than ever and gained a lot of weight. Maurice R Coons or Armitage Trail, take your pick, died of heart failure when he was twenty-eight-years old.
Ben Hecht wrote the script for the movie Scarface, official title Scarface, The Shame Of A Nation. Before his career in Hollywood, the screenwriter worked as a reporter in Chicago. According to Hecht, his work meant having to walk the beat of speakeasies, gambling dens and whorehouses. Near the famous and impressively democratic Newberry Library in Chicago is a leafy stretch of West Walton Street. Attached to the street sign are the words ‘Ben Hecht Way’. The honour was given posthumously but Hecht did not have to die to collect awards. Picking his finest creative moments is difficult but more than a few would edge away from the classic screen credits and plump for his stage play The Front Page. Hecht was not born in Chicago but he fitted the city well. He was smart, witty and cynical. But if Hecht knew how to move fast, he was also willing to stand his ground when he thought the issue important. Howard Hawks directed the movie Scarface. Hawks was an upper class American and as confident as he was talented. Hawks, like Armitage Trail, also had his own demons but they never interfered with business. Hawks knew how to apply himself and succeed. Of the traditional Hollywood directors that were initially groomed on Hollywood silent cinema he is perhaps the most revered. French critics and movie makers regard him as an auteur.
The Howard Hawks movie version of Scarface is described as a classic. Everyone says so which means it must be. Some of us, or me at least, prefer the intelligent remake by Brian De Palma. Three major Hollywood gangster movies were completed in 1931. These were Little Caesar, The Public Enemy and Scarface. Each has strengths. Little Caesar is cohesive in a way that Scarface is not. The gangster Rico stumbles to inevitable rather than contrived defeat. The Public Enemy has an astonishing performance from James Cagney that convinces. The performance of Paul Muni in Scarface is impressive and exists to be admired but it is theatrical. None of these three movies compare to the Raoul Walsh classic The Roaring Twenties which was released eight years later in 1939. Raoul Walsh matches the bravura of Hawks. The Roaring Twenties also has a substantial plot and characterisation. And just to make everything perfect there is Cagney as the doomed hero. The movie Scarface feels like a series of sketches with a plot that is obliged to make intermittent appearances.
George Raft made his debut in the movie Scarface. He became famous for flipping a coin. The gesture became a trademark for Raft and inspired a joke in the Billy Wilder comedy Some Like It Hot. Hawks said that it was his idea that Raft repeatedly flip the coin. Raft looked the part but was an inexperienced actor. Flipping a coin was an alternative to conversation. George Raft was friendly with gangsters. He was once asked what Capone thought about the movie Scarface. Raft said that Capone liked the Hawks film. This sounds like bravado on the part of Raft. Ben Hecht claimed that two Capone men visited him and asked for an explanation of the unfair representation of their boss. At this point Capone would have been serving a jail sentence for tax evasion. The visit might have been nothing more than friends making a courtesy call on behalf of Capone. The two gangsters had a point. The ambitious gangster in Scarface is called Tony Camonte. Unlike Capone, he is not defeated in a confrontation with the authorities. Camonte makes a fatal and self-destructive error.
Because Hecht and Hawks imagined their central character as a savage innocent, Camonte is naive and awkward with women. Capone worked in brothels and was willing to either buy or use the services of the women. A key element in the movie is the obsessive relationship that Tony Camonte has with his sister. In the novel the relationship between Camonte and his sister is more complicated. The more important sibling relationship is between Tony and his brother, the police officer that kills Tony at the end of the book. The odd relationship between Tony and his sister that exists in the movie adaptation has been praised for its daring. The final scene suggests both incestuous love and social isolation. In the scenes prior to the climax, the script indicates nothing more than the protective instincts of an egotistical and wary male. Overdeveloped instincts perhaps but little to suggest a physical attraction or even the emotional dependency we witness at the climax of the film.
Although the movie is set in Chicago and it borrows ideas and characters from what happened during prohibition it is not representative of the life of Capone. Tony Camonte is an ambitious man that wants to rule all crime in Chicago. He makes progress by killing his boss and then beginning a war with the criminals on the north side of Chicago. Capone did not usurp his boss. He was rewarded when Torrio handed over the organisation that Capone had helped him to run. Torrio left Chicago to lead a quiet life. Loyalty rather than ambition secured Capone his empire. Nor did Capone attack the Moran gang and begin a war to secure control of its business. There were inevitable incidents and grievances between those two Chicago gangs, and others, but no territorial contest. Scarface, the book or movie, should not be blamed for creating a misconception that has fed popular opinion. The notion of Capone as a vicious Napoleon intent on more and more territory was created by the press and the elaboration of gossip. The final image in the movie is of a neon sign with the words, ‘The World Is Yours – Cook’s Tours’. Tony Camonte wanted to conquer the world. There is enough evidence to suggest that Capone did not. What he liked was being a celebrity.
The actors in Scarface are too often compromised by their memories of silent cinema and the theatre but the movie benefits from the contributions of considerable talents. Howard Hawks is a master of robust action. The set pieces and car chases are well staged. Ben Hecht wrote the script in eleven days. There are knowing lines of dialogue and intelligent motifs. Behind the opening credits, a cross suggests the scar that is on the face of Tony Camonte. Crosses appear throughout the film. At the scene of the St Valentine’s Day massacre there are seven crosses on the top of the warehouse door. At one murder we witness the ten pin bowling ball hit a perfect ten. The final pin falls as we hear the fatal shots that have ended the life of the bowler. If others find the film more engaging, there is much to interest even this viewer. The film was both a critical and commercial success. For me, though, the humour unbalances the film. Yet the strangeness of the film is a strength. Hawks and Hecht are knowing and they add the unexpected. At one point Camonte answers the phone by saying, ‘I don’t know.’ What he does not know we never discover. Camonte visits the theatre to watch a stage adaptation of the Somerset Maugham short story, Rain. Forced to leave the play early, Camonte wants to know which bloke the heroine chooses at the end of the play. The lackey left in the theatre tells Camonte what happened but misunderstands the ending.
In insisting that the vicious gangster is a savage innocent with no understanding of civilization the humour becomes condescending. In the cynical hands of Hawks and Hecht the villainous Camonte is condemned for being vulgar and unsophisticated. The movies of Hawks at their best promote teamwork amongst equals. His politics, though, were right wing. Camonte is savage because he has failed to adapt to superior civilisation. The notion that Camonte can be the product of a corrupt and flawed society is beyond Hawks, a director that honours those that are ‘good enough’ to do their jobs. The way Hawks defines ‘good enough’, though, is what makes his films appealing. The police and authorities in Scarface are not handled with sympathy. To satisfy censors the film carries the weight of interference. A newspaper owner and a judge lecture the audience about the behaviour of criminals. These two scenes were inserted after the film was completed by Hawks. The extra heavy-handed material does more than weaken the film. It destroys the rhythm although the tacked on hanging scene works rather well.
The perceptive English film critic, Robin Wood, regards Camonte as a male equivalent of bombshell Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Lorelei may have a narrow view of how the world operates but she understands perfectly the force of her physical appeal. Instead of a flirtatious smile and a wiggle, the innocent Camonte has brute strength and a Thompson submachine gun. The powerful and seductive female and the gangster have competitiveness and ambition in common. Thinking of the connection between Tony Camonte and Lorelei Lee is beneficial. It helps us understand the need of Capone for fame, the pomp and celebrity that undermined his progress.
Howard Jackson has had thirteen books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories, travel books and collections of film criticism. His latest book Long After This is now available here.