Hollywood’s pre-Code era saw filmmakers venturing out on the frontiers of free expression, testing the limits of humor and taste in their depictions of social and sexual mores with relatively little organized interference. While the Hays Code wasn’t strictly enforced until 1934, there were instances before then when Will Hays’s then-more-feeble power, along with the loudly professed moral outrage of various individual state censorship boards, was used to directly alter the content of motion pictures, including Howard Hawks’s influential gangster film Scarface.
After being greeted with initial handwringing over its supposed glorification of crime and violence, producer Howard Hughes caved to demands from the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors of America to add a declamatory prologue calling on the federal government to deal with organized grime, reshoot a different ending that was more harshly judgmental of its protagonist, and tack on an unnecessary subtitle, The Shame of a Nation, to the title card in certain markets. This knee-jerk reaction from censors to Scarface is a testament to the raw, visceral power of its images, which, more often than not, suggest violence rather than directly depict it, even in the uncensored version, which thankfully remains intact.
Hawks’s masterful, almost expressionistic use of shadows and rapid-fire montage—particularly in the bone-chilling scene where Tony (Paul Muni) and his men drive around the northside of Chicago assassinating rival gang leader Tom Gaffney’s (Boris Karloff) men—brings an almost maniacal energy to the film. This remarkable sequence, clearly an inspiration for the famed, montage-like baptism scene from Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, is so unsettling not because of the violence that’s suggested, but because of Hawks’s compression of time and action, following the bombing of a building with a thrilling flurry of drive-by shootings, car crashes, and other collateral damage. Impressive for both its sheer efficiency and brute force, this sequence also perfectly embodies the ethos of its antihero, whose rise to the top of Chicago’s criminal underworld is explicitly connected to the flashing, almost-taunting words on a billboard outside his apartment window: “The World Is Yours.”
One major change willingly made to Scarface to appease the censors—a hacky speech at a Citizens Committee meeting that’s as pleasantly surprising for its anti-gun sentiments as it is loathsome for its anti-immigrant rhetoric—suggests that organized crime is the result of external, anti-American influences. But Scarface otherwise takes a far more pessimistic view of America, linking Tony’s unbridled greed and obsessive lust for power with the country’s de facto ethic of rugged individualism and the promise of the American dream to all who work hard enough to achieve it. It’s a message that obviously resonated with moviegoers entering the third year of the Great Depression, but Scarface is never weighed down too much by its social commentary. In fact, it’s quite tonally dexterous. Not only does Hawks work wonders with expressive shadows and fluid camerawork, most eloquently evidenced in the film’s three-minute opening shot and the brief but shocking take on the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, there’s also a good deal of offbeat, borderline slapstick, humor weaved into the film.
From Muni’s simianesque lumbering throughout the frame, wielding a tommy gun with all the wide-eyed glee of a kid on Christmas morning, to Vince Barnett, as Tony’s imbecilic secretary, fumbling to answer the phone and take a message, the film doesn’t lack for moments of absurd levity. Muni and the filmmakers’ uncanny ability to walk this imperceptible line between comedy and tragedy and create an antihero who’s grotesque yet still somewhat sympathetic (certainly aided by screenwriter Ben Hecht) is key to what makes Scarface continue to feel so bracingly modern. But it certainly doesn’t hurt that, while the film’s namesake was initially a not-so-subtle reference to Al Capone, Tony is of a hypermasculine, rapacious breed of man who, despite the claims of the Citizens Committee, is distinctly American, and would continue to be in the 21st century. Which is to say, the world belongs to him.
Imprint’s 1080p presentation of the film is a bit inconsistent, as the image occasionally appears on the soft side and is lacking in detail in the background. Fortunately, this is only an issue across a handful of scenes. The contrast ratio is overall fantastic, with the image boasting strong black levels, which, along with the hefty amount of grain, gives this transfer the lush look of true celluloid. The sound in a Pre-code film will always be somewhat limited in quality, but the hollow tinniness inherent to such works is kept to a minimum by the 24-bit mono track. Most importantly, the dialogue is consistently crisp and clear.
On his fantastic commentary track, film historian Drew Casper doles out formal analysis and historical background in equal measure. Casper is every bit at ease breaking down Howard Hawks’s visual style and use of recurring motifs as he is discussing the personal obsessions and professional careers of the filmmaker, producer Howard Hughes, and screenwriter Ben Hecht. It’s an extremely well-researched and detailed track that has more than enough offer to fans of Scarface, Hawks, and Pre-code Hollywood in general. Imprint has also included two great interviews that nicely complement one another. In the first, film critic Matthew Sweet posits that Scarface is America’s story of itself in the 1930s and its coming to terms with its relationship to violence and gangster capitalism. In the second interview, critic Tony Rayns dives deep into Hawks’s privileged upbringing and fondness for fast cars and planes, as well as his friendships with Hughes and Hecht. The disc also comes with a short intro by the late Robert Osborne, an alternate ending, the theatrical trailer, and even includes both the original theatrical and alternate censored versions of the film in their entirety.
Howard Hawks’s thrilling, conflicted, and viscerally charged gangster film gets a sturdy transfer and stellar assortment of extras from Viva Vision’s Imprint label.
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