Combustible Celluloid
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With: Paul Muni, Ann Dvorak, Karen Morley, Osgood Perkins, George Raft, Boris Karloff
Written by: Ben Hecht, Seton I. Miller, John Lee Mahin, W.R. Burnett, based on a novel by Armitage Trail
Directed by: Howard Hawks
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 93
Date: 03/31/1932

Scarface (1932)

4 Stars (out of 4)

X Marks the Spot

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Howard Hawks' Scarface stars Paul Muni as up-and coming gangster Tony Camonte, who supplies booze during Prohibition and covets gangster's moll Poppy (Karen Morely). He has a pathological need to protect his sister (Ann Dvorak), who is secretly in love with Tony's friend Guino (George Raft).

Hawks was never a show-off director, but Scarface is full of delicious imagery, like the "X" symbol that shows up whenever anyone is dead or as good as dead. Or the scene in which Camonte's men are roughing up a bootleg bartender. Hawks zeroes in not on the violence, but on the beer tap running over onto the floor. Or the scene that Truffaut immortalized, when rival gang leader Boris Karloff gets rubbed out while bowling, and a single pin remains spinning and standing for a second longer before falling.

Morley -- who definitely has "moxie" -- gets off a few great zinger lines on dumb brute Muni, courtesy of screenwriter Ben Hecht and his team. Scarface is unquestionably one of the greatest talking American movies ever made, and has been terribly underrated all through this century.

Even though Scarface was made before the Hays code, censors of the time were concerned with public moviegoers identifying with gangsters, and they asked producer Howard Hughes for certain changes. Some prints today still contain unrelated scenes in which other characters try to make the gangsters seem immoral. Even the subtitle "Shame of the Nation" was by order of the censors.

Note: This movie played at the 1999 San Francisco International Film Festival as part of its "The Unvanquished" series, in tribute to Karen Morley. Blacklisted in the 1950s for supporting an actors' strike, she was active until her death in 2003. In 2012, Universal released a new DVD as part of the studio's 100th anniversary.

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