Friday, August 05, 2011


1932, US, directed by Howard Hawks

I won't try to add much to the wealth already written about Howard Hawks's film, a truly pared-down piece which charts the rise and fall of Tony Camonte (Paul Muni) as he marches relentlessly toward his inevitable end, the film discarding characters left and right without regard to potential audience sympathies. It's that single-mindedness that lingered most in my mind: even the apparent asides, such as the scenes in Camonte's parental home or the bits of comedy with his dim-witted assistant - not that Camonte himself is over-endowed with more than brutish intelligence - are ultimately germane to the outcome, with the comedy reversed to grim effect.

Although I've never cared for Brian De Palma's overblown 1983 version of the same tale, not least because Al Pacino's performance so unbalances even that most shrill of films, I better understood where it was coming from: Pacino's character, if not necessarily his performance, seems much closer in spirit to his 1930s predecessor than I originally realized, both men thuggishly single-minded and entirely oblivious to the likely consequences of their destructive behaviour. Paul Muni's brooding performance embodies a kind of Mr. Hyde character, all id with no sense of consequences; indeed, the characterization might have emerged from a 1930s horror movie as much as from the crime headlines. Ann Dvorak's performance, by contrast, seems to come from a later generation: there's a heart-rending authenticity to her fear and anger, far removed from the stylized screams of a Fay Wray.

(I was particularly amused by the scene where one of Camonte's underlings reveals the ending of the play, and 1928 film, Sadie Hawkins, particularly since Lewis Milestone's reworking of the story, entitled Rain, was in production right around the time that Scarface was released in early 1932.)

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States