Before Al Pacino’s Tony Montana declared the world was his, Paul Muni’s Tony Camonte declared the same thing in this original film based on the Armitage Trail novel.
Italian immigrant Tony Camonte has been hired as a gangster in 1930’s Chicago under Johnny Lovo, who had just ordered a hit on south side boss “Big” Louis Castillo so he can become the new boss. Lovo has a plan to take over all of the speakeasies in the south side of town. However, Tony decides to invade the turf of Irish gangster boss O’Hara on the north side and blow up one of the speakeasies. Despite Lovo’s objections, Camonte continues to wage war to take over the north side. Lovo soon realizes his one-time key lieutenant is out of control.
To make matters worse, Tony begins falling for Poppy, who is Lovo’s moll. Poppy and Tony begin to see each other discreetly. Tony also becomes too much of an overprotective brother to eighteen-year old sister Cesca, who falls for Tony’s friend Guido. Tony eventually becomes the boss of the north side and Johnny, realizing Tony may want to control all of Chicago, sets a plan in motion to get rid of Tony. This becomes the least of Tony’s problems as the police are even after him for all he has done.
While most fans of today’s generation are more familiarized with the 1983 film to star Al Pacino as a ruthless Cuban gangster who takes the Miami drug world by storm, they may not realize that that film is a modern update to this 1932 classic, based on a 1929 novel loosely based itself on the rise and fall of notorious Chicago gangster Al Capone. Screenwriter Ben Hecht, having written the script in 1931, got the approval of producer Howard Hughes, who after going to his own war with the recently established Hays Code, told director Howard Hawks to make the film and to bring a sense of realism and for 1930’s Prohibition-era gangster films, this one delivers. There is also a glimpse of the classic “The World is Yours” that Tony sees as his motto to becoming the ultimate opportunist, in this case, biggest crime boss in Chicago.
Paul Muni brings an excellent performance as the titular Scarface, Tony Camonte. What is interesting is Tony’s calling card, a precursor to when the viewer will know when someone will meet their fate is the use of whistling a tune. This brings a sense of being different from various gangsters of the era. Whereas the gangsters of this era would just go for the jugular, Tony’s use of whistling sends out a warning to his potential victim. As an immigrant trying to make it in Chicago, Camonte aspires to be the best, but must contend with a variety of obstacles from rival gangsters to the police to even his own sister, whose move into adulthood forces Tony to become the overprotective big brother.
Ann Dvorak is pretty good as Cesca, Tony’s younger sister who just wants to enjoy being an adult but makes a dangerous decision to pursue Tony’s friend Guido, played by George Raft. Their relationship is remade by Steven Bauer’s Manny and Mary Elizabeth Mastratonio’s Gina in the remake. The character of Poppy, played by Karen Morley truly personifies the gold digger, opting to leave Johnny for Tony at first discreetly but then more of a relationship that doesn’t have a chance to truly make an impact as much as Tony Montana and Elvira in the remake, but helps drive the gangster to kill his former boss, played by Osgood Perkins.
There was an original ending that met Camonte’s fate in a different way, but it was deemed too controversial, so a more fitting end was shot. Nevertheless, the original Scarface is quite a classic gangster film driven by great performances, especially Paul Muni in the titular role.
WFG RATING: A-
A United Artists Film. Director: Howard Hawks. Producer: Howard Hughes. Writer: Ben Hecht; based on the novel by Armitage Trail. Cinematography: Lee Garmes and L.W. O’Connell. Editing: Edward Curtiss.
Cast: Paul Muni, Ann Dvorak, Karen Morley, Osgood Perkins, George Raft, Boris Karloff, C. Henry Gordon, Vince Barnett, Purnell Pratt.