When Scarface: The Shame of a Nation was released in 1932, just as the Hays Production Code was taking effect, you could practically feel it being pulled in two different directions. On the one hand, you have an exciting crime drama, capitalizing on both the charming star quality of lead actor Paul Muni and the highly publicized gangster activity amidst Prohibition. On the other hand, your production is under serious pressure not to make it too exciting, and to ensure that at every turn the audience remembers that these are the actions of a bad man who will inevitably be punished for his misdeeds. The birth of the antihero in Scarface requires some mental gymnastics, a feat that the film mostly achieves, albeit by contradicting itself every step of the way.
Scarface: The Shame of a Nation stars Paul Muni as Tony Camonte, a rough-around-the-edges Italian immigrant whose ambitions help him to rise from lowly hitman to key gangster on the South Side of Chicago. He’s crass, violent, and controlling, but there’s a wolfish charm about him that captivates audiences. As he careens towards his inevitable destruction, we may not always like him, but we can’t help but be intrigued by him. Loosely based on the story of Al Capone, it taps into a popular narrative of the glamorous life of the Chicago gangster that was prevalent at the time.
This was a big problem for the folks over at the Production Code office, which began operating in 1930 and had full control in Hollywood by 1934- because we’re not supposed to become emotionally invested in the life and exploits of a criminal. The Production Code explicitly warns against films showing drug trafficking, guns, murder, seduction, and sympathy for those involved in crime. Scarface has all of these things and more. So the only way for the film to get made at all is to backtrack, in an elaborate dance, at every possible turn.
A solemn title card opens the film, spelling out that it’s an “indictment of gang rule in America” and a plea for the government to take action. Here, in an effort to control the narrative, it frames itself as providing moral commentary rather than salacious entertainment. It shows Tony and other characters commit murder, and then treats us to a monologue from a journalist or policeman about the scourge of crime in America, reminding the viewer which side we’re supposed to be on. It catalogs the entire rise and fall of Tony’s criminal empire, a twisted version of the American dream that we cannot help but buy into, but it can only do so if the movie ends in a very specific way.
The price for showing all of the violence and immorality contained within Scarface is that the finale must show, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that these actions will always be punished. Tony must be broken. And it’s not enough that he dies: He has to lose everything first, including his dignity, and then be mowed down, the lights of a billboard that says “The World Is Yours” twinkling ironically in the background. Unlike in a Western, he doesn’t get a heroic last stand – he is shot by police while attempting to flee.
This duality extends to the character of Tony himself. He is shown as the dutiful eldest son of an immigrant family, determined to help them all rise to a new social status and obsessed with protecting the virtue of his younger sister, Cesca (Ann Dvorak). But here, too, his instincts are made perverse. His obsession with her virginity goes well beyond the actions of a well-intentioned older brother – in many scenes, he looks more like a jealous lover. The incestuous tone to their relationship is hardly subtle; at one point after he berates her for wanting to have a life, he tells her that he’s her brother, as if to say that it’s only natural he would be resistant to the idea of her dating men. Her response is damning: “You don’t act it! You act more like … I don’t know, sometimes I think –” This is to say nothing of a later scene where she emerges from one of their fights with her dress torn, the universal cinematic cue for sexual violence.
That Scarface is not crushed under the weight of the looming Production Code strictures is a testament to both the performances and Howard Hawks’ directorial ability. It’s torn between telling a compelling story and meeting the moral guidelines of the time, and for the most part it balances these well. But beyond its status as a great early gangster film, Scarface also serves as a cinematic example of one of the most enduring questions in Hollywood, which is still being debated: Can a film depict immoral activity without seeming to endorse it? Furthermore, shouldn’t a film merely put forth a narrative and allow audiences to judge for themselves?
“Scarface” is available for digital rental or purchase.