Scarface begins with a reigning crime-lord about to meet his demise. Louis Costillo is chatting with his buddies. He has just thrown a huge party for all of his men, and he’s comfortable with his status, content with his accomplishments. His only remaining ambition is to throw a party larger than the last one.
But outside, a broad-shouldered, shadowy figure whistles his way toward the club. It is Tony Camonte, a ruthless hood who is not content with the present hierarchy. In a dog-eat-dog world, he is a much hungrier animal than the satisfied, drunken crime-lord he has come to kill. He is taking steps to achieve his own daybreak, and run the bootlegging business according to his own standards.
Scarface, like so many Satanic films, is noteworthy for its positive portrayal of its villain. Paul Muni plays Camonte as ruthless and impulsive, yet charming and tragic. You feel warmth for him when he boyishly attempts to flatter a woman, and you laugh at him when he is impressed by expensive things.
The film was sold to ’30s audiences on the premise that it was an expose on the depravity of organized crime, and an indictment of government corruption. It is based on the criminal life of Al Capone. However, Muni’s performance as Camonte is so entertaining that we forget to disapprove of his actions. Policemen and newspaper editors play their predictable parts, reminding us of the evils of gangsterism. Yet Camonte steals the show with his irreverence toward authority and abundant enthusiasm for life. When a policeman threatens to beat him during an interrogation, he blithely remarks, “This fellow’s got ideas I don’t like.” When he acquires his first tommy-gun (also known as a “Chicago Typewriter”), he shouts ecstatically, “I’m going to write my name all over the town in big letters!”
Amidst all his human strengths and flaws, Camonte personifies several virtues championed by Satanism. He practices self-reliance, and stresses the importance of taking initiative. He says to his buddy Guino Rinaldo, “In this business there’s only one law you gotta follow to keep out of trouble. Do it first. Do it yourself. And keep on doing it.”
Camonte knows that might determines right. When his boss tries to order him to stay out of the North Side, Camonte fires back, “There’s only one thing that gives orders and gets ’em, and that’s this,” pointing to his gun. He understands there are no rules except for those set by the strong, for everyone else to follow. Camonte doesn’t cloud his mind with ideals. Instead, he pragmatically operates within his milieu. If his city is corrupt, the ambitious entrepreneur acts accordingly.
Scriptwriter Ben Hecht was a Chicago reporter in the teens and early 1920s, and had met several Chicago gangsters during this time, as well as lawyers, judges and policemen. His familiarity with rampant corruption no doubt aided him in conceiving the Scarface script. The film’s violence shocked audiences of its day.
Instead of framing itself within a structure of Judeo-Christian morality, Hecht’s script borrows its plot points from Greek tragedy. Camonte’s ambition compels him to defy his boss Johnny Lovo, to do business on another gang’s territory, to control his sister’s social life, and to pursue Lovo’s girlfriend. These actions all come back to haunt him. His sin is not so much murder or greed, but counterproductive pride. He lacks self-discipline, and hence burns his bridges.
Camonte’s great indulgence ends in a spray of cops’ bullets. Cowardly attempting to evade the authorities, he falls, pathetically, into Chicago’s gutter, a victim of his own unchecked thirst for power.
Fun facts: the opening scene of the film, in which Camonte kills Louis Costillo, takes place on 22nd street, on the South Side of Chicago. 22nd street was later renamed Cermak Street, after Chicago’s mayor Anton Cermak. Cermak had been voted mayor in 1931, and had gained votes by promising to clean up organized crime (The previous mayor hadn’t done anything to stop organized crime). In 1932, Scarface was released, and in 1933, Cermak was assassinated while shaking hands with president-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Martin Scorcese’s Oscar-winning film The Departed is a testament to the sustaining significance of Scarface. Scorcese pays homage to Scarface in two ways. One way is by placing X’s in the background of many shots. X’s were placed in the shots of Scarface to signify an impending death. Also, there’s a scene in The Departed in which Frank Costello attends the opera. He’s watching “Lucia Di Lammermoor.” In Scarface, the melody Camonte whistles before he kills a person is taken from this opera.
[- Miles Jacobsen]