Ben Hecht was one of the screenwriters, and he tried to mock Al Capone by way of the Borgias, but I’m not sure the audience got it, even then. Paul Muni’s Tony Camonte works for fellow Italian immigrant John Lovo, but from the start you can see he’s already getting too big for Lovo. Where the DePalma version backed up and showed how Tony Montana started out as a refugee kid and worked his way into the mafia organization. Tony is already on his way up when we meet him. After wiping out the competition, Tony puts the moves on Lovo’s girl, Lovo tries to have him offed, and is in turn retired. The DePalma version followed the story fairly closely.
The Hecht sarcasm is missing from the DePalma version, of course, since DePalma took the attack on Capone, “the shame of a nation,” and spun it into a caustic take on the American Dream movie makers think about more than the people trying to live that dream. I prefer Hecht’s more focused take, turning Tony and his party girl sister into an almost incestuous duo who end up going out in glory. (Although once sis is out of the picture, Tony suddenly develops a case of Joseph Breen Disease, and turns yella so the kids in the audience will realize Crime Does Not Pay. This affliction comes only after 95% of a movie’s running time has been devoted to showing how well crime pays.)
Sending up Capone as an incestuous Bogia didn’t hurt Capone’s opinion of the movie. (He was known for having a scar on his face. Still, he supposedly loved the movie and owned a copy.) Seeing it now, after a gradual opening half hour, this thing really moves. It’s thrilling watching Muni’s troglodyte-like mobster simply working his way through his plan to bump off all the competition until it’s only natural that he should take over the gang–what else CAN a guy like him do? He moves forward, not from some dream, really, he’s too mentally sluggish for that, it’s just what a guy in that position does.
The backlot street scenes and art direction create a tight world of night time and pool halls. The movie opens with a shot of a street sign that brings us past a painted mood-setting backdrop and doesn’t end until we’re inside the restaurant where the first hit happens. Hawks was so good at getting into the meat of this kind of story–he could hook us with that energy that makes Tony attractive to Poppy, the girl he steals from his boss. This is an urban jungle, all right, and he’s the alpha of the pack. Poppy is drawn to him, away from Norman Bates’ dad, and it just makes perfect sense. We’re shown this in her behavior toward him, first complete disinterest until she sees what kind of man he is. Then it just makes sense that she would be pulled in his direction.
The use of “The World Is Yours” as Tony’s driving force is done with more subtlety than in the remake, the phrase appearing on a travel company ad. George Raft flips a coin and gives the only really bad performance other than the one by the actress playing the-a Italian-a Momma-a.
Though at first I was afraid it was another older flick that hadn’t aged well, after the first twenty minutes or so Scarface is a fast, dark little gem with fast action and lots of violence for its time. No wonder the production code went nuts over this sort of thing. Tony is explicitly shown gaining fame, power, money and women by picking up a gun. There is a laughable scene in which we’re lectured by Good Citizens about how awful Tony is.
Yeah, yeah, we think, now now let’s get back to the babes and machine-gunning of our enemies!
There was an alternate ending shot because the original glorified Tony’s demise. In the alternate, partly seen from Tony’s P.O.V., he is tried, convicted and then hanged. The officer puts a hood over the camera, putting the viewer in the place of Tony–not much better than the original ending in which Tony goes out on his feet. (The last-minute jitters are the one bum note in Muni’s performance.) Just as with DOUBLE INDEMNITY, Scarface lost its coda in which our protagonist faces capital punishment.