Scarface, The Shame of the Nation (1932)

Scarface, The Shame of the Nation (1932)

“Colorful?! What color is a crawling louse?”

A ruthless aspiring ganglord (Paul Muni) zealously protects his young sister (Ann Dvorak) from suitors while wooing the sultry mistress (Karen Morley) of his boss (Osgood Perkins); meanwhile, with help from his loyal henchman (George Raft), he wreaks murderous havoc on rival gangsters while attempting to take over new territory in Chicago.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Ann Dvorak Films
  • Boris Karloff Films
  • Gangsters
  • George Raft Films
  • Howard Hawks Films
  • Karen Morley Films
  • Paul Muni Films

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary begins his review of Scarface by noting that this “best of the early gangster films was completed by Howard Hawks in 1930 but was held up by censors until several changes were made”, in order for “the public to understand that the motion-picture industry was also infuriated by crime.” However, as Peary points out, this film hardly glamorizes gangster life, given that “Paul Muni’s Tony Camonte, who, like many movie gangsters, was based in part on Al Capone, is a stupid, loutish, ugly brute — his scar is his best facial feature since he’s made up to resemble an apeman (he’s like Fredric March’s Mr. Hyde minus the fangs).”

He adds that “screenwriter Ben Hecht based his crime family on the Borgias, so he had a model for the corruption, cruelty, power-lust and decadence that exists” — including “an incest theme” but minus any parental influence; Tony’s father is non-existent and his mother (Inez Palange) is completely ineffectual. Peary correctly notes that “no one who sees this film would want to emulate the lives of these criminals” — but with that said, the “film has exciting, atmospheric cinematography by Lee Garmes; taut, inspired direction by Hawks; and a powerful script by Hecht (with additional dialogue credit going to John Lee Mahin, Seton I. Miller, and W.R. Burnett).”

In GFTFF, Peary outlines several of the film’s highlights, including “the opening, in which the camera pans for several minutes across an emptying party room and ends up showing the first victim being murdered”; and “gangster Boris Karloff being shot just as he bowls — the camera follows the ball down the lane, where it knocks over all the pins, including the king pin, which spins for a while and topples over.” In Alternate Oscars — where he names this the Best Film of the Year — Peary writes that “for real, reel-to-reel excitement, no film filled the bill better than” Scarface, “the best and most ferocious of the gangster cycle.” He notes that “the gangster world Hawks presents is unsavory, sordid, and not enticing” — though “males might be drawn to the beautiful, trampy women played by Ann Dvorak and Karen Morley (two of the great unsung actresses of the period).” (Indeed, Dvorak “almost steals the film”.) Peary adds that “the gangsters themselves are childlike, ignorant brutes who could stand no other company but their own and play dangerously stupid games… We don’t want to be like them and we don’t want to walk the streets when they’re around.”

In GFTFF, Peary writes that Muni “gives one of his finest performances — it is his one character for whom you can feel no sympathy”, and he awards Muni Best Actor of the Year in Alternate Oscars, noting that “Muni plays his character as if he were a cocky punk teenager. Unsophisticated and immature (like all other gangsters), he’s self-impressed, overrates his intelligence (he is proud to use the word disillusioned), boasts nonstop, acts tough, doesn’t listen to his mother…, and is always looking for a good time.” He considers machine guns “toys”, women “meat”, and “likes anything that is ‘hot’.” While he “is usually having a good time” — at which moments “we fear his recklessness” — he “suddenly shifts from being carefree to being serious” and is “downright creepy.” As “Muni’s eyes, face, and tone of voice quickly change”, we “realize what a frightening, depraved individual Tony is.” I find Muni’s performance a tad overdone, but would agree he’s fully invested in his role and quite memorable — as is the entire atmospherically filmed narrative, which is well worth a look by all film fanatics.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Strong performances throughout

  • Lee Garmes’ cinematography

  • Ben Hecht’s script

Must See?
Yes, as an early gangster classic.


(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)


2 thoughts on “Scarface, The Shame of the Nation (1932)

  1. A no-brainer must-see, for its solid place in cinema history. As per my 12/2017 post in ‘Film Junkie’ (fb):

    “Instead of trying to hide the facts, get busy and see that laws are passed that’ll do some good!”

    ‘Scarface’: After saying the above, a newspaper publisher (upon being blamed for ‘glorifying’ gangsters) goes on to scream back at his critics, “Let’s get wise to ourselves – we’re fighting organized crime!” That was 1932: nowadays we can’t go to our government to pass laws that will do some good, much less govern in any way at all. It’s odd to go back in film history and see something like this Howard Hawks classic (which I’d never seen). What threatened society from without is now the organized crime that threatens from within. …At any rate, this thinly veiled document of Al Capone’s reign of terror is powerful cinema (it gets tougher and tougher as it goes). Paul Muni gives one of his least hammy performances as Tony Camonte – and, unlike Al Pacino in De Palma’s remake, does not say “Say hello to my little friend!” Supporting him are George Raft as his best bud (who flips quarters here as he eventually would in ‘Some Like It Hot’), Osgood Perkins (father of Anthony – and here sometimes sounds like him) and Boris Karloff – adding a peculiarly different but still menacing tone to his voice. Producer Howard Hughes had huge censorship issues with this film (even without the incest angle that De Palma would later use) – to such a degree that he released the film only in states that didn’t have strict censorship boards. The result: he had a smash hit on his hands.

  2. Agreed, a no brainer must as a genuine classic and significant within its genre. Very much a precode classic. The 1983 De Palma isn’t quite as good, but has become a modern classic in its own right and is equally must see.

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