An aberration of the soon-to-be-implemented, puritanical Hays Code, Howard Hawks’ twitchy, rough-housed Scarface is a coarse rampage of firebrand cinematic verve, a sojourn into the underworld, into death, that paradoxically and perversely reflects cinema at its liveliest. Early sound cinema is often (falsely) denied vitality and dismissed as stodgy, but Scarface has a bullet or two to quell those who would deny it. Independently financed by Howard Hughes, Scarface trumpets its independent spirit as an ambivalently trashy social expose that wears its heart and its brain on its pistol. Cinema in the raw, it displays casual mastery of technique but invokes the shambolic one-take sloppiness of a killer Neil Young album.
The rise and fall of Antonio Camonte (Paul Muni), an obvious Al Capone stand-in, is the perfect clothing line to string up a film that teeters perilously on the pre-Code formula of rejoicing in the gutter while also ameliorating moral concerns with a sufficiently ragged, harsh atmosphere of pitiless dehumanization that refuses to glamorize the aforementioned lifestyle. But unlike most social message pictures, Scarface doesn’t boast the kind of “listen up here” moral hand-wringing that could choke a horse. Instead, in its shrieks and sirens and scowls, it entrusts not the content of its dialogue but the form, the noise itself, the vocal tones, to do all the choking. Hawks, one of the great masters of screen sound, roughs up the screen in the coarsened gravel of hard-living voices and the disharmonic display of human noises intermingling with bullets until any sense of dichotomy between the two is an illusory fiction. These characters are men who shoot like they speak: indiscriminately, spraying with loose-diction and vicious indiscretion.
By the beginning of the next decade, Hawks would mutate this discordant aural infection into the wonderfully abrupt pitter-patter of Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday, but already, Scarface inflects the aural space with the squeals of a harried metropolis. The world of sound, essentially, brought to cinema the messiness of the social world, the clumsiness of human conflict that cannot be pacified by directed visual viewing. While the MGM musical channeled sound into a social binding mechanism where people bonded around the conviviality and order of collective vocal agency, Scarface marshals the aural realm into a weapon of dissonance, bedlam, and malignancy. In one bravura clip, the passage of time is abstracted through a slurry of punctuating bullets that thrash a calendar on the screen and slather the temporal realm in sonic pandemonium. Sound, the film suggests, could tear cinema to tatters.
Muni, in a banner early year with I Was a Fugitive from a Chain Gang rearing its head as well, is the most malignant of all, a snorting renegade, a personification of the maddened mania of Hawks’ unbounded-by-civility style. His performance, all unpracticed charisma and lines not so much rehearsed as slurred, cackles with dissonant overlaps of live-wire swagger and discordant death-choked energy. It’s a disarming role for those accustomed to his eventual fame as the mildew in watery, benign, hopelessly uptight social consciousness biopics later in the decade. In an about face, Scarface, and Muni in the role, blows its tongue at those films, those roles, before punching them in the face and peppering them with the rat-a-tat of its gloriously disreputable, maddened mania.
Unlike those films, Scarface – fried in a pan of social malaria – isn’t defiled in the muck of hopeless individualism; this isn’t Camonte the Great Man or Camonte the Great Brute but simply Camonte, a random guy taking a toxic swill of the social underworld and enjoying it while it lasts. Reconceptualizing success not only along the murderous profit lines of the subaltern underworld, Scarface’s vernacular also ensnares the need for a stitched-together narrative and corrodes it in an acid bath of loosely tethered scenes. The anti-flow nonchalantly showcases the tatters of the temporal realm for gangsters who live life in a series of unending conflicts that cannot be narrativized or purified in the fires of linear development. The set pieces, limned from the inventive conflagration of Fritz Lang’s Mabuse films and their off-shoots, control the film and reconceptualize life not as a story but a flurry of impressions that run away from our desire to connect them.
Even on visual terms, Scarface is cinema that doesn’t calm down. Hawks and cinematographer Lee Garmes (one of the greats, working with everyone from von Sternberg to Hitch to Vidor to Nicholas Ray, a filmmaker influenced by Scarface if ever there was one) graft from German Expressionism for a delirious opening panic attack. The film crawls through the simultaneously cluttered and vacant void of physical space with phantom shadow people festering all around the edges of the screen. Visualized here, the baroque excess of Expressionism (Americanized through Josef von Sternberg’s imaginative fantasias) is gutted by grotty social realism for an unbalanced, unstable visual perspective that smashes styles together with a near-violent self-interest. The film treats expressionism as an accompaniment rather than a center, introducing expressive ornamentation within an otherwise bruised, semi-realist world. It depicts not a world controlled by imaginative expressionistic fancy, completely able to subsume itself to noirish imagination, but a world threatened by expressive fear lurking on the edges that is nonetheless but never granted the beauty of running away with its imagination.
Which is fitting. Camonte and the like are decidedly unpoetic, unimaginative souls, and their lives are never romanticized through visual iridescence; the style is too beaten up, too grungey, to invoke a wonder that doesn’t exist in this world. Sure, the content is men who kill, but we’ve been there and done that. Scarface works because of the form it takes, the stylistic mantra it inhabits: killer cinema. The film tests the forbidden fruit of capitalism through its sociopathic, primal id energy, corralling the American Dream into an affront of anarchy with a protagonist who alienates capitalism from itself by perverting the capitalist hunger for individualism, self-control, and sovereignty into the economic system’s unholy, essential self. Camonte never violates capitalism; he simply reveals its true, asocial colors, forcing the system to hide its nasty soul by whipping itself back into more middle-brow, safeguarded forms of oppression. Camonte isn’t our antithesis by any means. He’s us; much like the film, he simply cuts out the fat.