Saturday, August 27, 2011

Scarface (1932): The Artistry of Violence

Howard Hawks made a career out of delivering various masterpieces in differing genres. Within the screwball comedies genre, both Bringing Up Baby (1938) and His Girl Friday (1940) are classics. Hawks was responsible for many westerns as well, with Red River (1948) and Rio Bravo (1959) as quintessential viewing. Hawks also helped secure Humphrey Bogart’s legendary status with legendary film noirs To Have and Have Not (1944) and The Big Sleep (1946). Yet before Hawks fostered Bogart’s anti-hero image, he made Scarface (1932), a film that is a predecessor to his noir classics. Scarface’s deservedly ultra-violent reputation challenged Production Code rules, and in doing so caused some severe cutting to the film and even led to a re-shooting of the ending. Despite the changes that were enforced, Howard Hawks came up with some creative ways circumvent the Production Code, especially within scenes concerning gun violence.

The establishing scene of gun violence in Scarface (1932) begins (4.25) with the death of Big Louis Costillo (Harry J. Vejar) who is gunned down by Tony Camonte (Paul Muni) while answering a telephone call. Howard Hawks cleverly conveys the cold detached violence with merely a shadow and a whistle. As Tony approaches Big Louis, he leisurely walks up, with his hands in his pockets, while whistling a tune. The menacing shadow that approaches Big Louis conveys a casual approach to murder. Tony shoots him three times, cleans the gun with a handkerchief and tosses it towards his body. Tony strolls out of the scene still whistling, and unfazed by his own actions.

In previous expressionist films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), Nosferatu (1922), M (1931), or even its then contemporary Vampyr (1932), the use of shadowy figures often represented a manifestation of one’s worst nightmare. Shadows can take the form of a crazed murderous somnambulist, maybe a ghoulish vampire, or a child murderer and can even project the incomprehensibility of a fever dream. Yet Hawks creates something different, by introducing a comical approach of a strolling, whistling murderer. According to the Production Code (between 1930 to 1934): “No picture shall be produced which will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience shall never be thrown to the side of crime, wrong-doing, evil or sin.” Yet, Hawks uses a formulaic introduction to a murderer and switches the tone. The film viewer is not meant side with the villain, but already they find him more intriguing than Big Louis (who comes across as a shady, gluttonous, Italian stereotype). Though Tony is the villain of the film, he is also paradoxically the lead protagonist, and ultimately an anti-hero.

The Production Code also stipulated that, “methods of crime should not be explicitly presented.” Hawks cleverly maneuvers around this censorial objection, by showcasing all the violence behind shadows. The Code furthers, that “the use of firearms should be restricted to essentials.” Thus the scene never shows a firearm but rather indicates it with sound effects. Similarly, in the scene where Tony goes to the hospital to finish off one of the hoods that didn’t previously die (28.25), gun sound effects are used while Tony’s body is off screen. Hawks again uses Tony’s shadow as indication of his presence in the victim’s room, and he comically throws flowers on the victim’s body as a final farewell. Hawk’s consistently uses humor to downplay and distract from the perpetual violence. Soon after (28.38), Hawks cuts to the rapid flipping of a calendar, moving to the speed of the sound of a machine gun, and indicating the many deaths occurring within that time span.

Reoccurring constantly in Scarface is the symbol of an X, which can be seen throughout many of the death scenes in the film. When Big Louis is killed by Tony (4.25), a cross (or sideways X), can be seen reflected on the wall as his shadow approaches. When the hospital victim is killed (28.25), an X accompanies Tony’s shadow on the left side. Yet, Hawks most creative use of the X symbol happens at the massacre of the seven mobsters (48.08), where the scene actually opens on multiple X shaped wooden rafters. Hawk uses the multiple X shaped wooden rafters to foreshadow the fate of the mobsters. As the camera pans down, Hawk reveals the shadowy silhouettes of the seven mobsters about to be executed in a St. Valentine’s Day Massacre style. Yet as the sound of machine gun fire explodes on the soundtrack, the room is filled with gunfire smoke, and the silhouettes disappear one by one. Again, Hawks manages to convey the ultimate amount of violence, while showing little bloodshed. As the last shot is heard, the camera pans upward revealing the same seven X shaped wooden rafters.

Though Scarface has plenty of examples of hardcore violence, Howard Hawks utilizes expressionistic filmmaking to convey some of the violence in a more subdued manner. When Gaffney (Boris Karloff) is hiding out from Tony and his gang (50.00), a lighted X appears in the background marking him next for death. Right before Gaffney is finally killed at the bowling alley, he scores a point knocking all the pins down, and one of his men marks an X on his scorecard, which again foreshadows his death. When Gaffney is shot down, Hawk’s camera again pans away from the violence and follows the bowling ball, which knocks all the pins down. Hawks uses the symbolism of toppling bowling pins to convey the human massacre. When Tony kills Guino (George Raft) (120.50), a lighted X appears in the background, signaling again the mark of death. Even Tony’s sister Francesca wears a dress, which has straps in the back that crisscross into an X (101.20). It comes as no surprise that she will not be around by the end credits.

Scarface is by no means a subtle film, and it uses direct examples of gun violence throughout. When indirect means of violent representation is used though, Hawks is at his most creative. The use of shadows and lights effectively penetrates the psychological imagination, where raw and visceral violence does not. Howard Hawks proves himself to be a true artist, one who is able to convey his vision of violence, despite the stringent Production Code restrictions that were imposed on him.

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