Forget Brian De Palma’s remake; Howard Hawks’ original Scarface from 1932 is the goods as far as classic gangster flicks are concerned. Taken together with Mervyn LeRoy’s Little Caesar (1930) and William Wellman’s The Public Enemy (1931), it marks the essence of the genre—yet it takes everything to new heights. Of the three movies, it’s the nastiest, most brutal and kinkiest (the incestuous nature of Tony Camonte’s fixation on his sister is undisguised)—and the darkest of the lot. Paul Muni stars in his breakthrough role as the more-or-less screen version of Al Capone—and for an actor who would come to be known for his “prestige” performances, he pulls out all the stops in his portrayal of completely insane and unchecked evil. Muni was often a bit hammy, but here the ham is like a terrifying force of nature.
Scarface is fascinating entertainment on so many levels that it’s impossible to even scratch the surface here. It’s an atypically stylized and symbol-laden film for Hawks—fascinatingly so. The constant use of the symbol “X” (in various forms) as a harbinger of impending death may be on the more-clever-than-good level, but it’s certainly creative and entertaining. In addition to Muni, the film also offers George Raft (doing his trademark coin-flipping shtick) in his breakthrough role—along with Boris Karloff in something other than his breakthrough role. There’s also one of the rare screen appearances of Broadway star Osgood Perkins, who is best known today for having been Anthony Perkins’ father. All in all, it’s simply the quintessential classic gangster picture.