Friday, January 22, 2010

Best Screenplay Of 1931-32: Ben Hecht, Seton I. Miller, John Lee Mahin and W.R. Burnett; from a novel by Armitage Trail (Scarface), Part Three

[To read Part One, click here. To read Part Two, click here.]

III. Tabloid Cinema At Its Best
Scarface premiered in New Orleans, Louisiana, on March 31, 1932, two years after Howard Hughes had acquired the film rights to the story. Denied a proper release thanks to the interference of the Hays Office, the National Board of Review and other state and local censorship boards, the movie played where it could.

Even in its compromised form, though, Scarface was the toughest, most violent picture of its era, boasting twenty-eight deaths (with more off screen), drive-by shootings, bombings, numerous car crashes, and for those lucky enough to see the original ending, a shootout worthy of a more modern movie. It's also credited with being the first picture to show a gangster using a machine gun and it gave us George Raft and his oft-parodied coin-flipping gangster routine.

Scarface is the story of Tony Camonte (Paul Muni), a vicious, small-time thug determined to take what he wants, and what he wants (in the words of Key Largo's Johnny Rocco) is "more." As the movie begins, Tony is working as hired muscle for Johnny Lovo (Osgood Perkins), a Chicago gangster who is tired of waiting in line behind Big Louie Costillo who has grown fat, happy and complacent after years of running Chicago's South Side. After removing Big Louie and taking over his operation, Lovo mistakenly believes he can handle Tony, aiming him like a tommy gun when he needs him, putting him away again when he's served his purpose.

But Tony is a sociopath unable to control his impulses or reign in his appetites. "Some day I'm gonna run the whole works," he boasts. "In this business there's only one law you gotta follow to keep out of trouble: Do it first, do it yourself, and keep on doing it." His ferocity gets Lovo embroiled in a gang war he's not ready for and eventually Tony also tires of waiting in line behind a mob boss he feels has grown fat, happy and complacent, wresting control from Lovo in a bloody confrontation.

Meanwhile, Tony's sister Cesca (Ann Dvorak) falls in love with Tony's best friend and partner in crime, Guino Rinaldo (George Raft), a development as dangerous for the would-be lovers as a gang war is for everybody else—Tony is in love with his sister and will allow no one, not even his best friend, to get close to her.

Predictably, Tony's lack of self-control leads to his downfall. "Someday you're gonna stumble and fall down in the gutter," a police detective tells him, "right where the horses have been standing, right where you belong." And you just know he's right.
(If Ben Hecht didn't write that line, I'll eat the movie.) While typically Hawks's dramas focus on a man aware of his limitations as he runs smack up against a nearly-impossible task, Tony Camonte might be the least self-aware man Hawks ever spent time studying and his lack of self-awareness proves to be his Achilles heel.

The result is one of Howard Hawks's best movies, to my mind the first indispensable movie of his long career. The storytelling is taut, the action intense and well-staged. The camerawork is some of the most involved of his career, for example, using an uninterrupted tracking shot to open the movie in a style reminiscent of the silent opening of Rio Bravo.

Without calling attention to itself in the way, say, the opening of Orson Welles's Touch of Evil does, the shot establishes the ethnicity of the main characters, their buffoonish pretensions and tragic fall, Tony Camonte's treachery and the reluctance of a witness to get involved, all while creating an air of suspense that literally pulls the audience into the story.

Hawks was also beginning to experiment with faster-paced dialogue—twenty percent faster than anything he'd done before, he later said. Although it would be another two years before he began to experiment with overlapping dialogue and rapid-fire delivery in the screwball comedy Twentieth Century, a style that would characterized so many of his later films, the speed and fluidity of Scarface is a welcome relief from the static and stagy efforts of so many of his contemporaries.

Which is not to say that Scarface is a perfect movie. The constant moral- izing of police- men, reporters and politicians is clumsily written, repetitive and tiresome (blame the Hays Office, assistant director Richard Rosson and writer John Lee Mahin). The film's attempts at humor from Tony's illiterate secretary Angelo (Vince Barnett) are too broad for a movie this serious. Further, some have criticized Muni's performance in the title role—writer Ben Hecht who had himself recommended Muni for the part later complained, "He was a make-believe tough guy. You think he's a menace, but he doesn't do anything." (I myself have nominated Muni for a best actor award, so obviously I disagree; but it's a matter of taste.)

And those looking for Hawks's signature elements—male comradery, stoicism in the face of danger, and smart, independent women—will not find them here. What we today think of as a Howard Hawks movie was still a few years up the road.

Still, for all its flaws, Scarface is the best gangster movie of the early sound era and arguably the best gangster movie made before The Godfather in 1972.

It may also be the least glamorous look at crime before Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas. Without The Public Enemy's back story to explain away violent behavior (criminals are made, that film suggests, rather than born), without James Cagney's gleeful energy, Edward G. Robinson's genuine menace, or Clark Gable's roguish sexuality, the portrait of criminals presented in Scarface is of dull-witted buffoons and incestuous sociopaths. The violence may have been thrilling, but I can't imagine anyone walking out of the theater thinking, "Gee, I wish I were Tony Camonte."

Despite favorable reviews and strong box office in those theaters where it played, Scarface received no awards and no nominations. Hughes ultimately withdrew the picture from circulation and except for bootleg copies, it wasn't seen again until 1980.

Of the major participants, Hawks went on to become one of the most acclaimed directors in Hollywood history, giving us such gems as Rio Bravo, Red River, His Girl Friday, Bringing Up Baby, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep and many more. Howard Hughes, as fans of Martin Scorsese already know, was primarily interested in aviation, but he did produce twenty-six movies, including The Outlaw which in 1943 introduced Jane Russell's bosom to a grateful movie-going public. Paul Muni went on to become one of Hollywood's biggest names, earning six Oscar nominations, winning for The Story of Louis Pasteur. Ann Dvorak on the other hand, got into a contract dispute with Warner Brothers and despite a brief flurry of good movies in the early '30s, wound up making B-pictures until her retirement in 1952. (You can read more about her at Operator 99's blog "Allure.") George Raft had a long career playing gangsters and tough guys but he also had an uncanny ability to turn down good parts, rejecting the lead roles in High Sierra, The Maltese Falcon and Double Indemnity.

As for the authors of the screenplay, Ben Hecht was nominated for six Oscars during his career, winning two, for Underworld and The Scoundrel, though his best known work now is probably the screenplay for the Alfred Hitchcock classic, Notorious.

W.R. Burnett continued to work as a screenwriter and novelist, earning an Oscar nomination for 1942's Wake Island. Along with fellow novelist James Clavell, he also co-wrote the screenplay for The Great Escape in 1963.

Seton I. Miller went on to write sixty-nine movies, including the original screenplay for The Adventures of Robin Hood, and shared the Oscar for Here Comes Mr. Jordan with Sidney Buchman.

John Lee Mahin most often worked with director Victor Fleming (he of Gone With The Wind), contributing to ten of Fleming's movies. Mahin helped found the Screen Writers Guild, but opposed his co-founders' leftist politics and joined the Screen Playwrights instead. He was later an outspoken critic of Communism during the McCarthy Era but denied involvement in the blacklists of the period, saying, "If [screenwriters] were a threat to the American way of life, the American way of life isn't worth a shit, you know?" He was twice nominated for an Oscar, for Captains Courageous and Heaven Knows, Mister Allison.

Armitage Trail (a.k.a. Maurice Coons), whose novel inspired the movie, never saw the finished production. He died of a heart attack in October 1930 shortly after his arrival in Hollywood. He was only twenty-eight. His brother, Hannibal Coons, wrote for television, including twenty-five episodes of The Addams Family.

Scarface itself is now regarded as an indispensable part of the Hollywood film canon. Hawks called it his favorite movie and Jean Luc-Godard once named it the best American movie ever made. In his 1974 book Talking Pictures, Richard Corliss called Scarface "a kind of cinematic version of tabloid prose at its best" and "the alpha and omega of Hollywood's first gangster craze."

In 1994, the Library of Congress included Scarface in the National Film Registry, and in 2006, the American Film Institute selected it the sixth best gangster movie ever made. The AFI also included Paul Muni's Tony Camonte on its list of the fifty greatest villains of movie history.

And what did the movie's inspiration, Al Capone, think of Scarface? He liked it so much, he obtained a copy for his own personal collection.

Note: In Part One of this essay, I wrote, with regard to what role each of the credited writers played in preparing the final screenplay for Scarface, "Whether [Seton I.] Miller and [John Lee] Mahin worked together as a team or one after the other, I can't say (given the degree to which Miller later resented collaborating with other writers, the latter seems likely)." Since then, I found a photo of the "cutting continuity" (which Joseph's Glossary of Film Terms defines as "a list containing information about camera setups, dialogue, and other aspects of each shot of the final cut of the film") which lists Ben Hecht as the screenplay's author with "continuities" by Miller.

Assuming this is a copy of the cutting continuity for Hawks's version of the film (the document is dated 1931) before Richard Rosson shot additional footage, then I would have to conclude that Mahin was brought in to write the alternate ending for Scarface. Maybe other dialogue as well. I can't swear to this though since I haven't actually read the cutting continuity. It can be purchased for a mere $3500, which is about $3490 more than my budget allows for this sort of thing. If someone has read it, or otherwise can say where Miller and Mahin come into the story, let me know.


Who Am Us Anyway? said...

I love Scarface -- 'course i'm a sucker for gangster movies generally, but as you say, this really is sumpin' else.

And by cool coincidence re your mention of Mr. Hughes, Ms. Who & I are set to watch The Aviator tonight (for the first time) (only 6 years late). Love the great posters & screen captures here too: excellent, excellent finds Myth! What a great post.

Lupner said...

I'm sold. Gotta get me a copy of this one . . .