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Name: Dan Sallitt
Location: New York, New York, United States

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Scarface: MOMA, December 16, 2007

It's always been hard for me to have an informal relationship with Scarface, because its legend looms so large in my filmgoing life. (I am talking about the original 1932 version. I will never get used to having to make that clear, just as some religious people probably bristle to think that "Madonna" might no longer mean the Virgin Mary to everyone.) When I began reading film literature, commentators often cited it as the greatest work of Howard Hawks, who has always seemed to me the greatest director in cinema history. (These days, I believe that it's more common for critics to give honors to other Hawks movies - Rio Bravo especially.) It was unavailable for screening for decades, like other films owned by Howard Hughes, and could be seen only at clandestine 16mm screenings until the 80s. And, once seen and assimilated into the canon, it became a touchstone, a key test case for what might be termed moralistic criticism. Every time I wonder whether a movie is getting too much pleasure from the exercise of power or violence, my thought process makes an obligatory stop: "But what about Scarface? What does this movie do that Scarface doesn't do?"

All Hawks' films work off of a genre background that creates expectations about how formally, how quickly, how emphatically scenes will play. And then the execution happens more casually and rapidly than expected, creating an illusion of realism, and releasing energy. Depending on the genre, different aspects of Hawks movies can become part of the genre background; and in Scarface I have the feeling that whole chunks of the movie, even scenes with important characters, exist primarily to establish its genre credentials. Despite an amusing reflexive bit in the first shot - in which a janitor bats impatiently at the elaborate Sternberg-like decor, trying to clear the set for Hawksian use - Scarface doesn't truly announce its Hawksian intentions until the violence starts flowing freely. But then the film knocks us back in our seats: not with especially graphic violence, but with the speed and frequency of the mayhem, and also with the directness of its presentation of such frightening material.

The exhilarating effect is hard to deny. What does Hawks do to prevent our celebrating the violence? I'm not really sure that he does anything. Certainly he does not spare us Tony Camonte's cruelty, or hide his crudeness and unattractive qualities. Neither is he much interested in condemning him, despite the studio's many distracting attempts to placate the Hays Office by inserting socially responsible commentary. One feels that Camonte interests Hawks the most as a character in the scenes where he plays parent and teacher to his team of hoodlums, revealing a childlike nature that is comically inadequate to grasping moral issues, and that makes him, if anything, more sympathetic to the audience.

One notes that the thrill of the violence doesn't prevent the film from making an honest account of human suffering. For instance, there is no sense of reversal or contradiction when a brutal shooting scene ends with a barrel of beer rolling into a basement apartment and presumably killing one of its offscreen inhabitants (we hear the wailing of a woman as the scene ends). In general, it doesn't seem that we need to identify with Camonte or his men to appreciate the violent scenes: in fact, the audience probably wouldn't mind much if one of our monster/protagonists met his end amid the sensory overload.

But the joy of combat is represented as well as its human cost. The most exciting and perfectly realized scene in the film, in which Camonte and his minion Rinaldo score a machine gun from the gang who is attacking the restaurant in which they are eating, is very similar in tone to the final shootout with the Burdett gang at the end of Rio Bravo - our excitement at the onscreen violence is intentionally conflated with Camonte and Rinaldo's adrenaline rush from being under fire. The fact that the protagonists are lawmen in Rio Bravo and ruthless gangsters in Scarface does not seem to be a key factor.

The conclusion I draw is that Scarface gets away with giving us enormous pleasure from unspeakable actions because it promotes in us a sense of intellectual and emotional mobility. It does not have to romanticize violence or violent people to get its effects; it does not have to create a narrative that denies us one perspective or another on the violence. In this context, our thrilled response to killing registers simply, a fact among other facts.

You probably won't read this in time, but Scarface screens again at MOMA on Sunday (tomorrow), December 16 at 2 pm.

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Blogger Daniel said...

Interesting angle, I haven't seen the film in years and clearly don't remember its violence but I do remember its speed. I'll be there tomorrow!

December 15, 2007 8:41 PM  
Blogger Dan Sallitt said...

Daniel - I hope my description doesn't have you expecting a gorefest. I suppose one has to put oneself in a 1932 state of mind to be jolted by the violence in the film.

December 16, 2007 4:23 AM  
Blogger David C said...

I'm not so much jolted by the violence (as I am in WHITE HEAT) as swept along and astonished by the pace and the narrative ferocity. But it certainly IS an interesting film to measure our responses to film violence with, as you say, since it clearly allows us to vicariously revel in this stuff. One reason I feel less offended by this movie than by, say, the remake, is the lack of vulgarity to Hawks' version. But also because I feel I'm gaining some insight into the appeal of violence, not just wallowing in it.

December 22, 2007 7:39 AM  
Blogger Dan Sallitt said...

David - I don't feel so much jolted by the violence in Scarface as, I don't know, slapped around? It's like riding in a dodgem car and getting slammed into the walls a lot. The violence in White Heat is more tied to Cody's presence; the human aspect of the violence in Scarface seems less obtrusive.

December 25, 2007 5:51 PM  
Blogger David C said...

The dodgem analogy is a great one. All those car crashes -- like a seventies movie that's gone back in time! -- make me feel the pain of pre-crashbag transport without safety features, the grand old days when folks got impaled on steering columns or cut up on dashboards. For a film without graphic gore there's a strong sense of potential injury throughout. Just been reading Donald Westlake and he used a nice phrase, "in the jouncing darkness" which could apply here.

December 26, 2007 8:36 AM  

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