The true horror of Howard Hawks’ grimly satisfying pre-code gangster elegy Scarface is that you find yourself falling in love, at least a little, with the scrappy, heartless thug at its center: Paul Muni’s Tony is a rising star in the Chicago mob, swaggering his way toward total control of the city. He has a suave right-hand man who’ll do anything for him, George Raft’s laconic Rinaldo, and a sister he adores, Ann Dvorak’s Cesca, though he’s possessive of her in a darkly unhealthy way. Tony has no morals and no manners, but there’s also something naively cheerful about him. When Rinaldo hands him his first tommy gun, his delight hits like a flare. “Look,” he says, “you can carry it around like a baby!”—he’s awful and bitterly funny at once. But Tony is no good—the film is set up to make sure we know it’s really a serious social-issues picture, standing firmly against the horror of lawless gangsters. As a director, among the greatest of them all, Hawks walks the razor’s edge between playing on Tony’s raffish, murderous appeal and keeping sight of the reality that ultimately, law and order must win the day. The movie’s ending is as cold as a frozen cadaver, and aptly so. But something goes out of you when Tony loses the fight; you feel a little complicit in both his crimes and his downfall. And that’s how Hawks gets you, leading you to a place of regret and sympathy you couldn’t have imagined when the movie started.
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