Scarface (1932) Howard Hawks


    Howard Hawks “Scarface” follows the typical rise and fall of a gangster, similar to the two other gangster classics of the period, “Little Caesar” and “The Public Enemy” however, here the bodies pile up much quicker and a lot more violently. There is more action and shooting in the independently shot “Scarface”,  than in both of the studio system films combined. Even for a pre-code film “Scarface” is strong stuff. There is plenty of sexual innuendo, including a strong hint of incestuous interest by Tony Camonte (Paul Muni) toward his sister Cesca (Ann Dorvak). Tony is perversely possessive of his sister scaring off a boyfriend after catching them kissing. “I don’t want anyone puttin’ their hands on you!” he tells her. At one point during this exchange he even violently rips part of her  dress. Cesca however, is too free-spirited to accept being sheltered by the dominant Tony. She is well aware that he acts more like a jealous lover than a brother. This abnormal relationship will come back to haunt them both later in the film.scarface

   Tony however, does not mind hitting on someone else’s sister or mistress as we discover when he meets his boss Johnny Lovo’s (Osgood Perkins) mistress, Poppy (Karen Morley).  The first time they meet, Poppy is sitting at a dressing table in a flimsy dressing gown. When introduced by Lovo to Tony she cannot be bothered to cover up an exposed thigh from his wandering eyes.

   With all the bodies piling up and the sex, the censors came down hard on “Scarface.” Produced by Howard Hughes, “Scarface” was the last of the three seminal gangster films to released in the early 1930’s. Originally scheduled to be released in 1931 the film came out in March of 1932 due to a protracted censorship battle with the Will Hays Office and various State Film censorship boards including the powerful New York State Board. The censors felt there was too much glorification of gangsters in recent films like “Little Caesar” and “The Public Enemy.” scarfaceposter5They were demanding that the violence in “Scarface” be toned down and the lead character, Tony Camonte, be punished and condemned for his deeds. This  forced a second ending to be filmed long after the film wrapped. Muni and director Hawks were long gone by the time second ending was filmed. In this alternate version Muni is never seen (alternate ending is included on the DVD as an extra).  Additionally, a subtitle, “The Shame of a Nation” was added as well as an introductory text condemning the gangster lifestyle, blaming the government and demanding that something be done. Still after all this, some censors refused to let the film be released. Finally, producer Hughes scrapped the revised ending and released the film as originally shot in States with lenient film censorship boards. Subsequently, the world premiere was held in New Orleans. When the film was eventually released in New York, it was a censored version that both the critics and the public saw. In Chicago, the film was not released until 1934. Due its limited distribution and its late release toward the end of the first wave of the great gangster film cycle “Scarface” did well at the box office however, not as good as the earlier released films. About 1947, the film was pulled from distribution and became unavailable for public viewing except for some poorly chopped up bootleg versions floating around the underground market. In 1980, now owned by Universal, the uncensored version was finally shown in New York State at a special showing as part of the New York Film Festival. 

scarface1    While loosely based on the life of Al Capone (Capone was originally upset with the film’s likeness but eventually changed his mind and even had a personal copy of the film), the film’s realism was enhanced by screenwriter Ben Hecht’s familiarity with the Chicago underworld, and such real life Chicago mob figures as North Side gang leader, Dion O’Banion and Capone himself. Many scenes depicted in the film are based on actual events; the killing of “Big Louie” Castillo by Camonte (Paul Muni) was based the killing of boss “Big Jim” Colosimo.  Later on, Camonte has the North Side gang leader O’Hara killed in his flower shop mimicking the Capone ordered assassination of Dion ‘O’Banion his flower shop, and the resulting retaliation by the O’Banion gang when they shot up a restaurant where Capone was eating at the time, was recreated  by Hawks in its violent entirety. Still, there was much that was fiction also. The incestuous attachment Camonte has to his sister, screenwriter Ben Hecht used the Borgias, the infamous Italian Renaissance family as a blueprint, and the ending is pure imagination. Unlike the fictional Camonte, Al Capone died of syphilis and not by police bullets.  

    Looking at the film today, it still holds up as one of the most violent and best gangster films of its era. This is especially true if compared to “Little Caesar”  that today seems to move along at a creaky pace despite a strong performance by Edward G. Robinson.  What also contributes to the films modernity is Hawks use of the X motif, which shows up at various times during the film, mostly when someone is killed or about to be killed. The X, of course, looks similar to the scar on Camonte’s face. While parts of the screenplay are dated, the script contains a lot of dark and witty humor. Karen Morley as Poppy provides numerous sharp lines of dialogue mostly directed at Tony. 

    scarface2Paul Muni plays Tony as a not too bright thug, with an eye for the good things in life (power, gaudy clothes and women). Despite a bad Italian accent and a propensity for overacting Muni strikes the right balance as the crazed power hungry gangster with an unnatural attachment to his sister. The beautiful Ann Dorvak, who began an affair with director Howard Hawks during the filming, is vulnerable yet determined and sexy as Cesca, especially when she performs a seductive dance for Rinaldo (George Raft). Hawks would use her again in his next film, “The Crowd Roars.” Karen Morley portrays Poppy, Johnny Lovo’s mistress, with a cool sensual feistiness. For George Raft, this was well known territory. At one time the former ballroom dancer worked for real life bootlegger Owny Madden. The coin flipping that became his trademark and was parodied in Billy Wilder’s “Some Like it Hot” was actually, used as an attempt by Hawks to calm Raft’s nerves while filming. Boris Karloff who previously worked for Hawks in “The Criminal Code” got the small part of Gaffrey, the new head of the rival gang.        

    “Scarface” remains one of the most violent and provocative of all gangster films managing to overcome some creaky dialogue, chew biting performances, by Muni and Boris Karloff, and some unfortunate attempts at misplaced humor by Vince Barnett as Angelo one of Tony’s incompetent henchmen.

    “Scarface” was selected for preservation by the National Film Registry and is part of the film catalog in the Library of Congress.

Daisy Kenyon (1947) Otto Preminger


     After leaving MGM where she reigned as the biggest star on the lot Joan Crawford signed a contract with Warner Brothers and had series of hits that rank up there with her best from MGM, “Humoresque”, “Possessed” (1947), her Academy Award winning role in “Mildred Pierce.” While under contract to Warner’s she was loaned out to 20th Century Fox for “Daisy Kenyon”. Kenyon has been called a woman’s picture, a melodrama and a film noir. Though released on DVD by 20th Century Fox as part of its film noir series this is misleading. The movie, while it may contain some noirsh style lighting, that may have more to do with Ms. Crawford being too old for the part with the dark shadowy lighting used to cover up the effects of her fortyish age. Either way, Joan was still at the top and could command leading men of status like Dana Andrews and Henry Fonda to be her co-stars.  daisy-kenyon         

     Here Crawford was given two of the top male stars of the time to co-star with, Preminger favorite Dana Andrews who had appeared in at least five Preminger films and Henry Fonda. Billed third behind Andrews, which may be surprising to some, Fonda, just back from the Army was at the tail end of his studio contract and was ready to go out on his own. Andrews was a big star and on a roll during this period having just appeared in “Boomerang”, “The Best Years of Our Lives” and “A Walk in the Sun.” “Daisy Kenyon” is the story of a young commercial artist who is having an adulterous affair with big time lawyer Dan O’Mara (Andrews). O’Mara always got everything he wanted. He never lost a case; he had a family with two young daughters who love him and a beautiful mistress. Daisy wants to get married however, the smooth talking O’Mara strings her along never committing. Daisy meets psychologically disturbed war veteran Peter Lapham (Fonda). After a single date he professes his love for Daisy. When Daisy rejects his proposal, he just disappears. Later on, realizing Dan is not going to divorce his wife (Ruth Warwick) marries Peter though she still in love with Dan. O’Mara however, cannot get over Daisy and after losing a case for the first time, where he was defending a Japanese-American war veteran who came home to find his property taken away from him, he makes the decision to divorce his wife and come after the now married Daisy.

    Preminger who was at the height of his career in the 1940’s through the 1950’s does a nice job of keeping the suspense up on whom Daisy will decide on until the very end. From what I have read, Preminger did not think much of the final results of the film.

   daisy-kenyon-poster Of the three leading characters, Crawford’s Daisy is probably the least interesting though as usual, she plays a strong female character and her presence alone is powerful. Fonda’s character is a bit of an oddity, as is the pairing of Crawford and Fonda in general. There does not seem to be any chemistry between them making their scenes together disappointing. Dana Andrews gives a fine performance as Dan, going from a smart over confident self centered charmer to a man who suddenly realizes he is losing everything. You can see the confidence drain from Andrews face as his fortunes decline. A really nice performance, the most successful in the film though his character is not very likeable.

    There are also problems with the script. Dan’s relationship with his children seems like it needed to be explored more. Similar is the relationship between Daisy and her friend Martha (Mary Angelus) who always seems to be hanging around Daisy’s apartment making you wonder if there is more to their relationship than is being said. 

     Look for cameo appearances by John Garfield, writer Damon Runyon and newspapermen Leonard Lyons and Walter Winchell in the Stork Club scene. The film was written by David Hertz was based on a novel by Elizabeth Janeway. As an aside, Elizabeth Janeway was married to Elliot Janeway who was economic advisor to Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and later to Lyndon B. Johnson.


Peeping Tom (1960) Michael Powell

    Voyeurism and the movies go hand in hand. After all what is looking at movies other than peeping into the lives of other people. The subject has been explored in many films, “The Conversation”, “Sliver”, “Blow-Up”,  and more so with directors like Brian DePalma in  “Hi Mom!”, and “Blow Out” and Alfred Hitchcock in “Rear Window” and  “Psycho.” More recently films like “Disturbia”, “Alone with Her” and “Vacancy’ have explored the topic. However, no film connects voyeurism and film more than Michael Powell’s “Peeping Tom.”

    Powell is best known as one-half of “The Archers”, the other half being Emeric Pressburger. Powell and Pressburger , produced, directed and wrote or any combination thereof some of the classiest British films of the 1940’s and 1950’s including “49th Parallel”, “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp”, “Black Narcissus”, “The Tales of Hoffman” and “The Red Shoes.” Therefore, when this ‘nasty’ psychological thriller called “Peeping Tom” was released it came as a shock to both the critics and the public that this film was directed by Michael Powell. Reaction from the media and the public was so hostile, (the London Tribune said “The only really satisfactory way to dispose of ‘Peeping Tom’ would be to shovel it up and flush it swiftly down the sewer, even then the stench would remain”), that the film was pulled from theaters in Britain quickly. When the film was released in the U.S. in May of 1962, it was a sliced and diced aborted version that did little business and died a quick death. Powell’s career was all but ruined. He managed to make a few more films, which included “Age of Consent” with a young Helen Mirren, but for all intent Powell’s career was pretty much over.    

    In the late 1970’s “Peeping Tom” was rediscovered, mainly due to Powell-Pressburger fan, Martin Scorsese. In 1979, the film was shown as part of the New York Film Festival and afterward given a commercial release, again thanks to Scorsese. Critics now praised what they once condemned, at least most did. Vincent Canby writing in the New York Times was not one of the converted, “Peeping Tom’s rediscovery, I fear, tells us more about fads in criticism than it does about art. Only someone obsessed with being the first to hail a new auteur, which is always a nice way of calling attention to yourself, could spend the time needed, to find genius in the erratic work of Michael Powell…..”  That said, most critics reevaluation was favorable.

    The film makes the viewer complicit right from the beginning, we see the protagonist Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm) view through his 16MM movie camera a prostitute looking at a storefront window. The camera approaches her, she turns toward the camera and informs Mark (us) that “it’ll be two quid.” The camera follows as she walks to her apartment where once inside she begins to undress. Suddenly a light shines on her and the camera begins to move in closer toward her. She becomes frighten then terrified, screaming as she realized what is about to happen.  There is a quick cut to a close-up of a movie projector running the developed film we just witnessed as the movie credits roll. For the rest of the film, we the audience, are never let off the hook. We are never allowed to sit on the sidelines of the movie. Powell makes us, the audience, a partner in crime, if for no other reason than we, as moviegoers, like to watch, just like Mark. This is a significant difference from how we relate to the Norman Bates character in “Psycho”, which “Peeping Tom” is always compared too, where we can stand on the sideline and separate ourselves from what is happening on screen. 

    Mark Lewis is a focus puller at a British film studio. A quiet shy young man (is there any other in this kind of movie), who has an unusually close attachment to his camera which he carries everywhere he goes. His private life is luring woman to a clandestine location where he films them, and reveals a hidden knife in one of the legs of the tripod with which he kills them as the camera rolls capturing their fear and screams on film for him to watch over and over as part of a ‘documentary’ he is making.  

    One woman, who is different, is Helen (Anna Massey) who lives in the same rooming house and befriends Mark showing an interest in his work. He lets her see his apartment and shows Helen some movies his father took years ago of him as small child. His father, a well known psychologist, used the boy for his own experiments in fear. One film shows his father ( played by Powell) waking the boy up in the middle of the night as his tosses a live lizard on to his bed, the boy screaming in fear. Another film we see Mark next to the deceased body of his mother and within six weeks of his mother’s death still another film with his dad’s new wife. At the wedding his father gives Mark a camera, which becomes his lifelong obsession. The father also had every room in the house wired so he could record conversations and screams of the frightened boy. For a short period, Helen gives Mark a taste of a normal life when they go out on a date. She even gets him to leave the camera at home.

     There is one scene, where Powell plays an insider joke on the audience involving Moira Shearer, the star of his magnificent film, “The Red Shoes.” Mark convinces Vivian (Shearer), a bit player, to stay late at the studio and dance for him as he films her convincing her she could use the film as an audition reel. Vivian dances gleefully for Mark as his camera gazes’ on her when suddenly he plunges the knife like sharp tripod leg into her throat. Vivian is found the next morning inside a trunk. As the police investigate, Mark is seen out of view from everyone filming the entire event.

    The films ending (spoiler alert – go to next paragraph) is still horrific even after forty-eight years. When Helen sees the film of Mark killing the actress he loses control and finds himself fighting his urge to kill her, however the police have been closing in and have reached Mark’s rooming house. Knowing this is his demise he turns the camera on himself and commits suicide on film, just like his victims.

     Screenwriter Leo Marks and Powell created a dark portrait of a sadistic obsessive mass murderer haunted by a torturous childhood whose only outlet is filming the fear of his victims as they succumb to death on celluloid. The real heavy, of course, is Mark’s father whose abusive psychological experiments he forced on his son are the source for his mental disorder. Interestingly and perhaps even perversely, the ‘family movies’, Mark shows to Helen, Powell used himself to portray the father and his own son as young Mark.

      Over the years comparisons have been made to Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho.” Both films were released within months of each other. Both deal with voyeurism, and both characters had strong fixated emotionally attached relationships with their parents. Mark with his father and Norman Bates with his mother. Despite the similarities, there were differences; in “Peeping Tom”, the focus of the story is always on Mark. The victims are non-entities that we never know anything about. In “Psycho”, we get to know and identify with Marion Crane (Janet Leigh). Also, “Psycho” was a huge financial hit with the audience with lines around the block while “Peeping Tom” died a quick death at the box-office. Perhaps this had to do with the reputation of the filmmakers. Audiences expected the macabre from Hitchcock but from Powell, this kind of film was totally unexpected, though, I do not believe the general movie going public were as familiar with Powell’s name as with Hitchcock. Certainly, though the critics were.

    As mentioned, Martin Scorsese was influenced by and influential in rediscovering “Peeping Tom.” In the book, “Scorsese on Scorsese” edited by David Thompson and Ian Christie, he talks about the first time he heard of “Peeping Tom” in the early 1960’s when it played at a small theater in an dangerous area of Manhattan. In 1970, Scorsese saw the film for the first time complete and in color. Scorsese states “I have always felt that “Peeping Tom” and “8 1/2”  say everything that can be said about filmmaking, about the process of dealing with film, the objectivity and subjectivity of it and the confusion between the two. “8 1/2” captures the glamour and enjoyment of filmmaking, while “Peeping Tom” shows the aggression of it, how the camera violates. These are two films that deal with the philosophy and the danger of film-making.”  

    German actor Karl Boehm was selected after Laurence Harvey turned the part down. According to the TCM website, Harvey had just gained great success with his performance in “Room at the Top” and he quickly accepted roles in major Hollywood productions like “The Alamo” and “Butterfield 8.”  Boehm gives a creepy, chilling performance as the shy repressed Mark Lewis expressing a certain vulnerability that I believe would have been lost if Harvey had taken the role. However, as Vincent Canby mentioned in his 1979 review, traces of a German accent are certainly noticeable with Boehm. A young Anna Massey in only her second film is very good as Helen the neighbor who befriends Mark and is both repelled and attracted to his strange world. British pinup Queen Pamela Green portrays a model Mark photographs in sexy lingerie. Powell filmed a semi nude scene of Green topless posing on a bed. This was the first nude in a British film; however, the scene was quickly deleted after early protest. In 1979, the original complete version was restored for commercial release.   

    “Peeping Tom” is a disturbingly dark, intense film that contains no let up. Unlike “Psycho”, there is no explanatory babble at the end. The ending in Psycho probably helped audiences of the day distance themselves from what they just saw on the screen. In “Peeping Tom”, Mark kills himself as sadistically and as cold as he did his victims then the film quickly comes to an end giving us no relief.