Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The First Transition Week 1: Scarface

Rosenbaum’s First transition screening/lecture series started with a bang this semester, with a showing of Howard Hawks’ gangster classic Scarface. The rise and fall of an American criminal is, at this point (and was, perhaps, even years ago) a tried a true formula, the particular parameters well known to just about everyone. Yet, despite its age and (by now) familiarity, Hawks’ film still mesmerizes. Rosenbaum prefaced the screening with some brief comments, such as Hawk’s dissatisfaction with the previous studio he was working for, which lead him to Hollywood outsider/bad boy producer Howard Hughes – apparently both where in the mood to shake things up and make a film that would push the boundaries of respectability. This led, inevitably, to numerous battles with the censors, necessitating cutting, reshoots, and substituting discarded takes for final shots. The version that still exists to this day is all we’ve got, and no one, even in the 30’s, saw Hawks’ original version in all its gruesome glory. Surprisingly, what remains is enormously provocative – fast paced, sexy, violent, elegant – leading me to wonder as to the extremity of what was removed. Rosenbaum also mentioned that Hawks is one of his five favorite American directors (along with Ford, Hitchcock, Welles and Chaplin) but that it took him longer to appreciate the particulars of his oeuvre than the other directors mentioned. He’s not the first critic to mention such a difficulty – I remember a conversation with Fred Camper many years ago, before I had seen any Hawks films, in which Camper (unsuccessfully, at the time) tried to sell me on Hawks’ peculiar, unassuming genius (I’ve since been converted).

That elusive style is what has always fascinated me about Hawks. In what we could call a system of meaning, or a thematic collection of sorts, Hawks’ most famous period (post ’39 and the release of Only Angels Have Winds) posits an incredibly specific and consistent set of concerns: an emphasis on groups of men, professionals, the best at what they do to the exclusion of all else, be it pilots, lawmen, gunfighters, race car drivers, fur traders or big game hunters. There is usually a fallen comrade, someone who has, through carelessness, stupidity, hubris, or because of a woman, let the group down and must redeem themselves. In Hawks’ world, friendship and professionalism is all that counts and this process of redemption is handled matter-of-factly (see Dean Martin’s redemption in Rio Bravo for the purest example of this process). If someone dies, it is simply because they just weren’t good enough. Women can become a part of the group, but only after they’ve proved that they are tough enough, good enough to stand toe to toe with the men. Then there is, of course, the dialectic between the men dominated action film and the women dominated comedies – a complex dialectic that is perhaps best left for a different essay. But beyond these thematic concerns, there is always the formal – how do the films operate visually? Hawks, quite naturally, frames people in these groups, emphasizing the entire body in motion – gesture, the way someone walks, enters a room, or mounts a horse are all extremely important. Even when not shooting an entire group of people, Hawks almost always includes at least two people – appropriately called a two-shot, and, as Robin Wood has noted, “balancing two characters equally on screen”. Wood also notices that, like almost all of the adventure films, “Rio Bravo contains remarkably few clear point-of-view shots”. We have what is essentially a fascination with equality, where minor characters get as much screen time, and perhaps even more personality, than the film’s ostensible star, and a group dynamic, to the exclusion of all else, is considered the highest ideal one can strive for. An idealized democracy? Absolutely.

As an early work, Scarface fits very few of the above (admittedly loosely sketched) criteria. What we have here is a hard, bitter film (lending credence to Rosenbaum’s suggestion that Hawks is ultimately a pessimistic nihilist). In its brief running time, Tony guns down dozens of men, murders his best friend, gets his sister killed, and finally dies in agony (of interest: an alternate ending included on the dvd of Tony being tried, convicted, and executed; apparently getting gunned down while running from the police didn’t adequately portray our justice system at work). The film is much more expressionistic than later Hawks – at this point Murnau and cinematographer Karl Freund had already been in Hollywood for several years, Sunrise had won the first (and only) Academy Award for artistic achievement, and Universal had begun its now classic monster movie cycle, cementing the infiltration of German Expressionism into an American visual vernacular. Certain scenes even suggest Von Sternberg, as Hawks will frame a shot through miscellaneous bric a brac; the scene that introduces Tony’s sister (Ann Dvorak as “Cesca”) to his best friend (George Raft as “Guino”) finds her looking down at him from her window as he stands on the street – she is framed by an elaborate kind of fire escape railing, creating visually the impression that she is trapped behind bars (essentially true, as Tony is fiercely, inappropriately protective of her) and that Guino clearly represents a kind of freedom. Hawks will also open a scene with a sinewy tracking shot that begins close up on an object before snaking its way up to a more proper framing (his later films almost entirely eschew the close up). Shadows are at constant play here – the celebrated “St. Valentines Day Massacre” scene is one of the more expressionistic moments in Hawks’ career, as far as I know. The camera moves down over a lattice work of X’s that create a dark horizontal band across the top of the frame. The camera moves further down to a white wall and we see the silhouette of several men lined up. Some one orders them to turn around put their hands up, and they obey, all relayed to the audience via shadow. Then, the wall erupts with bullet holes, the shadows crumple, and the camera moves back up the way it came, again crossing the series of X’s that initially framed the scene. It’s an elaborate scene of violent eruption that’s created entirely in the mind’s eye, akin to Dreyer’s (arguably more poetic) use of shadows as an alternate plane of corrupted, horrific reality in Vampyr. Of note, Rosenbaum drew the audience’s attention to the recurring use of these X’s, a motif/joke inspired by old newspapers practice of putting an X where a corpse would be in a photograph. By all accounts, it became a sort of game where members of the cast/crew could suggest different ways of incorporating an X into any of the film’s many, many murder scenes.

Paul Muni’s Tony is all jaw and brow, with sunken, beady eyes to boot – he looks simultaneously like a beaten down wrestler and a petulant youth. Hawks will frequently shoot his face so that thick eyebrows create a kind of horizon line under the brim of a hat and cleaves the face in two. Tony’s gestures are all over the place, a bundle of tics as he constantly winks, scrunches his face, grabs at women or guns – all nervous, combustible energy (and sarcastic at that). When he shoots a pistol, his arm juts back and forth, like a punch or a pelvic thrust. Graduating to a tommy gun, the thrust becomes an orgiastic spray of bullets.

I’m not sure Hawks could make a film where only the protagonist is of importance – even in Scarface, while Tony is essentially the main character and drives forward the film’s actions, he is surrounded by fascinating supporting characters, each with an interesting persona all their own. Ann Dvorak is alternately gawky and elegant, depending on how she slants her shoulders or tilts her head, and George Raft is all quiet menace as he stands around flipping a coin. Boris Karloff turns up as an emaciated, gaunt looking gangster on the run from Tony and his crew – Karloff’s tall, lanky frame looking like it might collapse under the strain at any moment.

Thematically, the film is a nightmare extension of capitalism – the American dream gone sour, the immigrant experience as infiltrating, marauding other. Money is everything, you can’t have enough wealth or enough things – Tony is constantly showing off his newest suits and ties, or his new house with retractable metal shudders. Even the much discussed incestuous relationship with his sister seems to me less sexualized than an elaboration of Tony’s possessive nature – he wants to own her like everything else. The hard working Italian immigrant becomes the hard working American gangster, assimilated whole cloth into a tapestry of disaster capitalism (to appropriate a suitable phrase). We have here, to my mind, a masterpiece of the gangster genre, much like Hawks would master the noir with The Big Sleep and the musical with Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, before moving on to refine, and then redefine, the Western.

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