Saturday, July 6, 2013

Images That Echo (Scarface, 1932)

Watching Howard Hawks’ Scarface recently, I was struck by how stylized the film was: Paul Muni’s histrionic Tony Camonte (no doubt a result of his upbringing in Yiddish theatre); Lee Garmes’ lighting, which results in ink-black shadows and silhouettes; the use of crosses and roses as leitmotifs. 

Many scholars and critics, however, characterize Hawks as a practical filmmaker, one who does not emphasize his sensibility explicitly.  Of course, one could say that these elements of Scarface are just accoutrements, just parts that do not correlate with Hawks the auteur.  If that’s the case, is Scarface one of the least Hawksian films in his career?

Andrew Sarris does not seem to think so, since he italicized the film in his book, The American Cinema, indicating its importance in Hawks’ oeuvre.  Considering his work as a whole, Sarris writes: “If Hawks does not choose to use technique as a reflective commentary on action, it is because his personality expresses a pragmatic intelligence rather than a philosophical wisdom”  (54).  For Sarris, Hawks does not call attention to his style.  Instead, what one sees in his films is the director’s expression communicated through (repeated) actions.

Echoing Sarris’ sentiments somewhat, David Thomson sees Hawks’ aesthetic as a humble one, which results from an interaction between viewers and director.  “The ‘style’ of Hawks rests in his commenting astuteness; no other director bridges the contrived plots of genre and the responses of a mature spectator,” he writes.  Since his films are so rich with “emotional intelligence” and “witty feeling,” Thomson claims that his “camera is almost invisible” (615).

If Hawks is an invisible director, he is at his most visible in Scarface.  In this film, the ghost materializes and Hawks reveals his hand.  Carlos Clarens said, “Scarface was Hawks’s most expressionistic film,” noting its “violent chiaroscuro, tight grouping within the frame, and fluid, stalking camera movement”  (93).  Such a stylization he believed fit a film where the gangster protagonist, Tony Camonte, rises and falls not from external forces (rival gangsters, law enforce, etc.), but from his own psychic struggle.  For Clarens, form fit content; Scarface’s stylization synced with the subject matter.

Robin Wood takes a different approach to the film.  In a moral argument, he considers viewer response in relation to the film, much like Thomson.  Wood highlights the famous use of the cross as a leitmotif.  By incorporating the icon into the film, Wood argues that Hawks offsets the humor of the disturbing violence running throughout Scarface (61).  The symbol follows after every death, giving the film a sense of doom, which punctuates the moments of farce. 

Beyond the apparent use of symbolism though, Hawks sculpts his images in more indirect ways, which Manny Farber articulates.  Writing about the film, Farber said, “few movies are better at nailing down singularity in a body or face, the effect of a strong outline cutting out impossibly singular shapes”  (653).  Farber finds in Scarface a film that distills characters into shapes with the slightest of gestures. 

Now, in order to open up Farber’s characterization, I am going to use an atomic-critical analysis perfected by Raymond Durgnat.*  (Ironically, Durgnat is not smitten with Hawks). During my recent viewing, a brief moment caught my attention and has stuck with me for a few weeks now.

Near the film’s beginning, Camonte stops at his boss’ house to inform him that he killed a rival gang leader.  Yet, here in the home is the boss’ girlfriend, Poppy (Karen Morley), an attraction to the primitive Camonte.  Immediately before a cut, Hawks shoots a long shot, a frame-within-a-frame shot.  In it, a statuette, placed between Camonte and Poppy, appears prominently in the foreground.  The statuette’s figure parallels Camonte’s.  I think the statuette (a human figure bearing a gift, with legs crossed), is emblematic of Camonte, because it highlights a few things about him.  One, that Camonte, and perhaps all gangsters are aesthetes.  Second, that Camonte may be plastic himself -- material goods attract him and the other gangsters all throughout the film. 

Going further with this observation, it is in this moment that one sees Tony in the midst of transformation, from oafish hoodlum to gaudy, brash gang leader.  From gunman to leading man, Camonte ascends to the top of the criminal underworld.  Along with this upward trajectory, Camonte is becoming a dandy, wooed by material and wooing others with material.  He is a man who has an ear for opera as well as hands to hold a Tommy gun.  


*This image, on further reflection, brings to my mind a sequence in Durgnat’s book, Films and Feelings, where he notes the “echoes” apparent in one shot of Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible.


Clarens, Carlos.  Crime Movies.  New York: Da Capo, 1997.

Farber, Manny.  "Howard Hawks."  Farber on Film: The Complete Writings of Manny Farber.  Robert Polito, ed.  New York: Library of America, 2009.

Sarris, Andrew.  The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968.  New York: Da Capo, 1996.

Thomson, David.  "Howard Hawks."  American Movie Critics: An Anthology from the Silents Until      
       Now.  Phillip Lopate, ed.  New York: Library of America, 2006.

Wood, Robin.  Howard Hawks.  London: BFI Publishing, 1981.

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