An Offer You Can’t Refuse #2: Scarface (dir by Howard Hawks)


Before there was Tony Montana …. there was Tony Camonte!

And, of course, before there was Tony Camonte, there was Al Capone.  The 1932 film Scarface was one of the many gangster movies to be based on the life of Al Capone.  Capone and Tony Camonte even share the same nickname, though — unlike Camonte — Capone hated being called Scarface.  On the other hand, as played by the charismatic and cocky Paul Muni, Tony Camonte wears his scar like a badge of honor.  He says that he got his scar serving in the war.  His best friend, Guino (George Raft, a real-life gangster associate who became a star as a result of his performance in this film), says that the scar is the result of a bar fight.

In many ways, that scar tells you almost everything you need to know about Tony Camonte.  If you can look away from the scar, he’s a handsome and charismatic figure.  But when you see the scar, you’re reminded that his life is about violence.  Everything that Tony has is due to his violent nature and it’s somewhat inevitable that his end will also be due to that violence, not to mention his obsession with his sister, Cesca (Ann Dvorak).  It’s not just Tony’s face that’s scarred.  It’s his soul as well.

The film follows Tony, from his early days of working as a gunman for Johnny Lovo (Osgood Perkins) to his eventual usurpation of Lovo’s place as the king of the underworld.  Tony not only takes over Lovo’s rackets but he also goes after Lovo’s girlfriend, the glamorous Poppy (Karen Morley).  The well-bred Poppy may be dismissive of Tony’s ambitions but, as Tony shows her, he lives in the glow of a neon sign that announces, “The World Is Yours.”  That’s something that Tony truly believes and, for a while, the world is his.  He’s done with a gun what other do with lawyer and a clever accountant.  He’s achieved the American dream and he has the money and the beautiful lover to prove it.  Only for a while, though.  You reap what you sow.

The film recreates many scenes from Al Capone’s life.  One of Tony’s rivals is gunned down in a flower shop, much as happened to Dean O’Bannion when he challenged Capone’s power.  At another point, two of Tony’s men dress up like policemen and gun down rival gangsters, just as happened during the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.  The script was written by Ben Hecht, a Chicago native who had actually met Capone.  When Capone heard that Hecht was writing a film called Scarface, he sent two men to find out what the film was about.  Hecht assured them that the film was not about Capone but was instead a parody of the gangster genre.  Hecht was left alone but the fact that Capone was worried about his public image is quite a contrast to more recent stories about made men studying The Godfather, Goodfellas, and The Sopranos for tips on how to go about their business.  Of course, the film was made before Capone’s anticlimatic downfall so it’s not a combination of tax evasion and syphilis that ends Tony Camonte’s reign of terror.  Camonte goes out in a much more dramatically satisfying manner.

It’s a violent film.  It was a violent film for 1932 and, in some scenes, it’s a violent film for even today.  I’ve read that director Howard Hawks used live ammunition in the scenes that featured guns being fired.  In many of the scenes in which someone is portrayed as running for their lives, the actors in question were literally running and ducking for their lives.  Luckily, the cast survived making the film, though it’s been said that one crew member lost an eye.  Paul Muni went on to have a very distinguished film career, one that inspired future acting greats like John Garfield, Montgomery Clift, and Marlon Brando.  Despite his star-making turn as Muni’s best friend, George Raft’s career was not quite as distinguished, as he ended up turning down a chance to star in Casablanca.  Osgood Perkins’s son, Tony, would become a horror icon when he played Norman Bates.  And Boris Karloff went from portraying a bowling gangster in this film to playing the Monster in Frankenstein.

And, of course, the legacy of Scarface lives on, thanks to the 1983 remake starring Al Pacino.  There’s a third remake on the way, reportedly from Luca Guadagnino, who I guess decided that since he got away with tarnishing the legacy of Suspiria, he might as well go after another classic cult film.  Both versions of Scarface are rightly known as being classics of the gangster genre.  The 1983 version is great but so is the original.

Previous Offers You Can’t Refuse:

  1. The Public Enemy (1931)

Lisa Reviews an Oscar Winner: All Quiet On The Western Front (dir by Lewis Milestone)


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“When it comes to dying for your country, it’s better not to die at all!”

— Paul Baumer (Lew Ayres) in All Quiet On The Western Front (1930)

Tonight, I watched the third film to ever win the Oscar for Best Picture, the 1930 anti-war epic, All Quiet On The Western Front.

All Quiet On The Western Front opens in a German classroom during World War I.  Quotes from Homer and Virgil, all exalting heroism, are written on the blackboard.  The professor, a man named Kantorek (Arnold Lacy), tells his all-male class that “the fatherland” needs them.  (It’s all very patriarchal, needless to say.)  This, he tells them, is a time of war.  This is a time for heroes.  This is a time to fight and maybe die for your country.  He beseeches his students to enlist in the army.  The first to stand and say that he will fight is Paul Baumer (Lew Ayres).  Soon, almost every other student is standing with Paul and cheering the war.  Only one student remains seated.  Paul and the others quickly turn on that seated student, pressuring him to join them in the army.  That seated student finally agrees to enlist, even though he doesn’t want to.  Such is the power of peer pressure.

A year later, a visibly hardened Paul returns to his old school.  He’s on furlough.  He’s been serving in a combat zone, spending his days and nights in a trench and trying not to die.  He’s been wounded but he hasn’t been killed.  He can still walk.  He can still speak.  He hasn’t gone insane.  He is one of the few members of his class to still be alive.  (That student who didn’t want to enlist?  Long dead.)  When Kantorek asks Paul to speak to his new class, Paul looks at the fresh-faced students — all of whom have just listened to Kantorek describe the glories of war — and Paul tells them that serving in the army has not been an adventure.  It has not made him a hero.  The only glory of war is surviving.  “When it comes to dying for one’s country, it’s better not to die at all!”  Kantorek is horrified by Paul’s words but he needn’t have worried.  The students refuse to listen to Paul, shouting him down and accusing him of cowardice and treason.

(This scene is even more disturbing today, considering that we live in a time when accusations of treason and calls for vengeance are rather cavalierly tossed around by almost everyone with a twitter account.)

What happened between those two days in the classroom is that Paul saw combat.  He spent nights underground while shells exploded over his head.  He watched as all of his friends died, one by one.  One harrowing night, spent in a trench with a French soldier who was slowly dying because of Paul stabbing him, nearly drove Paul insane.  In the end, not even his friend and mentor, Kat (Louis Wolheim), would survive.  From the first sound of bombs exploding to the film’s haunting final scene, the shadow of death hangs over every minute of All Quiet On The Western Front.  By the end of it all, all that Paul has learned is that men like Kantorek and the buffoonish Corporal Himmelstoss (John Wray) have no idea what real combat is actually like.

All Quiet On The Western Front may be 87 years old but it’s still an incredibly powerful film.  There are certain scenes in this pre-code film that, after you watch them, you have to remind yourself that this film was made in 1929.  I’m not just talking about a swimming scene that contains a split second of nudity or a few lines of dialogue that probably wouldn’t have made it past the censors once the production code started to be enforced.  Instead, I’m talking about scenes like the one where a bomb goes off just as a soldier attempts to climb through some barbed wire.  When the smoke clear, only his hands remains.  And then there’s the sequence where the camera rapidly pans by soldier after soldier falling dead as they rush the trenches.  Or the scene where Paul literally watches as one of his friends, delirious and out-of-his-mind, suddenly dies.  Or the montage where a pair of fancy boots is traded from one doomed soldier to another, with each soldier smiling at his new boots before, seconds later, laying dead in the mud.  Or the harrowing scene where Paul tries to keep a French soldier from dying.

All Quiet On The Western Front remains a powerful film.  It’s perhaps not a surprise that, when it briefly played in Germany, the Nazis released live mice in the theaters to try to keep away audiences.  (Both the film and the book on which it was based were later banned by the Nazi government.)  Sadly, we’ll never get to see All Quiet On The Western Front the way that it was originally meant to be seen.  A huge hit in 1930, All Quiet On The Western Front was rereleased several times but, with each rerelease, the film was often edited to appease whatever the current political climate may have been.  Over the years, much footage was lost.  The original version of All Quiet On The Western Front was 156 minutes long.  The version that is available today is 131 minutes long.  But even so, it remains a harrowing and powerful antiwar statement.

With all due respect to both Wings and Broadway Melody, All Quiet On The Western Front was the first truly great film to win the Oscar for Best Picture.  Sadly, it remains just as relevant today as when it was first released.

The Fabulous Forties #44: His Girl Friday (dir by Howard Hawks)


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The 44th film in Mill Creek’s Fabulous Forties box set was the classic 1940 comedy, His Girl Friday.

Earlier this week, when I mentioned that Cary Grant’s Oscar-nominated work in Penny Serenade was not the equal of his work in comedies like The Awful Truth and The Philadelphia Story, quite a few people took the time to let me know that their favorite Cary Grant film remains His Girl Friday.  And I can’t blame them.  Not only does His Girl Friday feature Cary Grant at his best but it also features Rosalind Russell at her best too.  Not only that but it’s also one of the best films to ever be directed by the great Howard Hawks.  There are a lot of career bests to be found in His Girl Friday, and that’s not even counting a supporting cast that is full of some of the greatest character actors of the 1940s.

The film itself is a remake of The Front Page, that classic story of an editor trying to keep his star reporter from leaving the newspaper in order to get married.  (Along the way, they not only manage to expose municipal corruption but also help to hide and exonerate a man who has escaped from death row.)  The action moves fast, the dialogue is full of quips, and the whole thing is wonderfully cynical about … well, everything.  The major difference between The Front Page and His Girl Friday is that the reporter is now a woman and she’s the ex-wife of the editor.  When Cary Grant’s Walter Burns attempts to convince Rosalind Russell’s Hildy Johnson to cover just one last story, he’s not only trying to hold onto his star reporter.  He’s also trying to keep the woman he loves from marrying the decent but boring Bruce Baldwin.

Bruce, incidentally, is played by Ralph Bellamy.  Bellamy also played Grant’s romantic rival in The Awful Truth.  To a certain extent, you really do have to feel bad for Ralph.  He excelled at playing well-meaning but dull characters.  As played by Bellamy, you can tell that Bruce would be a good husband in the most uninspiring of ways.  That’s the problem.  Hildy deserves more than just a life of boring conformity and Walter understands that.  Not only do Walter and Hildy save the life of escaped convict Earl Williams but, in doing so, Hildy is also saved from a life of being conventional.

As we all know, it’s fashionable right now to attack the news media.  Quite frankly, modern media often makes it very easy to do so.  For that matter, so do a lot of a movies about the media.  To take just two of the more acclaimed examples, there’s a smugness and a self-importance to both Good Night and Good Luck and Spotlight that becomes more and more obvious with each subsequent viewing.  (Admittedly, Edward R. Murrow was prominent way before my time but, if he was anything like the pompous windbag who was played by David Strathairn, I’m surprised that television news survived.)  Far too often, it seems like well-intentioned filmmakers, in their attempt to defend the media, end up making movies that only serve to remind people why the can’t stand the old media in the first place.

Those filmmakers would do well to watch and learn from a film like His Girl Friday.  His Girl Friday is a cheerfully dark film that is full of cynical journalists who drink too much and have little use for the type of self-congratulation that permeates through a film like Spotlight.  Ironically, you end up loving the journalists in His Girl Friday because the film never demands that you so much as even appreciate them.  There are no long speeches about the importance of journalism or long laments about how non-journalists just aren’t smart enough to appreciate their local newspaper.  Instead, these journalists are portrayed as hard workers and driven individuals who do a good job because deliberately doing anything else is inconceivable.  They don’t have time to pat themselves on the back because they’re too busy doing their job and hopefully getting results.

If you want to see a film that will truly make you appreciate journalism and understand why freedom of the press is important, watch this unpretentious comedy from Howard Hawks.

In fact, you can watch it below!

Cleaning Out The DVR #32: Ninotchka (dir by Ernst Lubitsch)


(For those following at home, Lisa is attempting to clean out her DVR by watching and reviewing 38 films by the end of today!!!!!  Will she make it?  Keep following the site to find out!)

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Oh my God, I love this movie!

First released in 1939, Ninotchka is many things.  It’s a love story.  It’s a comedy.  It’s a story of international intrigue.  It’s a political satire.  It’s a celebration of freedom.  And, perhaps most importantly, it’s a showcase for one of the greatest actresses of all time, the one and only Greta Garbo!

But you know what?  As great as Garbo is, she’s not the only worthy performer in this film.  Melvyn Douglas plays Garbo’s love interest and his performance is full of charm and class.  And guess who plays the main villain?  BELA LUGOSI!  That’s right — this was one of Lugosi’s few roles that did not require him to play a variation on his famous Dracula.  And, even if he doesn’t have a lot of scenes, Lugosi does a pretty good job in Ninotchka.  It’s interesting to see Lugosi playing an all-too real monster for once.

Ninotchka opens in Paris.  Three Russians are in town and they’re trying to sell some jewelry that was confiscated by the government during the revolution of 1917.  That’s right — they’re communists!  When they first show up in Paris, they make a big deal about hating the decadence of capitalism.  But then they meet Count Leon d’Algout (Melvyn Douglas), who proceeds to introduce them to the wonders of the free market.  Soon, the three of them are holed up in their luxurious hotel, ordering room service and having a nonstop party.

(Leon, incidentally, is working for the original owner of the jewelry.  The jewelry, as you’ve probably guessed, is what Hitchock would have called a macguffin.)

Once it becomes obvious that the first three Russians have been corrupted by western society, Ninotchka (Greta Garbo) is sent to bring them back to Moscow.  Ninotchka is a “special envoy” and, from the minute that she meets Leon, it’s obvious that she’s going to be a lot more difficult to corrupt.  For all of Leon’s charm, he cannot get Ninotchka to smile or drop her “all Marxist business” attitude.

Of course. from the minute that she first appears, we all know that Ninotchka is eventually going to loosen up and come to love both the west and Melvyn Douglas.  But what makes Garbo’s performance truly special is that we like and sympathize with Ninotchka even before she embraces decadence.  Even when Ninotchka is reciting Marxist-Leninist dogma, there’s a playfulness to the way Garbo delivers the lines.

That’s one reason why it’s so much fun to watch as Ninotchka (and Garbo) starts to actually relax and enjoy both Paris and life.  Wisely, the film doesn’t suggest that Paris has changed Ninotchka.  Instead, it merely shows that being in Paris and getting to know Leon has finally allowed her to act like the person that she was all along.

(Before her appearance in Ninotchka, Garbo was known for playing very dramatic roles.  Not only is this film about Ninotchka learning to enjoy herself.  It’s also about Garbo proving that she could play comedy just as well as she could play melodrama.)

Of course, eventually, Ninotchka and the three Russians are forced to return to Moscow and director Ernst Lubitsch does a wonderful job contrasting the glamour of freedom-loving Paris with the drabness of life under communism.  Just when it looks like Ninotchka is going to be forced to spend the rest of her life in her depressing apartment and missing the luxury of being able to wear silk stockings, her boss (Lugosi) tells her that she is being assigned somewhere else.  Ninotchka doesn’t want the assignment but, as Lugosi explains, the revolution doesn’t care what the individual wants.

Will Ninotchka and her friends ever find their way back to freedom and Leon?  Or will she remain trapped in the bureaucracy?  You’ll have to watch the film to find out!

I really liked Ninotchka.  Even 77 years after it was first released, it remains a wonderfully romantic and sweet-natured little comedy.  If you haven’t seen it, you definitely should!

Ninotchka was one of the many great films to be nominated for best picture of 1939.  However, the Oscar went to another famously romantic film, Gone With The Wind.