Howard Hawks' original Scarface is not only the blueprint for Brian De Palma's 1983 remake, but for the entire genre of gangster pictures to come, all of which would aspire to be as crude, violent, and angry as this one, only to inevitably come up short. After all, it's hard to top the performance of Paul Muni as the ambitious thug Tony Camonte, who starts out as the right-hand man to Prohibition-era beer runner Johnny Lovo (Osgood Perkins) but clearly wants much more. Even saddled with one of the world's worst fake Italian accents, Muni delivers a powerhouse performance, slurred and brutish and lurching, equal parts menacing and unbearably silly, with his cocky salutes, the jagged scar down his cheek, his sheer dumb insistence on getting everything he wants. What he wants includes control over both the south and north sides of Chicago (the latter of which he'll have to wrest away from an Irish gang whose accents are almost as embarrassing as the Italian ones), the love of Lovo's snooty, standoffish girl Poppy (Karen Morley), and for everyone to listen to his word as final. This includes his free-spirited sister Cesca (Ann Dvorak), who Tony defends from suitors with violent rage that betrays more than a hint of incestuous desire, a subtext that comes triumphantly to the surface in the film's final act.
Tony's rise to power and his inevitable equally violent fall are couched in a narrative framework of political propaganda, starting with the film's opening title urging citizens to petition the government to do something about rampant gangsterism. The film itself contains numerous topical references supporting gun control, the deportation of immigrant criminals, and, most puzzlingly of all, continual snide references to the writ of habeus corpus that protects people from being held by the police without charges. This odd sloganeering sits uneasily in the film, especially when the action pauses for heartfelt proselytizing from the police chief or some other public figure. The hectoring tone is very much at odds with the rest of the film's blunt depiction of Tony's crude, casually evil lifestyle, which does not (as some critics contended at the time) glamorize the gangsters but mocks them, satirizes their crudity and the ignorance that makes them turn to violence without thinking first. In one of the more subtle scenes, Tony and his mob attend a play, and in between acts the crew turns into amateur art critics, commenting on the play and wondering which guy the girl will pick, while Tony discourses on the way the rain effect is created. They're philistines putting on airs, monkeys dressed up in nice clothes, who only care how the story will turn out. When they have to leave in the middle of the play to murder a rival gangster, Tony leaves one of his thugs behind so he'll know how the play ends. One of the film's preachy speeches rails against encouraging gangsters by treating them like jokes, but elsewhere Hawks makes a compelling case for the power of satire. What else to think of Angelo (Vince Barnett), Tony's inept secretary and henchman, who can never quite figure out how to handle a phone call for his boss? Angelo's appearances are basically all hilarious routines that blend silent comedy slapstick with the verbal dexterity of a Marx brothers skit, and they contribute to the film's basic thrust, which is to make these gangsters look ridiculous, but no less dangerous in their stupidity and lunacy.
Muni in particular plays Tony pretty close to the edge of madness, starting out as simply a cock-sure young thug looking to make his mark, but soon escalating his intensity to manic, eye-popping levels. By the film's stunning final sequence, a wild shootout with the cops who have him surrounded, he's raving, his shouts turned into incomprehensible gibberish, his walk as stiff and lurching as a movie monster; he makes his final stand clutching a machine gun, stumbling around, and screaming in his own nonsense language, a steady stream of hate spewed at the world with machine gun speed. He makes Pacino's later over-the-top take on this character look positively controlled and mannered by comparison; you can always understand Pacino, at least.
Stylistically, the film is as unfettered as its title character, with Hawks employing a fast-and-loose style that skips and jitters in time with the plot. The film's style is encapsulated in the famous transition where a calendar's days fly off as a machine gun fires in the background, giving a new violent twist to the old device for conveying the passage of time; the film moves to the rhythm of gunfire. Hawks' camera slows down when it needs to, panning languidly across large rooms to take in the entirety of a scene, though there are times particularly in the early stretches of the film when the narrative threatens to get bogged down in too many talky, static scenes where the camera simply sits in a corner and watches, a relic of early sound picture styles. More often, though, Hawks' style is punchy and fast, matching Tony's quick-talking bravado and rugged machismo with a camera that swings around to track car chases and exchanges of gunfire, or more patiently wafts across a row of shadowy figures projected on a wall, moments before they're eliminated in a haze of bullets. The photography in the night scenes is especially striking, taking advantage of the obviously artificial, constructed Hollywood version of Chicago to create some wonderful proto-noir effects with shadows: an assassin meanders along the wall in shadowy reflection, signaled only by his cheerful whistle as he prepares to kill a rival; the camera looks down on a murdered body, criss-crossed by shadows that seem to form an "X" running across his body.
Scarface is the prototypical gangster movie, a rough and ragged classic that overcomes its occasionally clunky style and moral overlays with the sheer intensity of its aesthetics and performances. Muni is the indisputable center of this chaos, but he gives up at least a few bites of scenery to Boris Karloff as a mannered rival gangster, and especially to Ann Dvorak as Tony's vampy sister, who's best when she acts like a silent star, projecting with her wide eyes and sexy, hip-swaying dance, rather than letting loose her screechy overacting voice. The film is an utter joy, by turns funny and violent and vulgar and sexy, a visceral explosion of the id that only purports to be a staid anti-gangster picture.