Some thoughts about early gangster film, and two Howards (Hughes and Hawks), inspired by The Language of Hollywood: Storytelling, Sound and Colour.
The advent of sound in cinema coincided with the rise of the gangster genre; the then-new technology bought the world inhabited by organised criminals to life on the celluloid screen, and audiences flocked to see titles including The Public Enemy and Little Caesar. Howard Hughes, determined to emulate and capitalise on this success tasked director Howard Hawks to make Scarface (1932), a gangster film that was as realistic and violent as possible, eschewing the censorship board who, after reading the initial script, declared it could not be released. The film was based on Armitage Trail’s 1929 novel, and was loosely based on the life of Al Capone. Capone, as Hollywood legend goes, was a fan of the finished product.
Scarface utilises a variety of sound techniques to convey the ‘gangster’ world. Shot on a relatively small set, a larger world is created by off-screen sounds that evoke the urban world. In the opening scene, for example, the audience sees the waiter begin to clear up after the party, but only hears the clink of milk bottles and the cart in the distance, thus creating a familiar but stylized world. The camera tracks the waiter back inside, where three men – whose heavy Italian accents mark them out as gangsters – are talking. One of them, Big Louis Costillo is shot by the film’s ‘hero’ Tony Camonte (played by Paul Muni), an act which sets off a gang war as Chicago’s rival factions vie to control the city’s bootlegging business.
The audience’s first introduction to Camonte is as a shadowy figure: he creeps up the hallway silently, his entrance marked by his distinctive whistle. This is just one of the sound-motifs that Hawks used to identify Camonte’s character, a motif that offers an insight into the character’s psychology and sets him apart from Chicago’s other gangsters.
In order to make the film as realistic as possible, Hughes pushed Hawks to use live ammunition in some takes. It’s this violent brutality that sets Scarface apart from its contemporaries, and it’s the ease with which Camonte is able to adjust and use it to his advantage that endears him to the audience. The brutality is enhanced by sound, regularly a burst of gunfire (controlled or random), followed by an eerie silence and then the reaction of the witnesses. Consider the scene in the hospital when Tony goes to a hospital to complete a failed ‘hit’. The audience doesn’t really see the violence, or the injuries caused, they just hear the gunfire, a stunned silence, and then the voice of a wailing nurse. This is violence with real-life implications – although Tony is never aware of them.
Similarly, the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre re-enactment scene: the silhouettes of seven gangsters are shown on a brick wall. Following a protracted burst of gunfire they slump to the ground, the silence only broken by a dog barking. This technique evokes the loneliness and emptiness of the city and heightens the violence as the audience is left to imagine exactly how the scene played out. This scene is also pre-fixed by a visual motif, the use of X when a death is about to occur. In this case, it’s created by the wooden rafters, in other scenes by the cross-back straps on a woman’s dress, the intersection of a street sign, a strike symbol on a bowling score card, even the scar on Camonte’s face …it alerts the audience that tragedy is imminent.
Tony’s rise through the mob ranks can also be tracked by the rhythm of his dialogue. In a scene with Johnny Lovo (Osgood Perkins), Tony’s voice becomes lower and slows down as Lovo’s become’s increasing high-pitched and insistent. To Lovo, it’s clear who’s taking command and there is little he can do about it. But Camonte isn’t happy with just controlling the verbal, he uses his gun as an extension of the dialogue; shooting at the shelves and window he handles it confidently and with ease. The gun has become a part of Tony, it represents his energy, nonchalance and confidence and foreshadows his appropriation of power.