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At-A-Glance Film Reviews

Scarface (1932)



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In the early thirties, gangster movies weren't just lurid glimpses into the underworld for entertainment purposes; at the time, the mob was a very tangible threat, raking in power and cash from the opportunities provided by Prohibition. The best of the gangster movies from the 1930s were Little Caesar, The Public Enemy, and Scarface. All of them were made as wake-up calls to the public. They shocked their audiences with horrifying acts of violence and decadence in the hopes that the people would pressure the government to do something to stop it. The remarkable thing about these films, therefore, is that they have appeal that endures beyond the scope of the society they portray.

Scarface is the best of the three. It stars Paul Muni in the performance of a lifetime as a gangster modeled after Al Capone, though his fate at the end is purely fictional. It's a seedy picture by the standards of the day and was one of the targets of the Hays Code, instantiated in 1934 to regulate the content that could be viewed in American cinemas. Though tame by today's standards, it still has a considerable dramatic edge that effectively recreates the world of a gang-ruled Chicago in the first decades of the century. Watch for George Raft, who made a name for himself with the coin-tossing he does here, a mannerism that became arguably even more notorious than the film itself.

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