Thesis: Crime Film

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Crime Films, Stereotyping and Xenophobic Characters

The two motion pictures called "Scarface" that are critiqued in this paper certainly have the same title and embrace the same themes of power, arrogance, gruesome bloodshed and gangster corruption. But when it comes to the characters, settings, editing, dialogue, narrative logic, and sociological substance, the two films are as far apart as Miami is from the moon. Howard Hawks' Scarface is dripping with blood and with xenophobic characterizations that are, in retrospect, insulting and demeaning to Italian immigrants. It may not have been Hawks' intention to create a film that viciously mocks Italians at every turn, but in 2009, that's what the film projects. In fairness, the United States in 1932 was in the grip of the Depression and was stumbling in its adjustment to the post-Prohibition dynamics. Given that backdrop, filmmakers like Hawks -- in concert with screenwriter Ben Hecht -- were presenting audiences with the perfect scapegoats for all that was chaotic and ugly in the country.

The 1983 version of Scarface -- starring Al Pacino -- also had powerful ethnicity themes as it used the arrival of the Marielitos (Cuban refugees) as the principal gangster characters. The arrival of Cubans (Castro sent boatloads of so-called deviants to Florida, many of whom were not in fact criminals) helped bring about an anti-Latino movement in the United States at that time. However, the portrayal of ethnic persons in the 1983 version was nowhere near the brutally xenophobic portrayals of ethnic persons in the 1932 film. Indeed, the Brian DePalma version of Tony Montana in 1983 did not make the Cuban characters out to be bumbling, nearly illiterate knuckleheads like Tony and his moron colleagues in Hawks' version fifty-one years earlier. Yes Tony and his gangster partners were brutally mean, deviant and power hungry, but the 1983 film did not overtly attack an ethnicity the way Hawks and Hecht did in 1932.

Brian DePalma's Scarface (1983) vs. Howard Hawks' Scarface (1932)

A man is standing on a balcony and is being riddled with bullets. He shouts and screams in the anguished, pained roar of a man about to go down. Several men in camouflage are continuing to attack him, from every side. Notwithstanding his weakened position, he fights back, shooting wildly and showing that he hasn't run out of testosterone quite yet. Finally, and according to film critic Tricia Welsch, "almost mercifully" a "lone gunman appears and fires a single shot" (Welsch, 1997). That last shot is the final nail in the struggling man's coffin. He falls off the balcony, landing in a "decorative pool of water far below," Welsch continues. The last the film viewer sees is the dead body "spread eagle" and face down in the pool.

The dead man in the pool is notoriously evil gangster Tony Montana. The film is Brian DePalma's Scarface, circa 1983. What is remarkable about that ending scene, according to Welsch, assistant professor and chair of the Department of Film Studies at Bowdoin College, is that it moves away from the ethnic hostility presented in the 1932 version by "persistently evoking" associations with the horror film genre. The way DePalma put this scene together reminds Welsch of the stereotypical monster movie during which the creature doesn't die easily at all; the monster offers a "superhuman burst of energy" prior to all the forces that civilization can muster finally brings the creature "to its knees." And so, Welsch's bottom line is that DePalma's movie redefined the genre by "reconfiguring the problems the gangster film traditionally posed" (Welsch, p. 39). And, as previously mentioned in this paper, by incorporating the monster theme, DePalma coyly (or intentionally) avoids criticism from some that he is unfairly attacking Latinos.

By asserting that DePalma has redefined the gangster film Welsch enters a discussion of cultural changes that have occurred in society since the 1932 Scarface by Howard Hawk. That early Scarface -- and other crime films in the 1930s -- portrayed the mobster as a "recent and unwelcome immigrant" to the United States. In that genre, during that cultural period in the U.S., gangsters were not "men" but rather gangsters were "social problems" that citizens should "do something about" (Welsch, p. 39). Indeed these films of the 1930s delved into political issues, Welsch continues; some footage in Scarface 1932 urges citizens to "put teeth in the Deportation Act." Rubbing out cultural differences was considered a way of rubbing out the violent criminal in the 1930s, according to Welsch's thinking. And she clearly establishes the viewpoint that the "xenophobia" (fear of strangers or foreigners) commonly espoused in 1930s films by directors like Hawk would not likely be tolerated today's society. Hence, DePalma brings monster images and themes into his updated version of the 1932 classic film presumably to avoid offending immigrants in the manner that Hawk most certainly did.

Welsch makes her strongest point about the 1983 version of Scarface by asserting that the "threat of cultural differences has been contained" through "generic hybridization" (p. 39). Said another way, DePalma avoids direct criticism and defamation vis-a-vis Italians by treating ethnic differences as "insurmountable" by shooting the gangster movie through the lens of the horror film genre (Welsch p. 39). (In popular American culture the "mafia" or "mob" is always alluded to as of Italian ethnicity and it is not politically correct to attack ethnic groups in the U.S. In modern times.)

Welsch is certain that DePalma has pulled together two genres in order to exploit the most drama out of his Scarface, to avoid attacking ethnic groups as the 1932 crime films did, and moreover to add excitement to a violent crime tale. DePalma has woven the horror movie genre into his gangster film brilliantly, in Welsch's view. On the one hand, the typical horror film has a monster that often wishes to be treated as some kind of human; the outcome of the film depends on whether or not the monster actually deserves human treatment or in the end will receive such treatment (Welsch, p. 40). But the gangster film convention decrees, "…that violent, criminal actions will cause the mobster to be called a monster or a beast but that will not ultimately forfeit his status as a human by virtue of these acts" (Welsch, p. 40). And the "unbreachable gap between human and inhuman in the horror film is often externally coded in monstrous physiognomy" and "physical deformity" (Welsch, p. 40). More often than not in crime pictures the crime hero's foreignness "…comes from ethnic heritage, class difference, and the restriction of opportunity" (Welsch, p. 41). In this particular case, because DePalma has married two genres into a film that was highly praised, one could state without equivocation that DePalma was more of a pathfinder and trailblazer than an exploiter of ethnic criminals.

Meanwhile when DePalma approached cinematographer John A. Alonzo about doing the remake of Hawks' film, DePalma expressed to Alonzo that he wanted him to "light as beautifully as you can…" and that "the film noir elements will come out of the performances, not the look" (Sweeney, 2003). Later, after the film was in theaters, DePalma obviously approved of what the cinematographer did, describing it as "acrylic, high-tech, pastel glitz of South Florida in the 1980s" (Sweeney). Writing in the American Cinematographer -- The International Journal of Film & Digital Production Techniques, Sweeney notes that unlike the blurry black and white setting of Hawks' Scarface, DePalma directed a "gaudy, slick backdrop" for a "brutal" and "engrossing melodrama."

Howard Hawks' Scarface (1932)

How closely did Hawks' screenplay match up with the original novel Scarface by Armitage Trail? The screenplay for Hawks' film was "a unique creation that owes little to the novel," which was originally published in 1930, according to Marilyn Roberts. Writing in the journal Literature/Film Quarterly (2006), Roberts points to the fact of Hawks claim -- that he created the film based on "his own knowledge of gangsters, particularly Al Capone" (Roberts, p. 71). The original writers for the 1932 version were W.R. Burnett and John Lee Mahin -- and according to Roberts' version of the screenplay's evolution the writers give Ben Hecht (heavily involved with the screenplay) credit for "a complete transformation" of the original screenplay version they had come up with.

Even though Hawks liked to state that the movie did not emerge from the novel, "The film does not depart as significantly from the novel" as Hawks and Hecht claimed. That said, what is true (according to Roberts) is that the main changes from the book involve the compression of the narrative and "eliminating most of the political commentary" in order to "appease the censors." In fact the film was delayed about two years because the film censors took a lot of time to review and discuss the material. Clearly the censors must have removed some blatantly overt cultural slams at Italians, because there are several that remained in the film.

Roberts, in her scholarly essay, claims the movie weeded out the more controversial… [END OF PREVIEW]

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Crime Film.  (2009, November 22).  Retrieved March 23, 2019, from https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/crime-film/8136716

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"Crime Film."  Essaytown.com.  November 22, 2009.  Accessed March 23, 2019.
https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/crime-film/8136716.