Commentary Track

Scarface (1932)

This week on The Spectator Film Podcast…

Scarface (1932) 9/6/19
Featuring: Austin, Maxx

Commentary Track begins at 13:30

— Notes —

  • “The Gangster as Tragic Hero” by Robert Warshow — Here’s a link to a professor’s personal website (Andrée Lafontaine, PHD) that has the Warshow essay available for download. The Warshow essay is both tremendous and brief, making it highly recommended reading for anyone vaguely interested in Scarface or the gangster genre in general. Warshow’s essay offers a lot of insight into the way Gangster films interrogate the concepts of desire and success within the world of American capitalism – we’ll include some relevant passages below:
    • “Since we do not see the rational and routine aspects of the gangster’s behavior, the practice of brutality – the quality of unmixed criminality – becomes the totality of his career. At the same time, we are always conscious that the whole meaning of this career is a drive for success: the typical gangster film presents a steady upward progress followed by a very precipitate fall. Thus brutality itself becomes at once the means to success and the content of success – a success that is defined in its most general terms, not as accomplishment of specific gain, but simply as the unlimited possibility of aggression. (In the same way, film presentations of businessmen tend to make it appear that they achieve their success by talking on the telephone and holding conferences and that success is talking on the telephone and holding conferences.)”

    • “No convention of the gangster film is more strongly established than this: it is dangerous to be alone. And yet the very conditions of success make it impossible not to be alone, for success is always the establishment of an individual pre-eminence that must be imposed on others, in whom it automatically arouses hatred; the successful man is an outlaw. The gangster’s whole life is an effort to assert himself as an individual, to draw himself out of the crowd, and he always dies because he is an individual; the final bullet thrusts him back, makes him, after all, a failure. ‘Mother of God,’ says the dying Little Caesar, ‘is this the end of Rico?’ – speaking of himself thus in the third person because what has been brought low is not the undifferentiated man, but the individual with a name, the gangster, the success; even to himself he is a creature of the imagination”

    • “In the deeper layers of the modern consciousness, all means are unlawful, every attempt to succeed is an act of aggression, leaving one alone and guilty and defenseless among enemies: one is punished for success. This is our intolerable dilemma: that failure is a kind of death and success is evil and dangerous, is – ultimately impossible. The effect of the gangster film is to embody this dilemma in the person of the gangster and resolve it by his death.”

  • Howard Hawks by Robin Wood — Here’s the link to Robin Wood’s book on Howard Hawks. We’re big fans of Robin Wood, and this book is no exception: his writing here is as insightful and engaging as you’d expect. The entire book is strong, but the essay on Scarface in particular seems to receive a lot of attention in terms of the field of criticism covering the gangster film.
  • Gangster Film Reader Edited by Alain Silver & James Ursini — Here’s a tremendous and seemingly comprehensive collection of essays that tackle the gangster genre. Within this volume, you can find both Warshow’s essay and an excerpted version of Wood’s chapter on Scarface – and this is in addition to dozens of other essays discussing the gangster genre, including some that also discuss Scarface specifically. For anyone looking for a general critical overview on the genre, this is a good place to begin.
  • “Hawks, Howard” by David Boxwell from Senses of Cinema — Here’s the link to Sense of Cinema great director profile discussing Howard Hawks.

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