Paul Muni’s Tony Camonte is the prototypical American gangster, and Scarface the prototypical gangster movie. It begins, however, with an indictment of gang culture, with a title card calling it a “constantly increasing menace to our safety and liberty” and a challenge to its audience, “what are YOU going to do about it?” Throughout the movie, you can feel the tension between the producers and the censors who insisted on giving it a clearer moral position (they were the ones who insisted on giving this movie the subtitle The Shame of a Nation, for example). The movie straddles the line between the glorification and condemnation of their lifestyle, but even when the film tried to do the latter, it still mystified and made the underworld alluring.
Scarface tells the classic story of a gangster who broke every rule to be the big boss in his little pond. It is a tale of seductive, unbridled ambition, and how the pursuit of power corrupts further even the already corrupted. Tony was based off Al Capone, who was rumored to love this movie so much he kept a personal copy. And it shows — Tony has the criminal energy and enthusiasm that only the most notorious gangster could ever possess. His life revolves around the acquisition of money, guns and girls, and as he amassed more and more wealth, the movie’s impulse to be moralistic kicks in and his greed eventually consumes him.
Much of his crimes are motivated by the same innovative and entrepreneurial spirit that has defined the United States during the roaring 20’s. Outside his window is a big neon sign that says “The World is Yours”, a creed that encapsulates his limitless appetites. His aggressive takeovers of bars, ensuring that they all sourced their bootleg alcohol from him, isn’t that different from the way industrial capitalists sought to establish monopolies in more legitimate trades. Similar to other gangster movies, the American Dream is perverted and implanted on the criminal enterprise.
But even then, there are certain things he holds sacred. His family, most especially his sister Cesca, is one of those things. That’s the way the Italian gangsters have been depicted ever since the 1930s, always drawing the line right at their family’s doorsteps. Tony, of course, is no different, with his watchful eye on his sister bordering on the incestuous. Cesca, as it turns out, is his weakness and his love for her, however misguided, eventually led to his downfall. He is humanized, but not redeemed.
in terms of a broader sociological commentary of America, this movie doesn’t do much to explain the existence of Tony and his fellow thugs. His violence is brushed off as something innate, a product of an inherently monstrous nature. This perhaps is consistent with the movie’s goals not to glorify violence. After all, if you remove the blame on the institution, then the criminal has no one to blame for his criminality but himself.
Brian De Palma’s 1983 remake gave the character of Tony more depth and nuance, but there is something more primal and more enticing with Muni’s version of this character. Maybe it was because he embodied all the fears that came along with The Great Depression, and how he successfully climbed the socioeconomic ladder that the rest of America was also trying to ascend, albeit in more legally acceptable ways. Maybe it was his drive for the best car, the best lady, the best anything that money can buy that appealed to the downtrodden audiences. But for whatever reason, Tony Camonte’s provocative, no-nonsense attitude was something that the authorities feared. And it is that higher power that led to his death.