Thoughts On: Scarface - The Mob Movie & The Familial Tragedy


Scarface - The Mob Movie & The Familial Tragedy

Thoughts On: Scarface (1932)

The quintessential classic gangster film loosely depicting the rise and fall of Al Capone through Tony Camonte.

Whilst a classical Hollywood film to an almost clichéd degree - in large part thanks to the acting style - Scarface is a thoroughly immersive and entertaining picture. Its main downfall is the stiff and aged acting style as it explicitly places this film in a specific era of cinematic history in a manner that isn’t entirely supportive. Some classic films have a style of their time that works in their favour, say for instance Gone With The Wind, but the style given to Scarface hurts its character work as it largely comes off as just bad acting. At points, this is distracting, but for the most part, this film’s narrative grips you and takes you on a ride. The most poignant sequence in this regard must be the one depicting the terror newly found automatic guns could reign upon a city. It’s after Tony secures a sub-machine gun that the film really finds its footing as a heavily symbolic and thematic barrage of fluid emotional plot points. The most iconic symbolism in this film is of course the crosses...

... a motif that haunts the narrative with an unnerving implication of an overseeing violent fate - something Scorsese famously utilised in The Departed...

But, beyond the euphamistic imagery splattered throughout the narrative, Scarface is a deeply thematic film, and so one of the most expressive archetypes of the sub-genre, the gangster film a.k.a the mob movie. It’s thus Scarface that outlines the heart of almost every single gangster film as a tragedy played out in the closed circle of a family. This thematic crux is what distinguishes the gangster film from crime dramas, crime thrillers, mysteries and film noir. Though these classes of film are very similar, sometimes in tone, sometimes in aesthetic, sometimes in plotting, the gangster film truly separates itself as a viewing experience. This is something I’ve always subconsciously picked up on. This is because I don’t much like crime movies, nor mysteries, nor film noir. In regards to crime dramas, mysteries and thrillers, this is because of their heavy focus on plot. With films such as North By Northwest, The Big Sleep and Laura, we see movies with a primary goal to reveal twist after turn, peeling back the layers of plot until we find ourselves at the end of the narrative. Whilst this is meant to engage an audience, mysteries and whodunnits simply grate on my patience. Moreover, a plot centric film’s major worth is in the first viewing - once you know the plot, there is little to return to the film for. This is the reason why I’m not so into mysteries and films alike--and the same may be said of film noir. However, there is an added thematic element to film noirs that I’ve never much enjoyed.

As dictated by their aesthetic, noirs are dark, sombre and usually fatalistic. We see great examples of the noir in The Third Man, Double Indemnity and Out Of The Past. All of these films are infamously morbid, tragic--at best, bitter-sweet. This often leaves them thematically flat to me as they speak of an existential haphazardness through their protagonists, but in a manner that is at times empty, but usually just dull. All of this suggests that I simply don’t enjoy noirs, crime dramas or mysteries as they are missing elements of character that uphold narrative.

However, with gangster films, we see the plot-centric and morbid nature of the films/genres mentioned rejuvenated with character and theme. This, in short, allows a protagonist, often an anti-hero, to imbue a narrative with greater depth and empathetic value. To understand the significance of this you only need to look to a few of the greatest gangster films ever made...


What makes these films so great, so timeless, so poignant are their characters. With The Godfather, it’s Michael and Vito Corleone that are the audience’s portal into a dark whirlpool of crime. The same may be said of Henry in Goodfellas, only the world we sprint through with him is a minefield of ecstasies and delights just waiting to ensnare us. Conversely, with Noodles in Once Upon A Time In America we are given a vessel of exploration. In such, it’s through him that we live the life of a boy, man, gangster and monster. It’s these crucial elements of character in each of these films that elevate them beyond basic plots and predictable motifs because of a thematic resonation with the audience; we are made to emotionally participate in these stories by empathising with the protagonists. It’s through this focus on character that we see the second unifying element of gangster films - the first being themes--those of familial tragedy. And when both theme and character come together under the guise of crime, we get the gangster film, we get highly emotional, entertaining and captivating movies.

To delve deeper into this idea of theme and character, we’ll take a quick look at two of the films mentioned. Characters in gangster films are usually one of two things; you have the Henry Hills and then you have the Michael Corleones. In such, we have the positive anti-hero and the negative anti-hero. This is a classification of character based on their personage and tone. With Henry Hill, you see a fun character who sweeps you off of your feet, but descends into calamity by the end of the narrative. He is thus an anti-hero because he is a vessel by which we vicariously experience a darker, yet exciting, way of living - leaving us almost wanting him to win like we would a more traditional hero. This leaves Henry a corrupted and semantic anti-hero, but an anti-hero nonetheless. With Michael we also see an anti-hero, but a more negative one. This is because he is more subdued in nature, embodying a darker tone. Michael is also a corrupt and semantic anti-hero because, whilst he does terrible things, he does them for what we are convinced are virtuous reasons - for family and those he loves. The main difference between a Michael Corleone and Henry Hill are thus their convictions. Henry Hill is an anti-hero closer to a Jordan Belfort.

Whereas Michael Corleone exists closer to the other extreme of the spectrum where the likes of Batman exists.

The tone of mob movies are built around these types of anti-heroes. On one end we have the fun, upbeat gangster films; Pulp Fiction, The Departed, Goodfellas, Snatch, Rififi, The Sting. And on the other we have the more sombre and serious gangster films; Once Upon A Time In America, Boyz N The Hood, The Godfather, Scarface, Mean Streets, Miller’s Crossing.

However, this distinction between upbeat gangster films, serious ones, positive anti-heroes and negative ones shouldn’t be fixated on too much as almost all gangster films are dictated by the arc of their characters and so end up in very similar places. From The Godfather to Scarface to Rififi to Goodfellas, all gangster films have a melancholic end. Whether it’s the through corruption, death or defeat, protagonists always come out of a narrative worse than they entered. The only significant asterisk to this rule would be Pulp Fiction. The reason for this is that Pulp Fiction is taken out of order so that Tarantino can provide the best tonal setting for his individual set-pieces. This reshuffling of events emphasises Juels’ implied change of character with the last scene of the movie. Whilst there is no conformation of a positive change and Vincent does later die, Pulp Fiction defies this downward and tragic third art arc of the gangster film. Looking at the plethora of films mentioned, however, we see characters meeting dark ends - and this is all because of the thematic design of gangster films.

As said, mob movies are all about family, we’ll pick up on why later, but because of this, it is a protagonist’s job to preserve or protect those close to them. Just as Tony means to look after his sister and close friends, so does Michael Corleone, so do Tony and Cesar in Rififi and so does Henry Hill. An interesting expression of this paradigm can be seen in The Departed. A huge source of conflict for Colin, who is a part of the mob...

... is his lack of family, his large house, girlfriend and dysfunctional penis. All of these details are what cause Colin’s stress and eventual breakdown, leaving him one of the most negative anti-heroes in a gangster film as he is such a failure on a narrative and thematic level. This is all convoluted by the fact that The Departed is in actual fact a half detective, half gangster movie though, so this is probably not the cleanest example to give, but nonetheless one that holds up under stress. One of the most transparent applications of familial themes has to be in The Godfather. As is stated a numerous amount of times, the whole purpose of every single one of the Corleone’s actions must be for the family, for the business that protects them and preserves their way of life. This is the struggle passed from Vito to Michael and is essentially there for reasons linked to the early gangster films and a societal disconnect inherent to gangs - something we’ll return to soon.

Whilst Scarface is a pre-code picture, one that wasn’t subject to the strict dictatorship of the Motion Picture Production Code, there is a slightly contrived moral justification of this movie provided by the opening. This justification asserts that the film does not mean to glorify the actions of Tony or his gang, instead ask the government what they can do about crime in America.

This moral rigidity means to distance Tony from ourselves and paint him as the clear bad guy that must be condemned. We see an even stronger condemnation of this sort in the era of MPPC censorship with films such as The Public Enemy. I really don’t need to outline this beyond referencing the title again: The Public Enemy. It thus becomes clear that gangsters films have a motivation built into their DNA to show the hubris of what we may call anti-heroes. Morally justifying, gangster films thus often mean to make antagonists out of their anti-heroes. This is exactly why there is a tragic dip in the end of almost every mob movie - a crucial aspect of gangster films and something of a contradiction that we will return to later.

However, before that, it’s best to sink deeper into the elements of character and theme outlined already by focusing in on Scarface alone. What we then essentially want to ask is, why are gangster films all about family?

The simplest answer is one word: individualism. With Tony, we see a man who not only wants to rule the world, but stand atop it alone.

In such, he wants to create his own hierarchy, but recognises that he needs others around him to construct this. And it’s here where the individualist turns to family as they are the closest people to him that he can exploit - often use for emotional support or protection. Tony is such an expressive example as this as it’s stated outright and is shown time and time again that he is not a good brother or son. He’d rather control his sister than see her be happy - his hypocritical nature in this regard really being exposed by the scenes where he chases and courts Poppy. Furthermore, if Cesca is to be happy, Tony is the only one who wants to make her such. This is the true poignancy of the scene where he murders his friend and Cesca’s new husband. The commentary of this scene is on Tony’s capacity to deceive himself. He is not really a brother to her, much rather, she is a mark of respect he may wear as a badge. We can understand this to be the case by recognising that he almost wants to simply protect his sister. But, this is just how he blinds himself and justifies his actions towards her. He doesn’t truly mean to protect her, simply gain the acclaim of being a protector - which explains his unconscious motivation in killing one of his best friends. This is what marks Tony’s initial attachment to family to be all about exploitation.

There is further exploration of family through Tony and it comes with the death of his sister. Faced with the barrel of the gun his sister holds, Tony is made to see his hubris; the fact that he just uses people - even those close to him. But, with the gun dropped, the two embrace with the words, ‘you’re me and I’m you’. Cesca says this in recognition of her own individualism and rebellion, but more importantly her need of Tony. Just as she takes his money so early on in the movie, she is swept up in his height of power as he fends off cops. This moment brings the two together under more prevalent takes on familial themes, as seen throughout The Godfather, where family aren’t just the people you exploit, but co-exist with in face of the world. The tragic undertones given with the end of the film, with Tony’s and Cesca’s death, are a testament to this universal idea of family we almost all share and empathise with.

This ending will also help us clarify why Tony is an anti-hero. When he is shot, there is an undeniable air of tragedy and loss conjured. This points out a contradiction of this film and many of the code-era gangster pictures in their contrived condemnation of their characters. That is to say that films such as Scarface and The Public Enemy aren’t as moral as they’d want us to think they are because they easily create empathy for their ‘bad guys’ - something that’s not incredibly close to glorification, but definitely a humanisation. For the outright condemnation of mobsters and crime it’s clear you must turn to the detective film. But, such just points out the purposeless of a political agenda prefacing a movie. As I’ve said many times, movies are ideas, they are a form of philosophy. In a philosophical context, morals aren’t a rigid set of rules adhered to because you don’t require bounds when asking questions as absurd as, why don’t we just kill stupid people? A political moralist would not hear this question - as the MPPC codes stand as evidence for with their ‘do’s and dont’s’. But, a philosopher, a thinker, wants to hear and indulge these kinds of questions as they exposes a complex truth of human nature. This is exactly what gangster films do with their theme of family. They appeal to our understanding that those close to us are those that matter most to conjure sympathy and understanding for killers. Like it or not, this is the truth of the gangster picture: we fall for murderers. This is the complex humanity a film can expose in even the most subdued and everyday manner. Whilst we may not think about it as we laugh along to Goodfellas, there is a constant question of our attachment to family and friends overshadowing our respect for law and larger society being posed by Scorsese. The same can be said of Coppola and certainly of Hawks and Rosson with The Godfather and Scarface. This philosophical nuance is exactly why seeing Tony as an anti-hero is so important. We empathise with him for the sake of thought and emotion that is more complex than the opening cards of this film.

However, the contradiction we just pointed out segues smoothly into the next question we’ll ask of gangster films: why are they familial tragedies? We now know why gangster films are about family, but they also all have dark, down-beat endings. This is an element given by the fact that anti-heroes need to be condemned, but more importantly, by the fact that the individualist structure that anti-heroes mean to set up is antithetical to societal norm. This reveals the aspect of truth in a title such as, The Public Enemy, but also an irrevocable truth that exist beyond a film such as Scarface in the question: would you want to live next door to a Henry Hill, a Tony Comonte, a Michael Corleone? Sure, we love to spend time with them as characters in a movie, but certainly wouldn’t want to be near them in real life. The reason why is that the ideas of family we attach to characters in gangster films don’t have anything to do with us at a close distance. From afar we may empathise with Tony, but close to the gun-totting mad man, empathy and understanding don’t count for much. What this reveals is the anarchy present at the core of a gangster film that is masked by familial structure. Resultantly, it’s because Tony wants to rule the world that the world fights back and ends up killing him - and by the world, I mean to suggest society on a larger scale--which ultimately translates to you. Thus, mob movies are tragedies because of us, because of our disdain for non-democratic dictatorships in any aspects of life. All of this suggests a poignant commentary in the gangster film; one that implies that a closed and exclusive system given a lot of power will turn corrupt. This indirectly equates an unregulated and poorly managed police force or government to a gang. So, just as Tony has power, but uses it against his sister, his friends, comrades and employees, so does the system this film means to also condemn; the American judicial system that cannot put a stop to gang war.

The two fighting forces that are at play in mob movies are thus our gravitation towards individualism and family and our disdain of corruption and dictatorship. This is exactly why they are familial tragedies; there is a philosophical bitter-sweetness portrayed by these narrative arcs that expose our emotional and pragmatic attachments to order and anarchy. We like the anarchistic elements of individualism present in figures like Tony, but also those like the more mature Michael Corleone who has a better, though still fractured, relationship with family. Simultaneously, we like the order and peace of a world without the corruption of the gangster that loses perspective and control. In such, the ultimate philosophical weight of a mob movie such as Scarface is an emotional debate in ourselves as we witness a familial tragedy.

To conclude, almost all gangster films separate themselves from movies alike (mysteries, crime dramas, noires) with their distinguished projection of characters and themes. In such, anti-heroes are there to connect to the audience, providing them a unique experiences of crime and violence. Simultaneously, familial themes curtailed by tragedy are present in a mob movie to induce a philosophical debate and imply an emotional dichotomy within ourselves; one that explores the attractions and pitfalls of individualist anarchy and dictatorial peace.

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