Friday, January 21, 2011

The Shame of a Nation

TCM's gem for this evening is a night of early gangster movies. I've already recommended Little Caesar before; that's airing at 11:45 PM ET. James Cagney isn't getting showcased with The Public Enemy; instead, at 12:45 his gangster film The Mayor of Hell is getting a showing. Surprisingly, one that I haven't recommended before, if only because it hasn't shown up on TCM in quite some time, is the original version of Scarface, at 9:30 PM.

Paul Muni plays Tony Camonte, a small-time gangster in Chicago who's modeled on Al Capone, although Capone wasn't really like this. Tony actually started out as a bodyguard to a bigger gangster, but with the big guy rubbed out, Tony decides to become a head honcho himself, and gain revenge the only way he knows how, which is to kill, kill, kill! And when he's done with that, he's going to kill some more!

Of course, we learn that life at the top isn't as nice as it's made out to be. Tony has all sorts of problems to deal with. Not only are there the other gangsters who don't like Tony's muscling in on their territory. Most notable among these is the Irish gangster Gaffney, played by Boris Karloff(!). Gaffney gets it in the end in a bowling alley of all places in one of the film's many interestinc scenes. There's also the henchman Guino (George Raft), who might just decide to stab Tony in the back. And then there's Tony's sister Francesca (Ann Dvorak), who has ideas of getting above her station in life. Tony is protective of her, but perhaps just a little too protective of her. First and foremost, though, is the threat of being the victim of violence, and boy is that threat omnipresent. Tony obviously feels that killing first before being killed is the best strategy (who can blame him?), and the result is a vilm that's surprisingly violent (if not gory) by today's standards.

Which of the 1930s gangster movies is the best? I'm not certain; they're all quite good. If you haven't seen Scarface before, it's well worth watching. It's also gotten a DVD release, so you don't have to wait for the rare TCM showings.

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