American Films of the Thirties - The case of Howard Hawks’s - I-Scarface e Exorcism and Economic crises

, by Edmond Cros

I- Toward a Semiological Reading of Film

Study of Sequences

(dialogue and shooting script)*
Street scene at night
Medium close-up of the globe of a lighted lamp-post, in a low-angle shot; beneath the globe, a sign indicating “22nd Street.” The camera moves back, and a horse-drawn deliv-ery van comes into view, stopped in a dark, deserted street; then the camera goes around the vehicle. Next we see that the delivery van is stopped in front of a nightclub with its windows still lit up; the driver is loading crates of bottles. The camera comes closer so that it just frames the façade of the nightclub. On the doorstep, a man wearing an apron is wav-ing, and we hear offscreen the sound of the wagon going away. Then the man removes from in front of the door a large poster announcing the pleasures of the evening and goes inside to put it away.

Nightclub–interior at night
In a wide-angle shot, we see the man put away the poster in a corner of the room cluttered with green plants from which streamers are hanging, and which are also strewn all over the floor. The man takes a broom and starts to clear away a tangle of streamers and party hats, in which he finds a brassiere, while he mover toward the center of the room from which light and muffled sounds of a conversation are coming. The camera follows him a moment, then passes him and reveals the empty room where only three revelers are left seated around a table laden with bottles, it comes close to them and frames them in a knee shot, while their voices become audible. A fat bald man, seated between his two guests, is telling than a story in a heavy italian accent.

BIG LOUIS: I told him: what would we do with it? Let the others have their share… I have everything I want…

His neighbor on the right, a thin, serious-looking man, interrupts him.

THE NEIGHBOR: Johnny Lovo is talking about tackling a job.

BIG LOUIS: Yeah! He’s looking for trouble? Johnny’s a damn fool. Look at me: I have eve-rything a man could want. I’m rich, I have a house, I have a car, I have the prettiest girls… (he hiccups) … I also have a rotten stomach… (he laughs).

THE NEIGHBOR: Well, I’m going to bed. (He gets up and walks around the table.)

BIG LOUIS: OK. (He gets up too, imitated by the third man who has remained silent, and joins his companion. He seems very satisfied with himself.) Well, it was quite an evening, wasn’t it? (he laughs). Next week, I’ll give one like you’ve never seen yet. We’ll have lots more music, lots more girls, lots more of everything… (bombastically). Everybody’s gonna say: That Big Louis. he got the world at his feet! … (he laughs).

THE NEIGHBOR: Buona sera!

He leaves, followed by the other man. Big Louis, left alone, watches them go.

BIG LOUIS: Buona sera, fellas, take good care of yourselves!

He remains motionless for a minute, then, followed he the camera, he crosses the room to go to the telephone at the rear of the room, near a glass door. Behind the glass, we make out the silhouette of a man wearing a hat. The camera comes closer to Big Louis, who has picked up the telephone.

BIG LOUIS: Hello, give me Lakeside 4173.

While he continues to ask for this number, the camera leaves him and sweeps the room, framing in the foreground the green plants near the entrance. The shadows wearing the hat passes in front of them while whistling softly, the camera follows his progress, then lets him disappear in the darkness, and frames a glass door through which the light from the room is passing. The shadow is then seen in profile behind the lit-up glass, a revolver sticks out from the end of his arm, and the soft whistling stops.*
THE SHADOW: Buon giorno, Louis!

Two shots are fired, then the man takes out a handkerchief from his pocket, wraps the weapon up in it, and throws it on the floor. He runs away whistling. The camera leaves the glass door and reveals the corner of the room where Big Louis’s body is lying. Offscreen, the whistling can still he heard when the nightclub employee arrives calmly and suddenly stops in front of the body stretched out on the floor in front of a closet door. The employee quickly takes off his cap and apron and tosses them into the closet, from which he takes his jacket and hat, hastily slipping them on as lie crosses the room. He runs away.

Editorial room of the Daily Herald–interior daylight
General view of the room, full of activity. A man enters, holding a printed sheet with a headline in big letters, shouting in the midst of the hubbub: “Here are the proofs, here are the proofs!” He gives the paper to a reporter sitting in the foreground, who takes it and gets up immediately. The camera accompanies him: he crosses the room and goes into the office of the editor-in-chief who is seated at a large desk and is busy writing.
• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •
Medium, frontal shot of the editor taking the paper, glancing rapidly at it, crumpling it furiously, and throwing it on the floor.

EDITOR: That’s no good! (accentuating each syllable). “Costello Murder To Start Gang War”: that’s what I want!

Medium shot on the reporter, from behind.

REPORTER: I’m giving it priority. I have four men on the story.

Medium shot on the editor.

EDITOR: Four? You’ll need forty men on this story for five years to come. You know what’s happening? They’re going to struggle for control of this town, you understand? Look: Costello was the last old-style gang leader. A new team is taking over. Any little guy with enough money to buy a revolver is going to try to take the place of the others. They’ll shoot each other down like rabbits. To improve their business! . . . It’ll be war. That’s it, war. Put that on the front page: War . . . Gang War.

Barbershop–interior daylight
Lap dissolve. The front page of the Daily Herald. The headline reads: “Costello Murder To Start Gang War.” The camera moves back and shows the whole newspaper, lying folded on a chair in a barbershop. All the barber chairs are covered with white sheets; a man’s legs are protruding from one of them. The barber, dressed in a white smock, crosses the room holding a glass in his hand. in the background, seated on a bench in front of the shop window, a man wearing a fedora is reading a newspaper. The sound of an approaching car is heard. The man gets up with a start.

THE MAN: The cops!

But he sits back down immediately, while through the windows we see a car stopping in front of the shop and men getting out. A hand holding a revolver emerges from the sheet with the legs protruding from it. The barber grabs it and throws it into a chest full of tow-els. Close-up of the revolver lying on the towels. Master shot of the room. The man sitting in front of the window is absorbed in reading the newspaper. A policeman is seen ap-proaching the door and entering. Medium shot of the policeman on the doorstep.

THE POLICEMAN: Hello, Rinaldo!

Medium close-up from behind of the seated man, who raises his eyes placidly.

THE POLICEMAN (offscreen): You coming?

Rinaldo lowers his eyes to his newspaper again, then gets up as if resigned. Medium shot of Rinaldo and the policeman face to face.

THE POLICEMAN: Where’s Camonte?

Rinaldo gestures with his thumb toward the occupied barber chair, then takes out of his pocket a piece of change that he negligently tosses in his hand.* The camera moves back to frame the barber chair and the policeman walking toward it. Camonte takes off the sheet and reveals himself. Medium close-up frontal shot of Camonte. He has a scar on his left cheek.

CAMONTE: Hello, Guarino.

THE POLICEMAN (offscreen): Come along.

CAMONTE: You’re sure in a hurry. I’m also having a massage.

Medium shot of Guarino.

GUARINO (impatient): You’ll finish that at the police station. Put on your coat.

Medium shot of Camonte from the rear. He sits up slowly, staring at Guarino.

CAMONTE: I’ve got plenty of time.

He takes off the smock that was covering him, gets up and goes to take a cigarette from a dresser, turning his back to Guarino, who has come closer to him and is standing behind him at knee shot distance.

CAMONTE: Who wants to see me?

GUARINO: The boss.

CAMONTE: That idiot!

He turns toward Guarino.

GUARINO: Have your laugh … Come on, let’s go.

CAMONTE (to the barber): I’d like to see how it looks in the back.

He takes a mirror from the dresser and shifts it, turning his head to try to see his haircut better.

BARBER (offscreen): You look real good.

Camonte grunts with satisfaction. He puts the mirror down, puts a cigarette to his lips, takes a match from the dresser and brings it up close to the star shining on Guarino’s chest. Close-up of the hand striking the match on the star; the flame leaps out. Medium shot of Camonte and Guarino face to face. Camonte peacefully lights his cigarette and blows the smoke in Guarino’s face. Medium three-quarter frontal close-up of Guarino punching Camonte, turning into a three-quarter back shot. Medium shot of Camonte, from the front, falling backward near the linen chest. Flash on Rinaldo, in the middle distance near the door, who starts to move forward. Medium shot of Camonte getting up. Guarino approaches him and grabs his collar.

GUARINO: Come on, you bastard!

Camonte frees himself and straightens his shirt. The barber appears, looking stupefied, holding out Camonte’s jacket and hat. Camonte puts on his hat and takes his jacket. Guarino grabs his arm.

GUARINO: Come on, let’s go.

They cross tile shop, tile barber takes several steps after them. Rinaldo, still in front of the door, is the first to leave. We see through the window that a crowd has been forming. Scarcely have the three men left when they disappear behind the crowd of curiosity seek-ers. We hear the car’s motor starting up. Dissolve out.

Methodological Principles

(1) We shall consider that every element of the various levels of the filmic message (visual, linguistic, auditory) is part of one semiotic system and plays an equal role in the production of meaning.1
(2) This system is itself composed of a set of texts, each of which is defined by a coreferential relation existing among the various signs involved.
(3) Every element selected by analysis as being pertinent2 will be separated from the visual or linguistic context that had given it a contingent primary meaning, and will be placed in a different network in which it occupies an autonomous position with respect to this primary context.
(4) Within this new network, reductions of meaning are effected by the concor-dance established among themselves by the various signs, regardless of their nature or level. Every confrontation of a sign with another sign effectively reactivates certain mean-ings of both, but neutralizes most of them. The multiplication of these confrontations gives the whole system a coherence of meaning that must not be confused with that of the con-tingent or opposite meaning of each of the different levels. These successive confrontations have the result of producing increasingly narrow semiological reductions, leading, in the-ory, to the discovery of a coreferential relation, which will be translated, as far as possible, in terms of bipolar concepts.
(5) When each point of coreference, around which the semiotic text is ordered, has thus been formulated, it will be considered in turn, in a second phase of grouping, as a per-tinent sign capable of entering a second process of semiological reduction, marking off a new field of coincidence.
(6) It has been posed as a hypothesis: (a) that the results of these various operations should permit us to discern the principal components of the filmic genotext; (b) that this composite is deconstructed by each of the different levels, according to its specificity, in the form of diverse actualizations –phenotexts– that a subsequent analysis should permit us to verify.

Semiological Reading

1. Interior/Exterior
Camera outside in the street  camera moves: cabaret interior; doors, successive entrances and exits of characters (first sequence); camera:  interior newspaper office, transparent cubicles, entrances and exits of characters, voices and sounds offscreen (third sequence).
We pass successively from exterior  interior (first sequence); to: ——— interior  interior (second sequence); then to: ——— interior  exterior (third sequence).
The systematic aspect of this back and forth movement makes it a pertinent element around which two specific spaces are arranged, governed by distinct laws and, ultimately, by different codes of communication.
If we study the modalities of functioning that permit us to pass between these two spaces, we observe several phenomena of reversal: in the first sequence the camera, which is outside in the street, ostensibly passes through a wall (Ph. 5)3 to enter the interior of a cabaret, thus placing in relief a visual obstacle shown as unsurmountable at the very mo-ment it is nevertheless surmounted. On the contrary, the series of glassed-in cubicles (Ph. 13 and 14), which are easily perceptible as so many indexes of a sort of visual continuum, become masks of a closed space, a space presented as such by the lettering on the door, seen in reverse that is, from a space that has already been crossed and that can be inter-preted as describing spaces forbidden to the public. A system of obstacles standing out against transparency consequently establishes a perfect correspondence, though now with a negative sign, to the camera movement noted above. Opacity and transparency thus appear, within a coreferential relation, as signs signifying the opposite of what they are supposed to signify. This ambiguity of the sign designates it as a locus of problematization capable of opening up two areas of possible subsequent semiotic correspondence: no doubt what is involved is passage, but it is a questioning of the visual realm and suggests a reversal of the concepts of the visible and the invisible.

2. Night/Day
 Lamp going out (Ph. 2 and 3), hour of the milkman and the streetcleaner (Ph. 6), end of a night of revelry, poster announcing the evening brought inside (Ph. 5, 6, and 17), “Well, I’m going to bed,” “It was a great evening,” shadows of artificial light, empty room, ves-tiges of the party (first sequence) (Ph. 6).
 Production of the early edition of the paper (previewing the proofs) (second sequence) (Ph. 14 and 15). Close-up shot of the headline of that edition of the paper in the barbershop (third sequence) (Ph. 20).
We are thus at the dividing line between day and night (Ph. 2 and 3). Contrary to what one might think at first, this boundary does not separate the first sequence from the subsequent ones but is inscribed deep within each sign from the very first frames. It is a part not of the temporal organization of the episodes, but rather of a thematic whole. A comparison of the leave-taking formula Big Louis uses with his friends (Buona sera) with the one the killer uses a few seconds later (Buon giorno) demonstrates this. Significantly, then, the first character is part of a semiotic set connoting night and the past, whereas the second looms up from a pale dawn connoting an ambiguous future (Ph. 7, 8, 10, and 11).
In this way, the opposition night/day is, at a second level, a symbolic representation of the old and the new explicitly expressed by the words of the editor in chief (old ways vs. new team). Thus, hinging upon this text, a new space of reading opens up marked by a brief lexical field (next week, start, [five years] to come, changing of the guard, takeover).

3. Work/Festivity
 Milkman, streetcleaner, wagon, “I’m working,” team, smock, barber, barbershop, po-liceman, towel, sheets (Ph. 5, 6, 16, 17, …).
 Revellers, dancing, party hat ( exotic plant), brassiere, champagne, whiskey, glasses (Ph. 6, 7, 8, 9, …)
It is a question here not of a mere confrontation of two worlds, but rather of the overlapping of the first inside the second, as if the reverse of the images were systemati-cally being seen through their transparent obverse.

4. Hiding/Displaying
 Hiding by the janitor of a brassiere and an unidentified object (Ph. 6), killer in hiding (Ph. 10), hiding of fingerprints, hidden revolver (Ph. 18, 19), towel as mask, newspaper as mask (Ph. 20).
 Gestures of pointing (Ph. 19), revealing of the headline (Ph. 20), the newspaper per-ceived as the instrument of unveiling (Ph. 20).
This list does not take into account a number of phenomena that are difficult to formulate in terms of signs. Such is the case of the two scenes in which Camonte hides behind pretexts to avoid police action: having a massage and examining his haircut in the mirror (Ph. 25 and 26). The mirror renders this scene metaphorical: at the same time it is being used to make the back of the neck visible, it is also presented as one of the expedi-ents used by the gangster in a game of hide-and-seek and provocation. This is tantamount to saying that the mirror functions as an instrument both of hiding and of revealing. We shall find an identical problematization of this sign in the dual role assigned to the newspa-per. Added to its function of denouncing scandal and crime, emphasized tn American film tradition, particularly in so-called gangster films. are the orders of the editor-in-chief (Put this across) (Ph. 15). On the other hand, however, in the barbershop, Rinaldo twice hides behind his newspaper (Ph. 20). This is certainly a stereotype, hut it must be linked with what I have said about the mirror, in that the meanings of both are being reversed in paral-lel fashion and, consequently, as I have said about transparency, are being problematized. This is all the more true since these reversals occur several times in the text. Thus the cam-era, which must be seen in the context of the analogical series (camera-newspaper-mirror), by describing the gesture of the barber throwing the revolver into a chest full of towels (Ph. 18 and 19) in order to hide it, conspicuously unveils this will to hide.

5. Power/Submission
 Let the others take their share. I have all I want. I have all that a man can want. I am rich. I have… I have… I have… I have… He has the world at his feet, gang leaders, boss, series of coercive orders of the policeman (You coming? Come on! Come on, you bas-tard!) Big Louis’s gestures of power (Ph. 7 and 8), those of the editor (Ph. 15), and the po-liceman (Ph. 22). Displays of power (punch) (Ph. 23), typology of the leader (gang boss, editor-in-chief, police chief).
 Fellas (as index of subordination), I’ve got plenty of time, stage business of Camonte’s resisting police power, his final capitulation (Ph. 22 and 23).
When these signs are put back in their respective textual contexts, we observe that several instances of power are playing against one another. In other words, power and domination are definitively perceived less with respect to submission than with respect to various struggles that allow them to be won or preserved. This is as valid for Big Louis’s liberal strategy (We must let the others take their share) as for the leaders of the new team aiming at taking the place (thus the share) of the others, or for Camonte’s attempting to dominate the policeman (Ph. 27). We are thus witnessing multiple power confrontations. This manifold repetition of confrontations prevents us from setting the place of confronta-tion at one level or another (among the gangs, between the police and the gangs) and leads us to generalize this problematic. Camonte’s gesture of striking the match on Guarino’s badge –a sign of social order– is an obvious challenge to power, and the most spectacular actualization of this problematic.

6. Distance/Assimilation
Several convergent phenomena are grouped under this rubric.

(a) At the level of dialogue, the opposition I/others (in Big Louis’s discourse), we/others (in the editor-in-chief’s discourse). We observe in this connection that discourse about oneself can be distanced: thus Big Louis refers to himself in the third person (Everyone will say: Big Louis, he has the world at his feet!), whereas the reporters and newspaper editors are presented, initially, as readers of their own text beside the editor-in-chief, who is being informed of it.

(b) Group frames systematically organized around one individual:
Big Louis  vs.  his two guests (Ph. 7)
Editor-in-chief  vs.  reporters (Ph. 14)
Camonte  vs.  the other characters in the barbershop. (Ph. 18)

(c) Problematization of social integration. From the very first frame, we know what to think: the camera puts us on “22nd Street,” that is, at the edge of the Italian neighbor-hood (Ph. 2 and 3). The majority of the characters belong to minority even if they are de-fined by distinctive textual markers: some (Big Louis) have an Italian accent, whereas the origin of the others is revealed by either the occupations (the barber) or their names (Guarino, Camonte, Rinaldo). The diversity of these markers seems to reveal another bar-rier, that of generations: the young gangsters, unlike the old, speak English with a perfect American accent an obvious index of their integration into American society. But this new generation, at the same time that it is inscribed within the new national collectivity, in turn, undergoing a process of diffraction. The individuals who make up this new generation are divided on both sides of the ideological inclusion, a division that cannot be more clearly marked than by the typology of the characters (policeman/gangster).
Once again, we are led to deduce from the repetition of this phenomenon that it must he generalized. Consequently, we shall see in this generalization the transcription of a recurrent opposition of inclusion and exclusion, an opposition that the French version of the film placed in extraordinary relief (Ph. 1) by presenting the facts narrated in Scarface as the expression of an “implacable struggle among these men, scum [exclusion] of society [inclusion].”
By limiting myself to a microtext, I cannot judge a priori the pertinence of certain signs that are isolated and apart from my groupings. Thus, when the killer is silhouetted in profile behind the glass door, a revolver in his hand, the shadows form a cross (Ph. 11). This cross is found again in the gash on Camonte’s left cheek when he unmasks himself in the barbershop scene (Ph. 24). From that point, it is a veritable “plastic leitmotif.” But there is no need to anticipate the ensuing frames. The title (Scarface) is there to program, at least on an elementary level, the explicit production of meaning and to synthesize the mes-sage by focusing not only on an actant, but also on physical (mark on the face) and sym-bolic (marked with a cross) characteristics. In fact, when this phenomenon is perceived as a preconstructed element belonging to a long series of antecedents, it is marked with a des-tiny that transcends the individual level. Even though it may be isolated in this microtext, this sign, which refers to a point external to the narrative but internal to the film and explic-itly given as center of focalization of meaning, is thus linked to a zone of coreference.
This zone of coreference will be clearer if we approach the second process of semi-ologic reduction, which is capable of marking out a new field of coincidence and which takes into account the first coreferential relations. The latter, it seems to me, need to be grouped around certain points for which I propose the following formulations:

(A) Problematization of the crossing (edge; frontier; transition; old vs. new) (Texts 1, 2, 6c)
(B) Hiding vs. unmasking (Texts 1 and 4)
(C) Inclusion vs. exclusion (Text 6)
(D) Reverse vs. obverse (Text 3)

We shall link the center of polarization to the specific status of the signs identified as being the most pertinent and that constantly reverse their respective primary meanings (transpar-ency/opacity; instruments of revelation! instruments of masking, etc.).
In such a semiotic context, an isolated sign that we have deliberately neglected until now orders these apparently unconnected elements and gives them all their meaning. I re-fer to the party hat Big Louis is wearing (Ph. 8 and 9), a paper crown or ridiculous mon-arch’s hat designating him as the comic king of carnivalesque celebrations, dooming him to being dethroned. That this dethroning is in turn presented as the result of a generational conflict is another index of the social practice invested in the textual circumstances of the film. Whether it be the role traditionally played by age groups in the organization of these festivities, or the rites of the passage of power shaping certain carnivalesque festivals (fes-tival of the king of roosters, or of the king of crossbowmen), it is certainly a social practice that is involved. In light of this fact, the various structural elements we have uncovered clearly appear for what they are –namely, specific actualizations, each of which decon-structs, at the various levels of the filmic message, that composite, the genotext: time flow-ing backward, systematics of reversal, problematics of crossing (of life and death, winter and spring), overturning of phenomena of inclusion and exclusion– all are components of carnivalesque rites. In that case, we shall give to the symbol of the cross the full symbolic meaning conferred upon it by its insertion in the carnivalesque world, which entails a dis-placement of the signified, since, situated as well in such a point of convergence. it is no longer the premonitory sign of atonement and redemption but functions as an index signal-ing the latent presence of a dynamics of exorcism.
It is here that hypotheses of a sociocritical reading open up perspectives to us that broader studies (extended to the entire film) and more complex studies (examination of the articulations linking textual structuring to social structures) should allow us to confirm, to nuance, and to describe in detail. At this point, however, how can I not compare, on the one hand, what I have presented as the possible outline of a genotext in which is invested a state of serious economic and social crisis running through the society implicit in Scarface with, on the other hand, what I have said about the thematics of exclusion, which desig-nates as scapegoat not merely a group defined as morally and socially marginal, but an entire unintegrated ethnic minority? Has not history taught that every society confronted with real or imaginary threats attempts to exorcise them by seeking in its own heart or, more precisely, at the periphery of its unitary structures, victims chosen to appease des-tiny?4

Far from being limited to the message alone, my analysis is concerned with the his-tory of film as consumer product. Indeed, this initial discourse on power structures, which, however, seems to cast a critical gaze on the marginal universe and, thus, to reproduce the revelatory function of the press in a successive nesting of discursive structures, has had, in turn, to submit itself to the laws of another repressive space, the Hays Code. The Code surrounds the first message, a possible vector of evil threatening the collectivity, with a second message whose function is essentially redressive,5 by imposing a subtitle (“A Na-tion’s Shame”) as well as an ideological interpellation addressed to the spectator and de-signed to reconstitute an ideological inclusiveness.6

[Notes at the end of Scarface III]