The gangster movies love to kid us along. They usually give us three movies at once, each muscling into the other's territory.
Mainly it's crimes, of course, and the snarling climb up the hill and the bloody tussle at the top and the sneering tumble to the bottom. Lots of fists and bullets, smacks and jabs, staring like grim Death or laughing idiotically--but often just the half-smile, see, pleased as punch it's all working out. This is what we want, the details of crime--and not even so much that as the noise of it--most of Scarface sounds like a load of bricks tossed down a steel-plated staircase, with screams and groans at the end--and the voices: Edward G. Robinson's musical growl in Little Caesar: I just wanted him to keep talking, even when other characters had something to say, even during the gunplay. And Paul Muni gobbling down his lines in obscene mouthfuls, head thrown back, chewing up not just the scenery but everyone in the room--even Boris Karloff, tables turned and scared to death. And the fake accents, the Eye-talian parodies, the coin-flipping cheap patter--none of it getting in the way of our grunting pleasure. We want it all to be a mess, plaster flying off the parlor walls, ladies' dresses torn at the shoulder, lesser punks sliding down dead alongside the settee.
The second movie tries to boost the main attraction, and it sometimes works, even when the director confuses himself with his leads, and struts and boasts through the picture like a kingpin. But I won't complain: The scene in Little Caesar when they rob the joint on New Year's Eve is a wordless marvel, the camera shifting, fading, sliding here and there in a terrible last dance; and the weird close-ups of Scarface, the solemn approach of the camera, passing little details that let us know where we are and who's gonna get it. And the shadows, the silhouettes, the criss-crossing light. This second movie is all technique--trying hard to serve the first movie, but also standing up on its own, demanding attention.
And then there's the third picture: The Message. Sometimes we get two, or even three: Crime doesn't pay. Gangsters are not only socially but sexually perverse. And in Scarface: We, the solid citizens, invented crime, through our love of hootch and our stubborn indifference. And while the perversity angle adds another welcome layer of stink to the proceedings, the moral/reform messages get in the way. It's the only time the gangster movie really lies to us. They set up one bullet-ridden thrill after another like barkeeps, then frown when we knock 'em back. I understand the pressure on Hollywood to toe the line, but boys, we're in too deep to pause and reflect on our sins. No, just take us all the way down, to the crumbling, crashing end, and we'll get it, every Message you can dream up. Just don't stop the picture and high-hat us with admonishments. You want to scold somebody, scold yourselves for making the damn things in the first place.