Crime Films Stereotyping and Xenophobic essay

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A professor of English at Waynesburg College, Roberts may have glossed over some of the raw and even vulgar remarks and actions taken by the characters. At one point a newspaper editor -- angered by the violence and killing conducted by Tony's gang of gangster beer purveyors -- blurts out, "We need to put teeth in the deportation act! These gangsters don't belong in this country" (Scarface, Hawk).

Throughout the entire film Tony is seen as a plodding, incompetent, intellectually shallow person who uses an exaggerated Italian accent in his broken English. Tony demonstrates the stereotypical Italian mafia persona in everything he does, which surely was a statement by Hecht and Hawk vis-a-vis Italian immigrants. The juxtaposition of Tony as a tuxedo-wearing mental lightweight pushing people around is among the lasting images one gets after viewing this film.

Hawks and Hecht ignored the first six chapters of Trail's book, in order to get right into the violence and killing. In those first six chapters, Roberts explains, the main character (Tony) has a stripper for a mistress, murders her gangster lover and earns medals for bravery in WWI. Later, Tony also kills his mistress and her new lover, Roberts goes on (p. 71) and in order to avoid prosecution he changes his name. In the film, Tony takes his boss's girlfriend away and eventually kills his boss. He also kills his sister's lover albeit his sister later embraces him as he is about to be killed by about fifty police waiting outside.

After killing his sister's lover, sister Cesca comes into Tony's room with a gun and seemingly intends to kill her brother. When she puts the gun down, he says, "Why didn't you shoot me?" Her answer: "I'm you and you're me." (In other words, we're both Italians from lower class upbringing trying to better ourselves socially and financially.)

It is obvious that Hawks' Chicago-based movie was based in part on Al Capone, even though when Capone's "henchmen" confronted Hawks about the seemingly obvious resemblance between the Scarface character Tony and their boss Hawks denied any such link (Roberts, p. 72). In the June 2004 edition of American History magazine writer Philip Brandt George calls Hawks' Scarface "…One of the bloodiest crime movies of all time." Notwithstanding Hawks' pronouncements to the contrary, George flatly states that in the 1932 film "Paul Muni starred as Al Capone." George also provides a bit of perspective into the 1930s, pointing out that the Justice Department (in 1935) estimated "crooks outnumbered carpenters 4-to-1, grocers 6-to-1 and doctors 20-to-1."

As to Hawks, who died the day after Christmas in 1977 and had many films to his credit -- he directed 47 according to, including "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" and "Land of the Pharaohs" -- he seemed to have taken liberties with the truth about his movie's relationship with Trail's book. For example, Hawks always claimed the incest-related sub-plot in the book that showed a sexy relationship between Tony and his sister was his original idea; however, Roberts reports, "Tony's excessive attachment to his sister Rosie already existed in the novel" (Roberts, p. 72).

Viewing the film with great attention and care in November, 2009, one doesn't see that Tony is necessarily sexually obsessed with his sister albeit he goes berserk when he finds her kissing a boyfriend or dancing cheek-to-cheek in a ballroom setting. Is this an ethnic stereotype, as Roberts asserts? Do Italian big brothers behave with a belligerent, bullish, even outrageously knee-jerk response towards their little sister when she is coming of age and interacting with men? If that is true then Tony is playing the culturally / ethnically appropriate role.

James Craig Holte, director of Graduate Studies in English in East Carolina University -- and author of books on vampires, ethnicities and African-American literature -- writes that Hawks' "Scarface" follows closely the barefaced ethnic stereotyping presented in the 1930 crime film "Little Caesar," starring Edward G. Robinson (Holte, 1984). Calling "Little Caesar" the "most influential gangster film ever made," Holte says Scarface helps propel the stereotype that "our gangsters are urban ethnics with stronger ties to an ethnic subculture than to the mainstream" (Holte, p. 104). And of course the ethnic subculture in Hawks' film is steeped in violence, power grabbing and contempt for law and order.

As for Hecht, he was the first screenwriter to receive an Academy Award for Original Screenplay (for the film Underworld) and he is credited with the screenplays of some outstanding, highly rated pictures. He wrote the screenplay for Barbary Coast, Some Like It Hot, Gone With The Wind, and Wuthering Heights (all of those in the late 1930s). He also wrote the screenplays for A Farewell to Arms, Mutiny on the Bounty, and Casino Royale. Hecht was an active Zionist prior to the Nazi Holocaust and wrote many plays about the plight of Europe's Jewish community.

The child of Russian-Jewish immigrants, whose native language was Yiddish, Hecht had a short career as a child prodigy violinist. Hecht later worked as a war correspondent in Berlin for the Chicago Daily News. Meanwhile, given that his parents were immigrants, it seems a bit out of character for Hecht to have created characters like Tony (and some of his gangster cohorts) who were so obviously portrayed with the stereotype of slimy Italian mobsters whose trigger fingers were loose and easy when it came to killing hundreds of people in order to profit from the illegal sale of alcohol.

On the other hand, it is possible that Hecht's Russian-Jewish immigrant family had little respect for the Italians. Putting that era into historical perspective, Congress passed the "Emergency Quota Act" in 1921, followed by the Immigration Act of 1924. The Immigration Act of 1924 was aimed at further preventing the Southern and Eastern Europeans -- especially Jews, Italians and Slavs -- from entering the U.S. That legislation was written because in the ten years following 1900, about 200,000 Italians immigrated annually, which did not sit well with ethnic cultures that were already settled into the U.S. -- including Jewish citizens like Hecht. Hence, one can speculate that Hecht and Hawks portrayed the Italian gangsters in ways that were obviously intended to be demeaning and culturally slanderous.

Further Perspective on Crime Film Themes / Settings

Author Philippa Gates writes in Detecting Men: Masculinity and the Hollywood Detective Film that detective fiction "coincided" with the emergence of the modern city police department. Echoing scholars who view Depression era gangster violence (Capone, et al.) as more of a "haves" vs. "have-nots" class war than patent insanity or murderous genes, Gates says both detective literature and police forces "…Can be traced to the anxieties of the literate, upper classes concerned with the threat to social order posed by the lower classes" (Gates, p. 56).

And although the 1932 version of Scarface did not follow Gates' description of the classical detective story -- "long, convoluted, and based more on dialogue than on action" -- the Scarface film did indeed benefit from "the birth of sound film in the second half of the 1920s."

On the subject of lower classes threatening the social order of a society, DePalma's version of Scarface (the screenplay was written by Oliver Stone) opens with "…ragged, noisy refugees marshaled by armed police power… [and] disgruntled arrivals in a littered, sun-baked compound…" (Salamon, 2000, p. 59). The camera pans over "rusty, overcrowded tubs docking" as the refugees arrive in South Florida, clearly establishing an underclass of Spanish-speaking immigrants who seem not to have arrived in the U.S. Of their own free will. But Linda Bradley Salamon, professor of English and Human Sciences at George Washington University, writes in the Journal of Popular Film and Television that while "setting alone does not create evil" clearly that pathetic refugee setting in Florida helps launch Tony Montana's "insatiable need to be stronger, higher, faster in comparison with envisioned rivals" (Salamon, p. 60).

The article by Salamon compares Scarface (1983) with Shakespeare's King Richard III, and there are interesting similarities that help in the understanding of character and place. Richard is born with "severe deformities" and has a mother who hated him from the start; Tony Montana, meanwhile, has a scar on his face and his mother "is hostile when he turns up in Florida, forbids him her house and wishes him gone" (Salamon, p. 61). And each of the characters, Richard and Tony, after acquiring "the boss's woman" proceed to ignore their prizes, Salamon continues. And what becomes more important to each character -- and by putting an Oliver Stone screenplay side-by-side with William Shakespeare Salamon is certainly making a strong literary statement -- is the "superior value" to both Richard and Tony of "a narcissistic form of male bonding" (Salamon, p. 61). Both characters prefer power and self-love to any sexual objects, and "both remain childless, barren of natural humanity" (Salamon, p. 61).

Another character that should…[continue]

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