Scarface, by Armitage Trail

Scarface cvr

Scarface is much better known from Paul Muni’s depiction in Howard Hawks’ 1932 film and Al Pacino’s over-the-top performance in Brian De Palma’s 1983 ‘adaptation’ than the 1930 source novel by Armitage Trail (real name Maurice Coons), and with good reason: the writing is frankly terrible.  There is though an energy that despite the creakiness makes it very readable as we follow Tony Guarino’s rise from an 18-year old hustler in Chicago to ‘the greatest of all America’s notorious gang leaders’, followed by the inevitable fall.

Loosely based on Al Capone’s career, the arc is a busy one, and Trail uses his character to show how organised crime changed in the years before and after the United States’ entry into the First World War, becoming more, well, organised.  Pre-war, through a blend of intelligence, cunning, ruthlessness and audacity Tony builds a reputation after killing gang boss Al Springola for his moll Vyvyan.  Beginning his rise in a gang, he is seemingly headed for the top.

Eventually though he finds the city too hot for him.  Opportunely America has entered the war in Europe, and he decides to hide in the army for a while.  He enjoys military life, ironically finding that, officially sanctioned, he is able to use his talents for organisation and killing legitimately, and he is decorated for bravery.  After he is demobilised he learns he has been listed as dead in the newspapers, and now sporting a long scar which has radically changed his features he finds he is able to reinvent himself as Tony ‘Scarface’ Camonte and resume his career.

First though he kills Vyvyan and her new beau when, on his return, he finds them shacked up, before finding a new gang he feels has potential for career advancement.  What makes him is the opportunity provided by Prohibition, and he grabs it with both hands as he quickly climbs the gang’s ladder to be its head, displaying the same fearlessness he exhibited when facing the Germans.  Trail shows how crime developed from small-scale activity carried out by men in rough clothes and flat caps to being the province of corporations which acted like any other business enterprise, intent on maximising profit and liquidating the competition, albeit in this case physically.  More efficient business practices are accompanied by sophisticated weaponry in the form of machine guns.

As well as writing a rip-roaring, albeit artless, yarn, Trail uses the narrative to excoriate the corruption of politicians and police, including that of Tony’s own brother who rises to become a captain in the police force.  Organised crime is not merely tolerated by politicians and other supposed servants of the people, it is welcomed for the kickbacks it brings.  The problem arises when violence among rivals trying to seize each other’s territory spills over and ordinary citizens and property are threatened.  Only then does the weight of the law fall on them.  As long as their operations are kept within bounds and palms are appropriately greased, officials turn a blind eye.

Tony’s demise is inevitably caused by a dame, but the catalyst turns out to be his sister.  Tony had never told his family he survived the war as he hadn’t wanted his criminal reputation to upset them, so they believe he is dead.  He finds one of his subordinates is, as he thinks, playing around with his sister.  Shooting him, Tony learns his victim had actually married her.  He is put on trial, with his sister, who doesn’t know who he is, as a prosecution witness.

He gets off through a combination of bribery and jury intimidation, but his refusal to sanction any action against his sister before the trial, and his (rejected) offer to pay her generous compensation afterwards, arouses the suspicions of his girlfriend.  To get her revenge for what she thinks is his two-timing behaviour, not knowing of the family connection, she arranges for the police to ambush him by feeding information to both sides.  He is shot by his brother, who assumes Tony’s gun had jammed.  What he does not know is that Tony couldn’t pull the trigger against his own brother, and Scarface takes the secret of his real identity to the grave.

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