Cast: Paul Muni, Ann Dvorak, Osgood Perkins, Karen Morley, Boris Karloff
SUMMARY: In Chicago in the 1920s, the city is controlled by several big Mafia figures, who control the illegal liquor trade. One of them is “Big” Louis Costillo, who controls the South Side. At the beginning of the film, Costillo is killed on the orders of Johnny Lovo (Osgood Perkins), who then takes over as head. Lovo’s chosen assassin is Antonio “Tony” Camonte (Paul Muni), who is given an important role following his success in killing Costillo. With Tony’s help, Lovo organizes the beer transporters of the South Side and runs out any rivals. The North Side of Chicago is controlled by O’Hara and his Irish gangs, and Lovo has no interest in tangling with these men. He frequently tells Tony, his chief enforcer, to stay away from O’Hara’s men, but Tony starts to ignore him. As such, he draws attention to the gang from both O’Hara’s gangs and the police. Tony’s position in the South Side gang begins to rise despite Lovo’s efforts to control him. Tony also starts to move in on Lovo’s girlfriend Poppy (Karen Morley), who warms up as Tony gains more power.
Against Johnny’s wishes Tony continues to attack the Irish gangs on the North Side, which eventually turns into an all-out gang war. He sends best friend/right-hand man Guino Rinaldo to kill O’Hara; the gangs are then taken over by Gaffney (Boris Karloff), who retaliates by spraying Tony’s base and home with machine guns. Instead of concentrating on the attack, Tony is fascinated by the new machine guns, and immediately orders some of his own. With the guns, he and his men rampage through the city. Johnny Lovo is still nominally in charge of the South Side but has essentially lost power to Tony. To solve this problem, he decides to have Tony killed. Unfortunately, this assassination attempt fails; Tony answers by killing Lovo with Guino’s help. Tony is now fully in charge of most of the city, but his uncontrollable violence has attracted the attention of the police. In addition, Tony has been having trouble controlling his sister Ceska (Ann Dvorak), whom he is extremely overprotective of. When Tony returns from a business trip to Florida, he finds that Ceska is living with Guino, and abruptly kills the man. Ceska then tearfully announces that the two got married the day before. She then alerts the police to the murder. Tony returns to his own house, followed by Ceska. She intends to kill him, but cannot bring herself to do so; instead, she decides to help him try to drive off the police from his barricaded house. Only a few moments into the gunfight, she is hit by a bullet and killed. The police then shoot canisters of tear gas into the house to force Tony out. He runs right into the police and surrenders, but then tries to run away; the police shoot him down immediately.
MY TAKE: I was unaware for a long time that the 80s version of this movie was a remake. It says something about both films that they’re on the list, and are still very good. The 80s version follows the original plot very closely, except that the main character, Tony Montana (instead of Camonte) is Cuban, not Italian; he’s also involved in the drug trade, not bootlegging. The 80s version is a lot gorier, but otherwise the two are very similar. In both, a man works his way up from the bottom, steals the girlfriend/wife of his boss, kills the boss and takes over almost the whole industry, kills his right-hand man for marrying his sister, and is ultimately felled at his own house (Tony Camonte does not say anything about a little friend, though). I think it really speaks to the quality of both films that they can be basically the same thing fifty years apart, and both be on the list. I think the Paul Muni version of Tony might be more compelling, because unlike the Al Pacino version he maintains a duality: he’s very charming and loving towards his girlfriend and sister, but lethal when crossed. Al Pacino’s Tony loses interest in his wife once they’ve been married for a while, and he keeps an iron grip on his sister. Paul Muni watches his sister like a hawk, too, but does like to indulge her. It’s ultimately the death of this sister that gets to both versions, and signals the beginning of their downfall. Despite their similarities, both are really compelling movies in their own right.
RATING: Worth watching.