Scarface, Brian De Palma's grandiose modern reworking of the Howard Hawks gangster classic from 1932, is the very definition of excess, which is perhaps why it has persisted so long as a cultural totem: Its florid pleasures can never be exhausted. Centered around Al Pacino's gloriously deranged performance and framed by De Palma's slick visuals and Giorgio Moroder's pulsating synthesizer score, Scarface shamelessly pushes every conceivable boundary in its familiar rise-and-fall story set against the backdrop of the Miami cocaine wars of the early 1980s. Epic in both length and ambition, the film's excess is its central conceit, drawing us into a world that, especially at the time, was all too familiar from the nightly news, and yet layering it with such aesthetic and narrative exaggeration that we're never too disturbed by its horrors.
Pacino, in what has become one his most cultishly revered performances, plays Tony Montana, a sneering lowlife who arrives in Miami as part of the infamous Mariel exodus in 1980, which flooded the Florida coast with more than 125,000 Cuban refugees over several months, many of whom turned out to be criminals and mental patients (there are suggestions that Tony is both). Screenwriter Oliver Stone, who had recently won an Oscar for writing Midnight Express (1978), uses the basic narrative structure from Ben Hecht's 1932 screenplay and most of its major themes, with a particular focus on Tony's unrelenting need to prove himself; his rise to the top is pathological. With a mush-mouth Cuban accent and an unrelenting swagger that belies his small stature, Pacino quickly establishes Tony as a feral presence just waiting to seize an opportunity; his animalistic nature propels his violence, but it is always leavened by a clear intelligence and an understanding of the people around him. Tony knows what he wants and is willing to do virtually anything to get it, which is what makes him both frightening and fascinating, immoral yet philosophically consistent.
After he and his friend Manny Ribera (Steven Bauer) assassinate a political refugee and successfully carry out a drug deal, Tony catches the eye of Frank Lopez (Robert Loggia), Miami's reigning drug dealer, who brings him into his cartel. Despite Frank's power, Tony quickly deems him to be "soft" and quietly undermines his authority, eventually seizing Frank's business as well as his icy girlfriend Elvira (Michelle Pfeiffer), although Tony's real sexual passion seems to be directed at his younger sister Gina (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio). An alliance with Bolivian drug lord Alejandro Sosa (Paul Shenar) fully cements his power, which is literalized in the phrase "The World is Yours," an advertising slogan he first sees lit up on the side of a blimp and turns into his personal mantra (one of many elements that Stone borrows directly from the 1932 original). "I want the world and everything in it," Tony declares at one point, a desire that essentially seals his fate. Brutal and uncouth, yet strangely compelling, Tony is the embodiment of Robert Warshow's gangster as tragic hero, a character who is literally the dark side of American ideals about individuality, ambition, and success. Tony's excessive material desires are given concrete form in the outrageous production design, particularly Tony's massive, ostentatiously baroque office that is decorated in black and gold and piled with mounds of cocaine (it fittingly becomes his coffin in the final reel).
Not surprisingly, Scarface courted controversy at every turn, especially with the MPAA ratings board, which originally rated the film X for its pervasive language and graphic violence. With more than 200 utterances of the f-bomb and its various derivatives, a scene in which a man is chained to a shower curtain and dismembered with a chainsaw (almost entirely off-screen), and shots of Pacino not just snorting lines of coke, but literally inhaling piles of it, Scarface became a kind of litmus test for just how far a mainstream movie could go. After the film was rated X, De Palma shot back, charging that the ratings chair Richard Heffner was punishing him for speaking out about the ratings fracas that had attended his masterpiece Dressed to Kill (1980) three years earlier. Because it was a studio film, it was eventually awarded the R rating, but only after De Palma cut a single close-up from the chainsaw sequence (all the f-bombs remained in tact).
Scarface did well enough at the box office, landing in the top 20 highest grossing films of that year, although it barely broke even due to the production having gone significant over-budget. Critical reviews were generally mixed, but it was rounded denounced by most in the Cuban-American community for negatively portraying them as stereotypical gangsters and killers (interestingly, the film has since been embraced by the black hip-hop community, with its poster becoming a fixture on virtually every episode of MTV's Cribs). It seems only fitting that the film would run into such resistance given that Hawks' 1932 film was arguably even more controversial; though seemingly tame by comparison, the original film's barely disguised portrait of Chicago kingpin Al Capone was considered so violent and antisocial that it led the Hollywood industry to temporarily ban the production of gangster films. When Thomas Schatz describes the 1932 version in his book Hollywood Genres as a "brilliant but disturbing" film that creates "a nightmarish vision of urban malaise that could not be offset by the hero's eventual death in the gutter," he could very well be describing either version.
Of course, De Palma's version of Scarface is a De Palma movie through and through, even though he was essentially a hired hand and the gangster genre was new territory for him (although it certainly wouldn't be his last foray, as he later directed 1987's The Untouchables and reunited with Pacino in 1993 for Carlito's Way, one of his most underappreciated films). Nevertheless, Scarface has often been described as one of De Palma's least personal films; especially since it arrived after Dressed to Kill and Blow Out (1981), two thrillers that he both wrote and directed, it is easy to come to such a conclusion. Yet, one can also see Scarface as a direct extension of De Palma's increasing frustration and outright anger with the motion picture industry, having endured the ratings battle with Dressed to Kill and the box office failure of Blow Out. All of the seething rage and rampant violence that gives Scarface its thematic and narrative foundation feels very much like it is emanating directly from De Palma's gut, and it is no wonder that, during an early screening of the film, Martin Scorsese leaned back and told De Palma, "You guys are great--but be prepared, because they're going to hate it in Hollywood ... because it's about them."
Copyright 2011 James Kendrick
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All images copyright Universal Studios Home Entertainment
Overall Rating: (3.5)
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