AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY, DVD and DIGITAL
RUNNING TIME: 170 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera
In 1980, Cuban refugee and ex-convict Tony Montana arrives in Miami, Florida, as part of the Mariel boatlift, where he is sent to a refugee camp with his best friend Manny Ray and their companions Angel and Chi Chi. The four are released and given green cards in exchange for murdering a former Cuban general at the request of Miami drug lord Frank Lopez. They become dishwashers at a mobile eatery, but a dissatisfied Tony thinks he’s meant for bigger things. Frank’s right-hand man, Omar Suarez, sends the four to purchase cocaine from Colombian dealers. There, Tony is forced to watch as Angel gets killed, but this seems to make him only more determined to rise to the top, as does the sight of Frank’s trophy wife Elvira….
I’ve reviewed quite a few Brian De Palma movies for this website, and I know that fellow De Palma fans Bat and Mocata have done some too, but something is missing when one of his most iconic pictures is still unreviewed, a film that inspired scores of rap artists who seemed to misunderstood its message, a very clear message that crime actually doesn’t pay. Most gangster movies would claim to say this, but they can’t help but glamourise crime and the gangster life style – and I’m not saying that it’s a problem, it’s good to be shown how seductive it is. Take Henry Hill’s one-take stunning entry into the Copacabana Club in Goodfellas; it transmits to us perfectly that he’s ‘made it’, that he’s enjoying the life that he wanted to lead. But Tony Montana; he may gaze at the smartly dressed guys and the pretty ladies going into the lush nightclubs and want some of that, but once he gets it he’s miserable. “Go and have some fun” says somebody to him, but he never does that, he just wants more and more even though he doesn’t know what to do with all this ‘more’ except get more high. He wanted what he saw as the American Dream, “The money, the power and the women”, but can’t enjoy it. Many years ago I read several books collecting the reviews of Pauline Kael and I recall her describing Scarface as “The Brian De Palma film for those who don’t like De Palma films”. I guess that she said that because, while it’s still unashamedly melodramatic, it’s more sociological than usual, less stylised, lacks his wry humour, and has no Alfred Hitchcock. And it’s most definitely a film of its time, in fact one of the defining films of the ‘80s though not looking at the decade in a good way. It still definitely shows De Palma’s mastery of cinema, in a genre that he would revisit; not very well the first time, very well the second. Here he turned out one of the most entertaining of gangster pictures, despite its reputation for extreme violence which isn’t entirely warranted even by the standards of the time.
It began development after Al Pacino saw the 1932 version of Scarface and later called his manager, producer Martin Bregman, and told him that he believed a remake could have a lot of potential. At the time he also wanted to retain the period. Sidney Lumet became attached as the director, developing the idea for Tony to be Cuban arriving in America during the Mariel boatlift. Bregman and Lumet’s creative differences saw Lumet, who wanted a more political story that focused on blaming the current Presidential administration for the influx of cocaine into the United States, being replaced by De Palma. He hired Oliver Stone to script, though Stone wasn’t interested until he talked to Lumet. Stone was battling his own cocaine addiction and ended up having to relocate to Paris to complete the script free of drugs. Pacino insisted on starring, though Robert De Niro had been offered it and had turned it down. Both Pacino and de Palma argued against the largely unknown Michelle Pfeiffer’s casting but Bregman fought for her inclusion instead of Glenn Close. Despite the Miami setting, much of it was shot in Los Angeles due to the Miami Tourist Board declining requests to film there as it feared that the drugs and gangsters would deter tourism. Production was halted twice for severe weather events, while Pacino burned his left hand on the muzzle of the gun that had just been fired when he tripped, and his nasal passage was slightly damaged due to snorting large quantities of the coke substitute, powdered baby laxative. It got an ‘X’ rating by the MPAA despite De Palma re-cutting it three times; an appeal board composed of cinema owners, studio executives and independent distributors overturned the decision seventeen to three in favor of an ‘R’. The UK saw part of the chainsaw killing cut for video. Critical response was divided and commercial success was not initially forthcoming for a film that became so iconic.
We open with real footage of Cubans arriving in the United States on boats and waiting to be ‘processed’. His interrogation by customs, where they know he’s a criminal even if would prefer to be called “a political prisoner”, not just shows us Tony’s cocky, arrogant personality, but what he’ll do for much of the rest of the movie to get ahead; bluff his way through and show little respect. In a world where people cheat, double cross and don’t say what they mean, Tony’s blunt, straight-talking approach is bound to seem like a breath of fresh air. But before this he has to spend some time in a refugee camp with friends Manny Ray, Angel, and Chi Chi. He learns that if he murders a former Cuban general for drug lord Frank Lopez, they’ll all get green cards. We only get hints of what he did in Cuba, but he says “I kill a communist for fun, but for a green card, I gonna carve him up real nice.” Tony demands more money than he’s offered, so he’s sent to buy cocaine from some Columbians, leading to the scene that shocked so many, yet it’s more a case of what you don’t see than what you do, superb filmmaking instead making you feel the effect. We see the chainsaw going for Angel while Tony is forced to watch, but the camera heads for the blinds, then cuts to the outside side of the blinds before it slowly swoops down to Manny in a car trying to pick up a woman and then swoops back up, though this time into a window. We see one second of the chainsaw blade going into Angle’s head before we cut back to Manny, then back to the chainsaw going for a leg, but all we see are the instrument, screams and spattering blood, no actual leg slicing. It’s still a hugely intense scene and crudely but brilliantly sets up the brutal world in which Tony is in.
Suspecting that Frank’s right-hand man Omar set him up, Tony insists on personally delivering the recovered drugs and money to Frank, who sends Tony and Omar to Bolivia to meet with cocaine kingpin Alejandro Sosa. Tony again impresses with his arrogance and Alejandro responds by killing Omar because he thinks he’s a police informant. Tony returns to Miami even cockier and attempts to rise further up the ladder while consuming increasing quantities of cocaine. The overall message of the film can be summed up by the scene where he’s relaxing in the grand bath in his grand mansion ranting at people on his TV screen and also the people around him. The world may his his but he can’t enjoy it. Many claim Pacino’s performance to be over the top but I don’t think it really gets there; he’s playing a mouthy lout whose every other word is “f***”, but the performance is controlled. Pacino doesn’t make Tony sympathetic, yet we can still identify with him in a way even if we don’t like ourselves for doing so. This is because most of us have visions of being able to be rich and powerful and not have to actually do much in the way of work to achieve this. Turning to crime for this to happen is surely a temptation when the ‘right’ way seems impossible. The image of Tony sitting at his desk desperately plunging his face into a pile of cocaine for reasons of both boredom and wanting some energy perfectly sums up how it can all go wrong even if you get ‘there’. “In a way Tony is a near-compendium of common criminal personality traits; laziness, low self-esteem, the idea that the world owes him, pipe dreams, a chronic inability to be happy etc.
You could say that Tony sells his soul, but did he have one in the first place? He doesn’t show much of one when he’s with Elvira who becomes the trophy wife of two kingpins; ignored, bored and driven to addiction to the Bolivian marching powder. Okay, Tony acts like he’s really keen on her at first, but even then it seems like she’s just something that he wants to own which will in turn raise his status. Michelle Pfeiffer brings some real sadness to a role that would probably be criticised today because now all female characters have to be strong, though I will admit that her sudden switching from disdain and even revulsion [seemingly more of class than anything else] of Tony is a bit hard to swallow. In any case, Tony, just like his predecessor in the 1932 version which this does resemble in a few ways, has much stronger feelings for another female – his sister Gina There’s a poignant scene where he visits the house of Gina and their mother and gives them money. Mother doesn’t want any of it because she knows that her son has got it by doing bad things, but Gina secretly accepts it, Tony telling her to go out and have fun. But unfortunately Tony doesn’t let her have very much fun, In fact he goes berserk whenever he sees her with another man while we slowly zoom into Tony’s face and a loud sinister musical chord comes on the soundtrack, in an example of the kind of dramatic heightening of something that isn’t done much today and which critics and audiences may not take seriously. But this was 1983 and Brian De Palma, so you’re never going to get subtlety anyway. This subplot reaches a climax which borders on high camp but does so in the very best way and is acted with not just power but genuine sincerity by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio.
Elsewhere characters may speak in dialogue which borders on being parodic, but they don’t seem to come out of the dictionary of gangster stereotypes – well, as much as it existed back then. Of course there are hardly any Cubans in the cast, but then some of us wax wroth for the days when people didn’t whinge about things like that. We could have done with more scenes involving Harris Yulin’s bent cop Bernstein who extorts money in return for police protection; the two exchanges between him and Tony really fizzle. But we get a very good idea of how this organisation works and flourishes. Nothing after the chainsaw scene is as grim despite a helicopter hanging and loads of bloody shootings. Like many films in this genre, the much ballyhooed violence takes up very little of the running time, though we do get a classic climax of carnage where we finally, yes, get that well known line about Tony’s little friend. There’s no doubt that the De Palma quirkiness that us fans love so much has been deliberately minimised, but would really be appropriate for this particular film anyway? We do get a nightclub shootout which is proceeded by a man wearing a bizarre head mask dancing on stage, and a superbly suspenseful section involving a slow car pursuit where Tony has to kill someone and reveals that, though it’s hard to believe, there are limits as to what he’s willing to do. Camerawork tends to be slower and more unobtrusive than usual for a De Palma film, but we still get some fine things like a cut to a city in sunset which, when we adjust our eyes, we is really part of the front of a lavish restaurant as the camera slowly zooms out to reveal a little sandwich van parked near it but virtually insignificant by comparison, with Tony and Manny working in it.
There’s a considerable smoothness to the edits and the lensing, but that still allows the cinematography by John A. Alonzo to gloriously show the pull and the sexiness of what Tony desires replete with vibrant colours, then close in on small, tight compositions as Tony’s world shrinks. Gorgio Moroder’s score is only slightly less conspicuous than what you’d get from De Palma’s usual composer Pino Donaggio and is truly essential to the experience of Scarface. His electronic compositions provide a mood perhaps of a lifestyle and a culture that has no real depth, which is all surface, and which doesn’t have the comfort of real luxury. Having Moroder also write and produce nearly all of the pop songs heard [usually in the nightclubs] means that there’s a synchronicity of sound throughout; so many films separate the songs and the score in a jarring way. Moroder’s main theme [sadly not properly available on the soundtrack album] has a mock grandeur that suits what we’re watching, while Gina’s theme is unabashedly sentimental, an illustration of Tony’s feelings for her. They once tried to re-do the soundtrack with rap music. Much as I love Moroder’s work, it would have been an interesting exercise that I’d have liked to see, though it may have glorified Tony and the criminal life too much, something the film as it stands doesn’t. Perhaps its most incisive scene has a very high but very unhappy Tony, in possibly his only real moment of clarity, going on to customers in a restaurant about how they need him and telling them to “Say goodbye to the bad guy”. This suggests that, incredible though it may seem, we need people like Tony Montana so we can blame him for things and feel better about ourselves. In short, the bad needs to exist so we can have the good.