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Truly Great Movies – Scarface (1983)

April 1, 2010

“In this country, you gotta make the money first. Then when you get the money, you get the power. Then when you get the power, then you get the women. ” – Tony Montana (Al Pacino) in Scarface


Don’t worry – this post has been edited for language (unlike the original film).  

At first glance, I might not be considered the target audience for a film like Scarface.  Yet it is one my all-time favorite movies.  It is a glorious, glossy ballad about the perils of excess.    It’s no Citizen Kane, but then again, that’s part of its charm.  Don’t get me wrong, it is not a family-friendly film, but its use of violence, language and drug use all serve a moral and artistic purpose.

Scarface is perhaps one of  the film world’s greatest cult hits.  It was a critical and box office BOMB of the first order when it was orginally released in 1983, but since then, it has spawned a legion of rabid fans and its own distinct subculture.  Ken Tucker, editor at Entertainment Weekly, recently published an interesting and in-depth book, Scarface Nation: The Ultimate Gangster Movie and How It Changed America, which details the making of and lasting effects of this landmark movie.  It’s a fascinating read for anyone who is a fan of the film.

Tony in his lair

Scarface‘s creators set out to re-make a small-time 1932 film loosely based on the life of Chicago gangster Al Capone.  Once director Brian DePalma hired renegade writer Oliver Stone, however, that plan would drastically change.

Stone, who was just coming off his own perilous but creatively motivating addiction to cocaine (he fully admits in interviews that he wrote Conan the Barbarian while high on cocaine), suggested modernizing the plot for an 80s audience.  The locale was moved to Miami in the years directly after the Mariel Boatlift of 1980, when many refugees from Castro’s Cuba (many of shady background and origins) were unceremoniously dumped on U.S. soil. 

 Out of this influx of Cuban culture comes Tony Montana (Al Pacino), Scarface’s timeless anti-hero.  He is completely fictional, but  just as memorable and has had just as much impact on American culture as Al Capone, the real-life ganster he is loosely based on.  Montana arrives on U.S. soil as a snarling, ambitious “political refugee” (his words).  He finds an escape from menial work in a Miami food stand by falling in with a group of notorious drug runners, led by Frank Lopez (Robert Loggia) and his right-hand man,  Omar (F. Murray Abraham).   At first, Tony is considered an asset to the company.  He’s loyal but ruthless, a murderer who is comically resilient.  He’s the teflon of  mob underlings; nothing sticks to the guy and he always comes up shooting.

As Tony rises up in “the company” under Frank and Omar’s tutelage, he meets the mistress of Frank’s manor, Elvira Hancock (Michelle Pfeiffer), who is a literal “Gold Dust Woman” – she sniffs more of Frank’s product than he can ship out.  She’ s a porcelain doll on the outside – with a bored, petulant stare.  Underneath the painted exterior, however, is a nerve of steel and a mouth like a Navy longshoreman.  It’s love at first sight for Tony, who views Elvira not as a person, but as a company asset.  It’s here that his ambitions begin to unnerve the boss.

Elvira and Tony - President and First Lady of Misery, Inc.

Tony eventually rises to the top of the drug world, taking no prisoners along for the ride.  Yet, what a visually entrancing and melodic rise it is.  The most interesting part of Scarface is Tony’s rise to power, where the violence is so choreographed it is almost like a bloody, carnal dance, all set to Giorgio Moroder’s synthesized 80s themes.

DePalma’s in-your-face style of directing was shocking and appalling to many of the film’s original audience members.  While the movie is at times a little dated, it still hasn’t lost its power to shock or influence. Its violence is realistic and yet at the same time surreal.   The main characters seem as if they are acting out their performances in your own living room.  As critic Roger Ebert said in his original review of the film, ” “DePalma and his writer, Oliver Stone, have created a gallery of specific individuals, and one of the fascinations of the movie is that we aren’t watching crime-movie clichés, we’re watching people who are criminals”.

Pacino’s performance is polarizing in the film world.  Many view it as a cartoonish, over-acted mess.  Others (including myself) see it as a stylish, suave tour-de-force.  Pacino is a no-holds barred actor.  Tony is not meant to be a likable guy, and the performance itself is at times appropriately grating.  It’s hard not to watch the short, unattractive Tony roll his rs and spit in the faces of the other characters without wondering why everyone puts up with it all.  It all comes down to Tony’s timeless scrappiness.  You root for him, even with the knowledge that he’s a selfish, cracked-up lunatic with all the morality of a sewer rat. 

the beginning of the end

Watching DePalma and Stone’s Scarface is a lot like taking a trip on the subway in a major city.  You might need to take a cleansing shower to wash the grit and grime off once the journey is over, but ,oh, the thrill of experiencing  a touch of the underworld.    Tony Montana’s greed (“Never underestimate the OTHER guy’s greed” says boss Frank Lopez) is his hubris and his downfall.  The closing scene of the movie is one of the most quotable in film history,and a fitting end for Tony (not to mention a satisfying one for his audience).

Overall, Scarface is a dirty, maniacal ode to the All-American addiction to excess.  Every day right here in the land of plenty, twisted but fascinating criminal minds surface and are buried as quickly as they reach the top.   Yet, the cycle continues, as the allure of what is just out of reach always beckons.  As Tony’s motto appropriately states, “The World Is Yours”.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Hazel permalink
    April 1, 2010 9:56 pm

    I really don’t think we have ever seen Scarface. If we saw it, I might have been hiding my face behind a newspaper or magazine due to the violence. Just look how young Pacino and Pfieffer look! All that said, it was a wonderful review to read!

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