Scarface

United States, 1983

Directed by Brian De Palma

With Al Pacino (Tony Montana), Steven Bauer (Manny Ribera), Michelle Pfeiffer (Elvira), Robert Loggia (Frank Lopez), Paul Shenar (Alejandro Sosa), Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio (Gina)

The end titles state in their own way what has been obvious to the moviegoer: by dedicating the feature to Howard Hawks and Ben Hecht director Brian De Palma acknowledges it is the remake of the 1932 gangster movie that so impressed the audience back then and stirred critics ever since. Hawks was then as leading and daring as De Palma has been himself viewed since the early 1970s, keen to make the grittiest, bluntest, wildest action movie possible within the parameters of the old studio system, while Hecht was a talented journalist and a popular writer whose experience allowed him to write powerful screenplays that shaped the genre, starting with Joseph von Sternberg’s pioneering film of 1927, “Underworld”. Half a century later their rise and fall tale of a thug from foreign background is an avowed and hallowed source of inspiration for a stunning portrait that offers actor Al Pacino the opportunity of a new, bold, freakish performance.

A riveting embodiment of sheer rage, explosive energy, naked ambition: Al Pacino

Oliver Stone’s screenplay anchors the new Scarface in the most recent current affairs, casting Tony Montana as one of the 125,000 refugees the communist regime of Cuba suddenly let sail away in 1980, getting rid of dissidents and criminals and putting the United States government into a bureaucratic jam. The film thus starts looking like a documentary, relying on file reports from NBC News, before cutting to an alluring closeup on the titular character, shot as he tries to convince police officers he is just a political refugee with no links with the Cuban underworld. The cops do not believe him but his words matter, and would be repeated later as he seduces the woman of his dreams: escaping the Fidel Castro regime looms large over the narrative Tony Montana writes for himself and others, the easy symbol of a personal resistance and resilience, the expression of oversized pride and ingrained resentment that are the engines propelling him forward and solid grounds for his selfish, criminal actions he dares others to challenge. This confrontation in the customs offices is a brilliant sequence highlighting the guy’s chutzpah, his gift of the gab despite his broken English, but also his obstinacy and his unquestionably fiery and violent side: he is walked out of the room gripped by two cops struggling to overpower this embodiment of sheer rage and explosive energy.

The character would hardly mellow in the course of the film: his defining trait is clearly a volatile mix of fury and craze, the incensed feeling he is denied the wealth and power he craves for and the relentless, vicious drive to fulfill his dreams, anger and ambition fused into a combustible mix that motivates him constantly and makes him take the reckless moves that help him reach the top. Pride and self-aggrandizement also play their parts and wrap up the toxic mix. That does not make the task of his pal and sidekick, fellow Cuban exile Manny Ribera, easy as the far more relaxed and ingratiating young man schemes to get them jobs in the American underworld. Yet the brutal audacity of Tony Montana delivers results while the bond between the two men remain strong and unassailable for quite a long time. Even as Tony Montana becomes increasingly wild and greedy, Manny Ribera stays close to him – his fall actually owes nothing to business but is caused by sentiments he should not have felt.

That violent nature of Tony Montana, as it was the case in the 1932 feature, drives the film to shoot shocking and appalling scenes of violence, courting controversy, though the 1980s public is by now far more accustomed to gory images: the genres of crime and gangsters films as well as western movies have already moved into far bloodier and far more offensive territories, thanks to directors like Sam Peckinpah, and there has been the growing success and production of horror flicks and their influence on thrillers, genres where De Palma himself has left his own mark. So he has no difficulty, and no qualms, to craft ever more freakish and disgusting displays of violence, leading to the final sequence which is as elaborate and sophisticated in terms of visual compositions as it is outrageously, extravagantly, appallingly brutal and bloody.

Tony Montana’s death can actually be viewed as fitting with what the film has showed of his career: his is a story of unbound and unashamed excess, a flamboyant and hysterical rush to success embracing bad taste and dreadful obstinacy. “Push it to the limit” is the title of one of the key songs of Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack: there is no better summary of the mad trip to the top of Tony Montana, and it is cleverly used to illustrate a bewildering, fast-track string of shots showing how he has become wealthy and how he splurges his money around, a montage that boldly moves the narrative fast forward, a dazzlingly informative transition from the long first part, relating his rise from a migrant camp to the helm of the gang founded and led by the mobster who was so happy to give him a chance, Frank Lopez, to the second part, which would be unsurprisingly the chronicle of his fall, which is to put down to his own impulsive feelings, making him betray a key partner, drug kingpin Alejandro Sosa, and to his complex relations with his sister Gina.

Scarface’s story is as much about women as it is about crime and dough. The film points that it is a matter of vision, a feverish vision in the case of Elvira and a crazier, more complex one in the case of Gina, thanks to stunning closeups on the burning stares of the lead characters and the heady, sensual shots on the women. It is indeed an apparition, first seen from the back in an elevator, that captures the attention of Tony Montana the evening he first met with Frank Lopez: his love for Elvira is clearly a fantasy he would try to turn into a reality in his stubborn, relentless, unrefined way, the perfect image of romantic achievement needed to complete the business achievement he also dreams of. That part of his story mirrors the rest: first there is the long battle to seduce the reluctant blonde who slowly gives in, and then there is the drawn-out disappointment of a marriage going nowhere, as Elvira gets bored and disgusted. She is the one telling the naked truth at one point of the second part: what is wrong with Tony Montana is his insatiable greed. She bitterly complains that money is the only topic of conversation – later, she would also complain about the ways he gets his money. This quarrel ends with a crane shot taking the camera away from Tony Montana’s face and up to the ceiling of the sprawling bathroom where the argument has taken place, an absurd, farcical take on the bathtub where he is lying now alone and shouting. So far, crane shots, which have been as wonderfully smooth and original as this one, have been used for ugly action scenes: in this case, it cleverly signals the end is near.

The film ends with another, more shocking vision: Gina half-naked, firing on his brother hours after he killed Manny Ribera who made the mistake to sleep with his pal’s sister, touching and loving a body Tony Montana seems to have deemed untouchable and hallowed. She clearly accuses him of having incestuous desire which he denies, of course. The film is far more ambiguous here, or slier: inserting extreme closeups on the mad gaze of Tony Montana in scenes wonderfully capturing the lively, spirited, attractive nature of Gina is the only move it takes to convey the vision the brother has on his sister. It is more unsettling and suggestive than plain and articulate and the audience is more invited to speculate than to react. Maybe incest plays a role, maybe it is just paternalism turned crazy, it is anyway another facet of his innate violence and selfishness and another case where the narrative he tells himself splits with reality and becomes preposterous. Gina’s death is the second and last time the dream image of a woman is shattered. Elvira’s fleeing has already caused Tony Montana to lose his marbles and to plunge into hard drinking and drug abuse in an even more self-destructive manner; the killing of his sister is just the prelude to his own murder.

Scarface’s story is a tale of failure, the story of a man unable to check his greed, his pride, his instincts and at the same unable to respect and support the women he held so precious and indispensable. This is a tale of excess, oversized ego, criminal extravaganza the film is keen to show, relishing on its own ability to shock and awe in the wake of the original feature and everything that has shaped the most recent American cinema, a film geared to display effectively the blood-tainted, highly spectacular visual flourishes and tricks the director has imagined for it – it is thus an up-to-date and deeply personal remake which can seduce or annoys if the audience struggles to share De Palma’s taste. It is also a conspicuous vehicle for the magnetic and visceral talent of lead actor Al Pacino, playing here with his guts and his cunning a wild animal chafing at limits and enjoying self-aggrandizement.

It is in a way definitely impressive but in another way it feels like an over-the-top endeavor going at times overboard, an energy sweeping across the silver screen with an irresistible force, and highly compelling, but perhaps getting misdirected. This is a remake that can look even grittier and more disturbingly mesmerizing than the original and whatever else, but also looks as a stylistic effort that is self-conscious, a film gladly advertising its violent nature while clearly emphasizing the unavoidable failure of violence and the horror of it, the tale of a gangster who thrills and yet is a bad fiction. The narrative Scarface has devised for himself was inspirational but lands him on treacherous grounds, pride, rage, and greed turning into destructive hubris and love becoming the source of hatred. The film conveys subtly the increasing discrepancy between achievements and satisfaction and a harsher reality: the same dazzlingly informative montage hints at the budding romance between Gina and Manny Ribera and ends with a closeup on a worried, unsatisfied Elvira drinking and sniffing too much. Ever the master of split screens and the keen observer of images and their power, De Palma ironically builds the final sequence around the visual contrast pitting a despondent and angry Tony Montana against the wall of screens streaming what his surveillance cameras record, showing now how gangsters are invading his great property: Scarface was keen to control and watch everything, including every step of Gina, but he is eventually unable to notice fate knocking at his door.

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