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Scarface Review

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by Casimir Harlow Oct 21, 2011

  • Movies review


    Scarface Review

    He loved the American Dream... with a vengeance.

    If we are talking top gangster films, then Brian De Palma’s 1983 Oliver Stone-penned Al Pacino vehicle, Scarface, has got to make the short list for top entries of all-time, amidst the likes of Coppolla’s The Godfather (Part I/Part II), Scorsese’s Goodfellas, Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America and Scarface’s own half-cousin epic, Carlito’s Way, also from De Palma and Pacino. Woefully derided by critics on release for its then-extreme violence, drug use and profanity, the film was still a sizeable box office success, and has gone on to become a cult classic, now oft-quoted and held in high regard globally.

    Most of you will already know the epic tale of the rise and fall of Tony Montana inside-out, but for the uninitiated, a little warning: this in-depth review is more of a reflection on the movie, its origins and its impact, and should be taken to contain numerous spoilers. If you somehow have yet to see this classic gangster film then, trust me, you should stop reading and go and pick it up right now.

    After Castro opens the floodgates to let out not only the relatives of the Cuban immigrants who have moved to Miami, but also the dregs of his prisons – 25,000 convicts and mentally ill inmates – hundreds of thousands land off the coast of the US, seeking that all-important green card, a veritable lottery ticket for the prize draw: the American Dream. Amidst them is Tony Montana, an ambitious young criminal who kills his way to freedom, securing a green card from a Miami gangster, then going to work for the guy. But his boss does not reckon on Montana’s unquenchable thirst for power, and soon Tony is on the rise, taking those loyal with him; leaving those who would hold him back lying face-down in the gutter. Money, drugs, women, power – Tony wants it all – but nothing is ever enough, and soon the destructiveness of his unstoppably addictive personality spirals out of control, sweeping all those close to him – friends and enemies – up in the fiery bloodbath.

    “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.”

    In 1929 the novel Scarface was written, loosely based on the life of Al Capone – whose nickname was ‘Scarface’ – and adapted for film by enigmatic entrepreneur Howard Hughes (see The Aviator), under the direction of Howard Hawks. The film charted the rise of small-time bodyguard Tony Camonte, who kills his boss and then shoots his way to the top of the ladder to take control of Chicago bootlegging during the Prohibition Era. Considerably controversial for the time, it was seen to glorify both gangsters and violence; the film censors refused to release it, despite a much more restrained, politically correct ending, and Hughes eventually released it himself, with the original, spectacular ending that he had planned.

    Over half a Century later, Producer Martin Bregman approached Director Sidney Lumet (Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead) with a view to making a new adaptation of Scarface. Although Lumet backed out of directorial duty, he suggested that perhaps the setting be changed to modern times, charting the rise and fall of a cocaine kingpin in Miami following the Cuban exodus in 1980. Taking this new direction on board, Bregman approached Oliver Stone (Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, Natural Born Killers) to write the script. Stone had, up until that point, not had a major directorial success, although his scripts for Midnight Express and Conan the Barbarian had been made into noteworthy film adaptations. At the time of writing the script, he was suffering massive withdrawals from his own cocaine addiction, and worked many elements from this personal knowledge into the script, and into the lead character.

    “Make way for the bad guy.”

    Whilst Stone’s script was indeed contemporary, taking in the real event of the 1980 Mariel boatlift, where Fidel Castro granted permission for hundreds of thousands of Cubans to leave Cuba – ostensibly under the premise that they would be joining their family members in the US – but secretly released 25,000 criminals and mental patients from prison to join the exodus, Stone incorporated not only the framework of the original 1930s film, but also exact scenes, characters, character motivations, key plot points, word-for-word lines of dialogue and basically the majority of the already over-the-top ending. That is not to say that Stone worked some serious magic to produce the end result that was 1983’s Scarface script, just that he borrowed a surprising number of elements – and that many of these parallels have been forgotten in the intervening years.

    The original Prohibition-era gangster, also named Tony, also obviously scarred across the cheek, worked for a crime boss who was similarly reluctant to expand his operation and interfere with rival gangs. The boss also had a girlfriend who Tony coveted; the girl initially rejecting these advances, but gradually growing more interested as Tony rises to power (Tony even buys a bullet-proof car to impress her). After the boss grows concerned over his enforcer’s rise in power, he seeks to assassinate him, and a botched hit is carried out. In a sequence almost identical to that in the remake, Tony concocts a plan to trap his boss in a lie, and thus prove that he was behind the hit; obviously he goes on to kill the boss and thus take over the empire.

    Also in parallel with Stone’s reworking, the original saw Tony’s mother similarly wholly disapproving of his behaviour, and of his twisted, manipulative attitude towards his own sister. Tony seeks to impress his sister with his wealth, but also had an unhealthy possessiveness over her, and is violently jealous of any man who lays his hands on her. When his sister eventually goes on to marry his best friend, Tony kills the best friend, leaving the sister distraught. As hundreds of police close in to capture Tony in his fortress-like mansion, the sister confronts him with a gun, but is shot by the police, whilst Tony goes off on a wild tirade of shouting, taunting and laughing at the police as he sprays bullets at them from his balcony-like window.

    In the original 30s script, when his mansion is under siege by the police, Tony is seemingly unaffected by either the numerous bullets fired at him or the tear gas used on him, and he is eventually only brought down by one police officer – a man who has been hounding him throughout the story – who shoots him fatally when Tony’s gun clicks empty. In the final cut, slaughtered by a volley of bullets, he dies under the same sign of a lit-up globe with the familiar banner proclaiming: ‘The World is Yours’.

    “Say hello to my little friend!”

    It’s clear from all of this that Stone incorporated a great deal of ideas from both the 30s film and its script (including the original ending) into his new vision of the ‘rise and fall of Tony the gangster’, and, despite the numerous parallels, the change in setting – and perhaps the decades of time that had passed – left his reimagining of Scarface feeling remarkably new and positively original. Indeed, aside from the rampant profanity, extreme violence, and frequent drug use in the new movie – which set it apart from almost anything which had been made up until that point – Stone’s tale benefited greatly from his personal knowledge of cocaine addiction, and became a defining portrayal of addiction (not just to drugs, but to money, power, etc.), and of consumption from it too.

    In classic Oliver Stone style, although far more subtle than his usual hammer-to-the-head approach, he also worked in some socio-political angles – rather taking a trademark conspiracy theory view here, his Scarface: rise to power analogy was that of the equivalent power-play, back-stabbing, corruption, greed and addiction in the moviemaking industry itself: Hollywood. Director Martin Scorsese, upon first seeing the film, is reported to have commented that it was great “but be prepared, because they're going to hate it in Hollywood ... because it's about them”. Indeed it is, and it is one of the most subtle political commentaries that Stone has ever worked into one of his movies, some may even say too subtle, because it often goes unnoticed amidst the violence and bad language.

    “You know why Cuba is so screwed up? Because the country is in the Caribbean, the government is in Russia, the Army is in Angola, and all the people’s in Miami. All they got there is a beard with a cigar.”

    The deeper resonance and subtextual implications also largely go unnoticed under Al Pacino’s powerhouse performance as the lead, now renamed Tony Montana. Producer Martin Bregman not only made several of Pacino’s earlier classics – along with director Sidney Lumet, they made both Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon together (hence why Lumet was first choice for directorial duty on Scarface) – but he also discovered the acclaimed actor. Seeing him in a Broadway play, he was Pacino’s personal manager as he built his stage and film career, then going on to produce some of the actor’s greatest achievements (later reuniting with both Pacino and Scarface director De Palma for the seminal Carlito’s Way). Whilst I’ve always favoured De Niro for his tremendous method-acting-derived versatility, there’s no question that Pacino is a contender for the title of greatest actor of all time, not least for the performances he has given in the movies already mentioned, but also his seminal Godfather run, his Oscar-winning tour of duty in Scent of a Woman, his Oscar-nominated contribution to Glengarry Glen Ross, his subdued range-displaying performance in Donnie Brasco, and his clash of the titans, long-awaited collaboration/confrontation with De Niro in Michael Mann’s definitive crime epic, Heat. Understandably, fans now feel like Pacino, to some extent like De Niro, may have sold out somewhat over the last decade, becoming something of a caricature of his former self – known for his trademark “shouty” behaviour – and even stooping so low as to make his second and only other collaboration with De Niro the appalling practically straight-to-DVD ‘thriller’ Righteous Kill, co-starring fifi cen, no less. In fact it looks like the only true hope for either of them in the future lies with a rumoured Scorsese project called The Irishman... But back in 1983 Pacino was arguably at his peak, with many of his best movies already under his belt.

    Playing Tony ‘Scarface’ Montana may have been a risky choice, but Pacino threw himself into the role, working hard on his Cuban accent (the curious line in the movie ‘look at them pelicans fly’ was actually one of the things he was forced to repeat to practise the accent in preparation) and crafting one of his greatest – and personal favourite – characters. Psychotic, narcissistic, driven by an unquenchable greed, yet unflinchingly loyal as a result of a curiously twisted set of personal moral codes, Pacino’s Montana was a character who could be at once loved and loathed; admired and berated, and yet, throughout, engaged the audience completely – his electric energy igniting the screen in every single scene. It is perhaps the definition of ‘powerhouse performance’, and would prove to be, somewhat ironically, the pinnacle of his career.

    “Why don't you try sticking your head up your ass? See if it fits.”

    Taking directorial duty, Brian De Palma took heed of the casting and presence of Pacino and provided arguably his most reserved, restrained work here – often just letting Stone’s inflammatory script, brought to life through Pacino’s larger-than-life performance, drive the movie. Indeed it appears that most of De Palma’s trademark camera flourishes, and much of his inherent style has been muted for this production – no adventurous camera angles, scant few dioptic shots (used perfectly for Blow-Out) – and he was, at the time, nominated for a Razzie Award for Worst Director, but I am of the opinion that this was all a clever calculation on the part of De Palma; after all, he jacked-in directorial duties over Flashdance in favour of this movie (of course, in hindsight, this was not a particularly hard choice) and clearly wanted to make it. Instead of dazzling us with his style and aberrant camera usage, he took a metaphorical back-seat, shooting grand sweeping sequences using long panning shots, which benefited the epic rise to power no end. Sure there are a couple of dioptic moments still in there (the bit where Tony confronts the chainsaw-wielding columbians), but they are so seamlessly blended into the proceedings that you would be hard-pushed to notice them first time around. This avoidance of (overtly) visually extravagant filming techniques of course meant that we were not distracted from the key elements – namely Stone’s script and Pacino’s performance.

    Pulling in a solid supporting cast, there were plenty of young starlets involved in this piece, many of whom were making their film debut; most of whom would go on to grander, greater things. Most notable are perhaps the two ‘love’ interests – Michelle Pfeiffer playing Elvira, Montana’s boss’s girlfriend, who he covets persistently for the first half of the movie. Pfeiffer was not De Palma’s choice – she was forced upon him by producer Bregman – and, at just 25, with only Grease 2 under her belt, I can see why De Palma was reluctant to go with her. Whilst she gives a worthy performance, displaying some of the talent that would go on to be considerably more evident just a few years further into her career (Dangerous Liaisons, The Fabulous Baker Boys), arguably her younger ‘look’ did not quite suit a character with her dialogue and with such importance in Tony’s life – perhaps the sexy seductress of her later years (Batman Returns), but not this visibly twenty-something waif.

    “I always tell the truth. Even when I lie.”

    Ultimately, though, Elvira was just another conquest during Montana’s rise to power, the revelation that she is barren and cannot bear him a child putting the final nail in the coffin for their tumultuous relationship. No, Tony’s relationship with his sister was perhaps more intriguing – a blend of destructive over-protectiveness and borderline incestuous feelings; anybody else laying a hand on her results in him seeing red (the screen literally going red as a result), and yet he is shocked when she confronts her directly about his repressed feelings. Mary Elizabeth Masterantonio (Robin Hood, The Abyss) took the part, and again it was quite a daring bit of casting – she was just 20 at the time and this was her film debut – but at least the role demanded somebody young, capable of playing a late teenager, which she certainly was. Bringing us an innate naivety, that was much-needed for the role, Masterantonio showcases just enough fiery passion (she is, after all, Tony’s sister – their character similarities cleverly paralleled) and sexual self-discovery to convince in the part.

    Playing Tony’s right-hand-man and best friend through thick-and-thin, Manny, we had Steven Bauer, also making his film debut. Again he was the producer’s choice, picked for his Cuban background (his family having fled Cuba to go to Miami in the 60s, he was the only genuine Cuban playing a Cuban in the movie), and I have to say that he was pretty effective in the part – Manny is designed to be a little slower and more goofy than Tony, but very enthusiastic and unflinchingly loyal, and Bauer gets that mix just right. That said, you can also see why he never went on to great fame; I didn’t even recognise him as drug lord Carlos in Soderbergh’s Traffic.

    As Frank, the ill-fated boss of Tony, we had character actor Robert Loggia (Lost Highway, Wild Palms, The Sopranos), who, as you can tell from his resume, is not averse to playing crime lords. Here, however, his somewhat two-faced Frank, who enjoys the riches of his lifestyle, but does not want to rock the boat by vying for more power, is more than just a mob boss caricature. There’s no way that he gave the performance without having seen the original 30s Scarface film, though, so similar are some of the parallel character’s scenes. Indeed, I would not be surprised to find out that the entire cast had watched Hughes’ Scarface in preparation for their respective roles – it would have arguably informed their performances as much as any verbal direction on the part of De Palma.

    Rounding off the peripheral characters were a number of other, arguably less familiar faces including F. Murray Abraham (Amadeus) as Frank’s original lieutenant and Harris Yulin (Clear and Present Danger, Whedon’s Buffy TV Show) as a corrupt cop who works with Frank and extorts Tony. Then there are actors like Al Israel, Angel Salazar and Michael P. Moran, who would all go on to take cameos in the later Pacino / De Palma re-teaming Carlito’s Way.

    “All I have in this world is my balls and my word, and I don't break 'em for no one.”

    It is a credit to Brian De Palma that he brings so much out of a supporting cast of actors who were, at least at the time, not all that famous; nobody feels out of place (reservations about Pfeiffer’s age notwithstanding), and they all clearly contributed towards what made Scarface the classic that it is.

    One can’t forget the memorable score either, provided by Giorgio Moroder, in what was perhaps his soundtrack-career highlight (having contributed towards the likes of Top Gun and Flashdance). Hauntingly foreboding with regards to the tragedy that will eventually unfold, his electronic offering captures both the highs and lows of Montana’s rise-to-power; right from the classic opening instrumental track we know what to expect from this tale purely through the music: it is evocative of the ambitious successes that will follow; the yearning and indefatigable energy of the lead character, but it also carries tones hinting at the ultimate path of doom that he has chosen. Glowering with menace, the build-up is truly intense and overwhelming; many sequences holding an almost horror-movie-esque scoring, particularly the shocking moments where Tony sees red. It’s a tremendous body of work, bringing a weighty gravitas and grandness to the proceedings in a way that was fairly uncommon (particularly for electronic scores) at the time. Sure, there’s some pure cheese thrown in here (this is, after all, the era of the aforementioned Top Gun and Flashdance, the former arguably the epitome of cheese), but even the most Flashdance-ey tracks are well-integrated into the production, normally prevalent in the perfectly-rendered '80s nightclub, and somehow Moroder’s score towers above it all, remaining intact and integral to the powerful crime drama.

    “I kill a communist for fun, but for a green card, I gonna’ carve him up real nice.”

    However, what truly endures after all these years is the sparkling script, simply teeming with eminently quotable dialogue, and the powerhouse lead performance from Pacino – together they leave us with some of the most memorable scenes in film history: from Montana’s introduction, debating the origin of his scar with the authorities, to his hunting and slaying of the Cuban official in the rioting detention centre; from the seminal chainsaw torture sequence to the eventful trip to Bolivia; from the attempted assassination on Tony to his superb confrontation of Frank (I had the landscape shot up on my wall for years – the one with the painted sunset background, a wounded Tony resting his silenced gun on the table, to the montage of his rise to power, including his marriage to Elvira, and purchase of a tiger no less(!). Watching the fall take place through the personal-moral-impinging aborted car bomb sequence, through to the epic grenade-launcher-mounted-assault-rifle finale (finally bringing to the screens the original sequence that Hughes had intended for his 30s version), you finally start to feel the tragedy pull, as the world closes around Tony. The film is simply driven by excellent, landmark moments. Yet whilst most fans will be able to remember Scarface inside out, it is a surprising pleasure to watch repeatedly, each successive viewing carrying you on that same rollercoaster-ride of power, greed, money, ambition, addiction and excess. I can see why so many wannabe-gangster rappers out there have cited it at their favourite film, or referenced it in their songs – it’s like a how-to guide for success in the thug world, the ending notwithstanding.

    In fact, discounting the unambiguous ending, one wonders whether the subsequent De Palma/Pacino/Bregman collaboration Carlito’s Way was not, in some ways meant to draw a line and show the alternate reality latter life of this gangster (of course, the supremely effective recent video-games would prove to be actual sequels, bringing Pacino’s authorised likeness for the purposes of a new tale of blood and death on the streets of Miami). Despite having the option to adapt the first of the two source books – titled Carlito’s Way, and charting his rise to power – they chose to go straight for the sequel, After Hours, which looked at an ageing gangster, released from prison after a long stint, and forced to return to his former life, despite every attempt to avoid it. Sure Cubans are exchanged for Puerto-Ricans, Miami shifted back to the Chicago of the original Scarface tale, with Tony’s drug addiction and power-greedy personality transmuted into an older, wiser, battle-and-world-weary alternative, but one can’t help pair the two up as half-blood cousins (the first book, charting Carlito’s rise on the streets would finally see a DTV adaptation, the poor Carlito’s Way: Rise to Power). Whilst, personally, Carlito’s Way just edges out in front of Scarface, both are quintessentially Shakespearian tragedies, proper classic gangster masterpieces, although the excess and exuberance of the latter has left it infinitely favoured in pop culture and wannabe-gangster circles.

    “You wanna go to war?! We'll take you to war, okay?!”

    Whatever you remember Scarface for, it has fought hard and earned its right to be in your collection, and comes with the highest recommendation.