Scarface (1983) 4.5 Stars
U.S. (Universal) 170m Technicolour
Director: Brian De Palma
Producer: Martin Bregman
Screenplay: Oliver Stone, from the novel Armitage Trail and 1932 screenplay Scarface by Howard Hawks
Music: Giorgio Moroder
Cast: Al Pacino, Steven Bauer, Michelle Pfeiffer, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Robert Loggia, Miriam Colon…
Unlike Hawks’s original, De Palma begins this gangster epic with documentary footage depicting the mass movement of Cuban refugees into North America. This adds a political context which greatly aids one’s viewing of ‘Scarface’: perhaps Tony Montana’s only option was to enter back into the criminal world from which he had come, if he were to ever amount to any kind of success as a Cuban in the states. After this opening the first half of the film details Tony’s rise to power from lowly assassin to power-crazed, self-destructive crime lord; where possible De Palma includes some intense gore, cigar smoking, patriarchy and of course, hilarious late seventies dancing and attire. However, as with most prominent anti-heroes, Tony’s ill-gotten gains soon come tumbling down around him in one of the most famous, cathartic, bloody scenes ever recorded.
Whilst a change of tone from De Palma’s usually Hitchcock inspired films, ‘Scarface’ is truly brilliant. The tone will often change from witty and casual to suddenly intensely scary and cutting; in this way the film keeps you transfixed throughout. As mentioned earlier, Tony’s tremendously fast rise to power and spectacular fall from it is reminiscent of timeless literary pieces such as Faust or even historical conquests such as Hannibal or the Roman Empire. This progression is documented brilliantly with the help of masterfully implanted foreshadowing, a range of great and hilarious costume changes and a fantastic soundtrack from Giorgio Moroder; which I found to be similar to Michael Nyman’s ‘Memorial’ from ‘The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover’; coincidentally, a film not completely dissimilar to ‘Scarface’: both offering treatises on the frail conditions of male selfhood, power politics and the place of a woman in society.
Many have described ‘Scarface’ as “postmodern”, I would tend to disagree. Critics argue that Tony Montana’s drunken line: “You need me, I’m the bad guy!” during his deterioration, is an indicator of the film understanding itself as a gangster film. However, I believe that Tony is able to come to the understanding of his place in society as “the bad guy” without the film erring into metafiction; in fact this realisation simply highlights how even though he knows that he causes pain, he’s not going to do anything about it – he’s happy where he is.
‘Scarface’ is a tour de force for Al Pacino (Tony Montana). Whilst the combination of his method acting with a thick Cuban accent often renders him inaudible, he manages to truly become the character of Tony Montana and develops with him. The passionate, humourless, brutal character we see, is perhaps one of the most chilling ever to grace the screen; his mainly quiet character littered with sudden bursts of rage give us the impression that he is always manically ticking over like a bomb ready to go off – which he certainly is. Whilst his ranking in the crime world rapidly improves, his life doesn’t seem to ever get much better: he becomes paranoid and even more abusive than before, and to paraphrase his pitiful mother: he destroys everyone he meets, whether that be physically, emotionally or both, in the case of his poor sister, who seems a paradigm of purity nearer the start of the film and ends up driven insane by Tony.
The only remarkable points on cinematography relate to setting and costume, both of which improve for Tony as his status does; sometimes gradually, sometimes very suddenly. De Palma employs a number of giant villas in various beautiful locations which can only serve to make one want to become a drug lord.
To conclude, I would highly recommend this film to anyone. The acting and direction is of the highest standard, as is the scriptwriting from which a number of brilliant quotes can be drawn ‘Say ‘Hello’ to my little friend!’ being just one. The action, music, costume and setting all serve to make the film terrifying, hilarious, macabre and spectacular. A must see.