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Days of De Palma (Part 5): Scarface (1983)

And so at last we arrive, in my journey through the films of Brian De Palma, to one of his films which I had already seen: Scarface. I watched this film several times back when I was in college, though I don’t think I’ve seen it much, if at all, in the last decade.

Just as I felt that Blow Out (click here for my review) was a large leap forward for Mr. De Palma from his earlier films, Scarface represents another huge jump in his prowess as a filmmaker.  Of all the De Palma films which I have seen so far, Scarface is the one that has aged the best.  There are a few moments when the somewhat over-wrought soundtrack dates the film, for me, but otherwise this movie feels just as vital and dynamic as a film made this year, rather than one that is almost three decades old.

Scarface is a live-wire of a film — a visceral, go-for-the-gut primal scream of a movie, filled with all the passion and excesses of it’s main characters.  But for a film that was shocking at the time of its release for its graphic violence, I must say I found Scarface to be the most restrained of all the De Palma movies I have watched so far, at least until the lunatic orgy of violence at the film’s climax.

Scarface, restrained?  OK, I realize that might seem to be an absurd comment, but hear me out.  Yes, Scarface is incredibly violent.  But my major complaint about Mr. De Palma’s films so far in my viewing project has been that there has been so much extreme content (mostly of the sexual/nudity variety) that seemed totally gratuitous to me.  I think those films would have been stronger films had some of the gauzy shower scenes, for example, been cut out, because those scenes just make me laugh or shake my head, pulling me out of the movie I was watching.

But in Scarface, I don’t feel the violence is gratuitous, at least not until the very end.  Let’s take one of the film’s most shocking scenes: Tony Montana’s botched money-for-dope exchange in a Miami hotel room which results in a bloodbath.  When I think of Scarface, I think of this scene even more than the “say hello to my little friend” climax.  It made an enormous impact on me when I first saw the film, and even knowing exactly what’s coming when I watch it now, I still find it to be incredibly gripping — tense and horrifying.  It’s terribly violent, but let me make two points.  One, the scene is not actually as on-the-screen gruesome as you might remember.  The most extreme violence happens off-screen.  Much of what happens is left to our imagination.  (I’d argue that is the key to why the scene is so powerful — because whatever we imagine is far more horrifying than any on-screen gore, which could easily become silly if we start focusing on severed rubber limbs or whatever visual effect was used.)  Two, this violence isn’t gratuitous — it has an important point: not only to show us what an unflinching badass Tony Montana is, but also to clearly set the stakes of this world of crime he and his friends are entering into.  This isn’t a game — one wrong move can result in a most horrible death.  That gives all the rest of the story that follows an underlying tension, without which I think the film would be far less effective.

By the way, that sequence is also notable for a wonderfully clever camera move that, here again, isn’t superfluous at all but critical in helping to build the tension of the scene.  Just as things are starting to go bad up in the hotel room with the Colombians, the camera moves out of the window and down, down, in a long shot moving all the way down to the street-corner below where, rather than being attentive to what’s happening with Tony and Angel up in the hotel room, Manny and Chi-Chi are hanging out in their car flirting with a bikini-clad young woman.  We watch them for a few moments, and then the camera moves slowly back up and away from them, back the way it came, back into the hotel room where we rejoin Tony.  It’s an elaborate, carefully timed camera movement, but it’s not just for show.  It’s absolutely perfect at ratcheting up the suspense, as the audience is forced to practically scream at Manny and Chi-Chi to wake up and realize that Tony and Angel are in trouble!!  Mr. De Palma’s skills as a filmmaker and fearlessness with the camera are on full display, and all in service of the story being told.  The whole sequence is a master-class in filmmaking, and one of my favorite sequences in any film ever.

Scarface is compelling in that the film is no less of a pulp adventure than Mr. De Palma’s previous films, but it’s grounded in just enough reality as to have some significant dramatic heft.  Retelling the Scarface story (this film is a remake of the 1932 crime film featuring Italian mobsters) in the world of the Cuban refugees who arrived in Miami, FL, following the Mariel Boatlift of 1980 was very clever.  Not only does it immediately give Scarface a viscerally different feel than all the mob movies that have been made about Italian gangsters, but it gives the film a level of reality than is an important starting point for a film that’s going to end up in an over-the-top man-against-the-world bloodbath sequence.

Helping to give the film this anchor in reality is the terrific script by Oliver Stone.  There is some great character work in the film.  More than any of Mr. De Palma’s previous films, the characters in Scarface all feel like real people to me.  Sure, there’s some shorthand in the way some of the secondary characters, like Gina, are portrayed.  But even then, the character beats feel true, they feel right.  (This is enhanced by the terrific group of actors inhabiting the roles, but I’ll get to them in a moment.)  Also, the film spends a lot of time carefully following the story of Tony’s rise to the top of the cocaine empire.  Scarface is a long film, but the run-time is well-used to allow us to watch Tony as he takes step after step after step.  The accumulated details help to give the film a feeling of reality.  The story beats of Tony’s progression feel real.  There aren’t any magic, script-writer shortcuts used.  I think that time spent on the mechanics of Tony’s rise really pay off.

Anchoring the film, of course, is Al Pacino’s take-no-prisoners performance as Scarface himself, Tony Montana.  This is Pacino at his scenery-chewing best.  The performance is loud and crazy, but somehow stays on just the right side of caricature.  Mr. Pacino is incredibly compelling.  You simply can’t take your eyes off him whenever he’s on the screen (which is in pretty much every scene of the movie).  And how can you not love that accent!  Our introduction to Tony Montana is very cleverly filmed by Mr. De Palma.  Sitting in a tiny room in a police station in Miami, Tony is brought in and questioned by several police officers, who circle around him while he sits in a small chair.  The camera circles Tony furiously, just as the cops do, but we never see any of the cops’ faces.  We just hear their voices, while the camera stays locked on Tony’s face.  These other men are irrelevant, we’re being told.  They’re just flees.  Tony is the one to watch.  And so he is.  It’s a brilliant introduction to the character, and the scene is a tour de force acting performance by Al Pacino.  Right away we can see that Tony is smart, he’s charismatic, and he’s dangerous.  We might root a bit for this arrogant punk, but we fear him as well.

Mr. Pacino owns this film, but that’s not to take anything away from his costars.  There’s an impossibly young Michelle Pfeiffer, of course.  She plays the wife of Frank Lopez (Robert Loggia), who Tony immediately has a thing for.  She’s trouble with a capital T.  It’s a small role, but a critical one, and Ms. Pfeiffer just nails it.  Steven Bauer plays Tony’s right-hand-man and best buddy Manny.  I love Mr. Bauer’s performance in the film.  It’s a fairly stock character, the best friend who eventually gets alienated and comes to loggerheads with the main character.  But Mr. Bauer brings life and depth to Manny.  He’s a good guy, clearly a much better person than Tony (though he is a drug-dealer, we can’t forget), and it’s Manny who is the real tragic character of Scarface, even more than Tony.  I mentioned Robert Loggia, and he’s phenomenal as Frank, Tony’s mentor who, of course, Tony eventually has to step over as he consolidates his power.  Mr. Loggia’s gravelly voice and good-guy charm cut a compelling crime-boss figure, and I’ve always thought it would have been cool to have seen THIS guy’s story as a movie.   I also love F. Murray Abraham as Omar, Frank’s right-hand-man who takes an immediate dislike to Tony.  Omar is such a prick that we just HAVE to root for Tony, in comparison, which of course is exactly the filmmakers’ intent.  Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, in her first major screen role, plays Tony’s naive and unfortunate sister, Gina.  She’s the picture of innocence the first time we meet her, and boy you just know that isn’t gonna end well.  Ms. Mastrantonio never seems, to me, to be quite as polished as the other actors, but it’s hard to fault her as such a young actress, and in a way that actually works for the character.  Before I end, I’ve gotta mention Harris Yulin (who will always be in my heart for his performance in Ghostbusters 2) who is just dynamite as a cop on the take who messes with the wrong guy when he tries to get Tony Montana under his thumb.

All the pieces came together for Scarface. A terrific cast led by an on-fire Al Pacino, a great script by Oliver Stone, and an at-the-top-of-his-game Brian De Palma at the helm.  What I love about Scarface is that it’s a serious , tragic story with a lot of death and suffering — but the film is also FUN.  The script is filled with humorous moments and phenomenal one-liners, and Mr. De Palma never forgets that his primary goal is to entertain.  This isn’t a super-serious movie — it’s a crazy, over-the-top pulp explosion.  How else could we explain that insane ending??

I’m glad to have enjoyed Scarface as much as I remembered.  This was a lot of fun to revisit.

Days of De Palma: Part 1 — Carrie(1976), Part 2 — The Fury (1978), Part 3 — Dressed to Kill (1980) Part 4 — Blow Out (1983).

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