USA | 1983 | Directed by Brian De Palma
Logline: The rise of Tony Montana, a Cuban refugee who becomes an immensely wealthy, powerful and ruthless drug lord in Miami, Florida during the early 1980s, but falls prey to greed, paranoia and betrayal.
Along with Coppola’s The Godfather (Parts I & II) and Scorsese’s Goodfellas, this is the finest cinematic portrayal of American gangsters hands down; they form the movies’ holy trinity of organised crime. I’ve watched Scarface many times, and it always delivers, always packs a punch, so … “Say ‘allo to mah lil’ fren’!”
Originally intended as a straight-up remake of Howard Hawks’ 1932 classic set in Chicago, only modern day, but budgetary constraints re-directed the setting to Florida (although most of the exteriors were shot in Los Angeles). Hollywood veteran Sydney Lumet was originally slated to direct, but backed out, however it was his suggestion to make the characters Cuban and use the 1980 Mariel harbour boat lift as the movie’s starting point.
Oliver Stone wrote the blistering, powerhouse screenplay whilst battling his own cocaine addiction, and it was this expletive-laden script that compelled Brian DePalma to come on board (he was set to direct Flashdance!), stating later that the combo of Al Pacino (as the fictional Tony “Scarface” Montana) and Stone’s screenplay was the high turning point of his career (and few critics can deny that). With a stellar cast that included F. Murray Abraham, the late Paul Shenar as scary Sosa, and Robert Loggia, but also excellent performances from then unknowns Mary Elizabeth Mastranioni and Steven Bauer, and most famously, a very young (and dangerously thin) Michelle Pfeiffer.
Brian De Palma has often been criticised for a visual style that rips off Alfred Hitchcock. This stylistic is no more apparent than in Scarface, but I hardly criticise De Palma for it. It’s a director using a deliberately dynamic and hyper-real mise-en-scene (incl. close-ups, vivid colour, and rear projection), which Hitchcock happened to pioneer. It’s pure cinema, and it works brilliantly in telling the dark and dangerous tale of Tony Montana.
Pacino’s Cuban cowboy is mesmerising, from his convincing accent and dialect to his garish wardrobe. But it is the atmosphere of dread and doom permeating the movie that really resonates; an unctuous evil that seeps from the very pores of all the dodgy characters on screen. Violence is both implicit and explicit; one notorious scene involving a chainsaw and Tony and one of his men, Angel (Pepe Serna), handcuffed to a shower rail caused major controversy at the movie’s time of release. Although it leaves most to the imagination, it is far more horrific than you expect.
Giorgio Morodor’s pulsating synth-driven score provides a constant backbone of lush sleaze, whilst the mountain of cocaine – “Yeyo” as Tony calls it – on Montana’s massive mahogany desk is one of the greatest iconic symbols of utter greed and hedonism in the history of movies. Not forgetting Tony’s M16 assault rifle armed with a M203 40mm grenade launcher. The home invasion which occupies the movie’s last twenty-odd minutes is over-the-top, ballistic mayhem; an audio-visual assault of menace and brutality.
Scarface is a long and exhausting movie, but beautifully constructed and executed; a tour-de-force of direction, acting and screenwriting, but also fabulous production design. So many amazing scenes, and arguably the penultimate has a very drunk and stoned Tony at a flash restaurant embarrassing his wife Elvira (Pfeiffer) and his closest buddy Manny (Bauer) as he spouts a diatribe to the dozens of stunned patrons …
“What you lookin’ at? You all a bunch of fuckin’ assholes. You know why? You don’t have the guts to be what you wanna be? You need people like me. You need people like me so you can point your fuckin’ fingers and say, ‘That’s the bad guy.’ So what that make you? Good? You’re not good. You just know how to hide, how to lie. Me, I don’t have that problem. Me, I always tell the truth. Even when I lie. So say good night to the bad guy! Come on. The last time you gonna see a bad guy like this again, let me tell you. Come on. Make way for the bad guy. There’s a bad guy comin’ through! Better get outta his way!”