Monday, 19 September 2011
Starring: Al Pacino, Steven Bauer, Michelle Pfieffer, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Robert Loggia
By Alan Bacchus
I love this movie, but I freely acknowledge the bombastic, bizarre, heightened reality in which it resides. Scarface represents the best and worst of Brian De Palma, the controversial auteur reviled as much as he is revered. Whatever your opinion is of his films, we can’t deny his expertise in delivering stimulating, thought-provoking movies, however corny, vulgar and exploitive they might be.
Scarface is perhaps his grandest achievement, a superlative epic that represents more a time capsule of 1980’s excess and overkill than the morally-confused gangster pic that was its intention.
Despite the 60-year difference, the original Howard Hawks/Ben Hecht Scarface (1932) is remarkably similar to De Palma's. At the core, like the ’32 version, Scarface is an immigrant story of an ambitious Cuban refugee/criminal exploiting the freedom of the ‘American dream’ to create a wealthy drug empire only to have it all come crashing down in a hail of bullets. Al Pacino is Tony Montana, introduced magnificently in a close-up while being interrogated by the immigration officers in Miami, which was opened up to Cuban refugees very briefly in 1980.
Through Pacino’s strong performance we see Tony as a charismatic, passionate, uncouth young man, but streetwise, tough and full of four-letter f-bombs. His best friend, Manny (Bauer), is an elegant Cuban, handsome and suave, who serves as his right hand man. But Tony is not afraid to put him in his place. After a successful hit in their holding facility they're both released and quickly negotiate their way into the underworld of cocaine trafficking.
The infamous chain saw sequence early on, which shows Montana’s loyalty and strength in the face of adversity, still haunts me. I saw this film on VHS when I was 10 years old. The horrific depiction of Angel’s death, handcuffed to the bathroom shower curtain while his body is dismembered by a chainsaw scarred me. We don’t actually see limbs getting hacked off, but it’s De Palma’s visceral depiction of the massacre that is as powerful as seeing it literally.
De Palma’s version links up with Hawks’ version when the love triangle dynamic is set up between Montana, his new boss Frank Lopez (Loggia) and his wife Elvira (Pfieffer), whom Montana instantly falls for. Same with the near-incestuous love triangle with Manny and Tony’s sister Gina (Mastrantonio), which culminates in the monumentally tragic third act in which Tony commits a heinous and brutal act of jealous rage against his best friend. This moment is deeply affecting in both versions.
This is the core of Scarface. Despite the grandiose gunplay and posturing in the final siege, including lines like, “Say hello to my little friend,” and “I’m Tony Montana, you fuck with me, you fucking with the best,” which make for great posters or t-shirts, they glorify the film in the wrong places.
The key to the resonance of this film is Giorgio Moroder’s score. It’s a synthesized score, which was fashionable for only a brief period in cinema history, but it contributes a wholly original feeling and tone. It certainly places the film within the 1980’s trend in pop music instrumentation. At first glance the harsh electronic sounds might sound like shrill nails on a chalkboard compared to traditional classic scoring, but it's memorable nonetheless.
The sound of the opening chords, for example, which drones like an organist at a funeral, is so memorable, as it accurately sets the mood for the tragic operatic finale. Even the overly tender love theme that signifies Tony’s protectiveness of Gina and the innocence of his mother’s home is simplistic musicianship but so deeply sad and effective. I could probably do without the ‘Razor’s Edge’ montage music, but hell, if we’re going to go fully electronic in the ‘80s, it’s in keeping with the fun.
Scarface is a helluva lot of fun indeed, but it’s sad and tragic in equal measure. The best qualities of De Palma are present, which see him manipulate his narrative to swing us through all these emotional extremes and titillate us with unforgettable imagery.
Scarface is available on Blu-ray from Universal Home Entertainment.