In praise of 'Scarface' (both of them)


At moments, the violence in Brian De Palma’s 1983 classic Scarface still feels excessively graphic (admittedly small potatoes compared to what’s on the screen today). That said, it’s a great crime drama, even more stylish, entertaining and culturally revealing than one remembers it 35 years after its initial release.

To commemorate the anniversary, the Tribeca Film Festival recently screened the movie and pulled together its stars and director (Al Pacino, Michelle Pfeiffer, Steven Bauer and Brian De Palma) for a freewheeling panel discussion that covered, among other topics, foul language onscreen, rating battles, the film’s resonance for a contemporary audience and how it might be reconceived for yet another reboot.

Remember, De Palma’s cult classic was inspired by Howard Hawks’ 1932 black-and-white film, a seminal work in its own right—at once simpleminded and allegorical, cartoony and mythic. De Palma dedicated his movie to Hawks and screenwriter Ben Hecht. Rumblings are afoot that Scarface take three is on the drawing board. It’s not necessary.

No one is going to improve upon De Palma’s picture, which was so well-received at the Tribeca Fest that it’s being re-released in 200 theatres nationwide for a limited-time run (on June 10, 11 and 13), pairing it with the Fest’s post-screening conversation moderated by author Jesse Kornbluth.

Scripted by Oliver Stone, Scarface recounts the meteoric rise and inevitable fall of gangster Tony Montana (a great performance by Pacino) in the savage world of local and global cocaine traffickers operating out of Miami, Florida. Devoid of fear (the threat of physical torture doesn’t faze him) and loyalty-free—no honor among thieves in this one—Montana, a Cuban refugee, moves up the ranks, annihilating anyone in his way and bribing, double-crossing and ultimately murdering his mob boss (Robert Loggia), whose junkie girlfriend Elvira (Pfeiffer) he seduces, marries and abuses with impunity.

Fueled by his lust for power and innately cunning when it comes to his own survival, he pays off the banker/money launderers and corrupt cops as his life grows obscenely lavish in his grotesque South Florida mansion, a parody of itself awash in columns and gilded Louis XIV-inspired furniture. At the same time, he is self-destructing via his own insatiable cocaine habit. Moments before the concluding shootout, his enemies’ soldiers flanking his house on all sides, he’s busy snorting cocaine valued in the millions, a smudge of powder on the tip of his nose.

At its core, De Palma’s Scarface is a harsh indictment of American ambition, greed and obsessive materialism, the complicity of the establishment and their corrosive effects on everyone. 1980s South Florida is a literal place and a spot-on metaphor for a world defined by meaningless excess, nowhere more powerfully symbolized than in the final close up of Montana’s decorative neon-lettered globe, “The World Is Yours” scrawled across its surface and glowing like a disco ball above the dozens of bullet-riddled bodies spread across the floor.

The electric signage (lifted from Hawks’ film) is not subtle in either picture but works brilliantly in both—perhaps even more evocatively in the original Depression-era movie, where it’s a giant billboard outside our hero’s window advertising a world tour and by extension promoting American optimism writ large.

The first Scarface (starring the inimitable Paul Muni as an Al Capone stand-in) spawned a host of cinematic tropes that are still wonderful even as we titter: the cigar-chomping thugs speaking out of the sides of their barely opened mouths (same for cops and editors); George Raft flipping a coin back and forth in a sexually charged flirtatious moment; and Paul Muni, the coolest of the cool, appearing as a black silhouette against a white backdrop, nonchalantly whistling just before shooting, execution-style, his next victim.

Set in mob-ridden ’30s Chicago, it’s nonetheless flat, certainly compared with De Palma’s spin. The characters are two-dimensional and the themes bluntly stated. The film warns against the growing threat posed by gangsters and urges the public to pressure their legislators to do something about the marauding mobsters who will destroy America with their bootlegging and violence.

The film also features the Fourth Estate (it feels tacked on), with local newspapermen (no women in those days) wondering if their crime coverage glorifies and sentimentalizes characters like Tony and his ilk, turning them into sexy anti-heroes who then become role models to the impressionable young. Eighty-six years down the pike, those views still resonate: characters talking about illegal gun sales that move weaponry across state lines and equating criminality with unwelcome immigrants. Back then it was Italian immigrants, Tony Camonte, whose greenhorn cohorts all speak with accents right out of the Jerry Lewis playbook and have no flesh-and-blood existence outside the realm of caricature.

De Palma’s vision is humanistic and his Tony is more complexly imagined. Within parameters, Tony has a moral compass. He’s a murderer but will not harm children. He was a street thug in Cuba but also imprisoned and tortured under Castro’s brutal regime. Still, it’s ambiguous as to whether he’s a genuine political refugee seeking asylum, as he claims. One assumes he’s improvising, but then again maybe not.

De Palma places him in a historical context. Montana arrives in Miami as part of the Marisol boatlift, which brought close to 125,000 Cuban refugees to the States during a four-month period in 1980. Hundreds of these refugees were indeed mental patients and criminals whom Castro was happy to dump. Still, the image of a Hispanic immigrant drug-dealer was controversial when the film came out and is an even greater lightning rod today, made all the worse by the casting of an Italian-American actor as the lead, terrific though he is.

One throwback—and it’s a thematic thread running through the Hawks and De Palma films—is the law-abiding, ethical families from which these hooligans emerge. The families, most pointedly the moms, are set up as contrasts. The mammas are mortified and enraged by their sons’ criminality. Each mother throwing Tony out of the house, each agonizing over the misery he brings wherever he goes. They remind the audience that the vast majority of immigrants are wholesome, hard-working citizens who have no truck with malign and illegal behavior. Tony is the anomaly in his culture. The need to reiterate the point has not died. The long-suffering Madonna mom also lingers.

The girlfriend—Elvira (Pfeiffer) in 1983 and Poppy (Karen Morley) in 1932—and her evolution turn expectation on its head. In 1932, Poppy is a feisty, sexy gal who makes her needs known, while Elvira, in her prime at the height of the women’s movement, is a drug-addicted, sexually objectified creature devoid of agency. One wonders if she should be viewed through a feminist lens or the lack thereof. She’s obviously a more complicated character.

To digress—or maybe it’s right on point—when Kornbluth asked Pfeiffer how much weight she lost for the role, the audience jeered and booed. The question focused attention on the actress’ body. Now consider Vincent Canby’s 1983 New York Times review, which wouldn’t see the light of print if he had written it today. He describesElvira as “a silky blonde junkie played by Michelle Pfeiffer, a beautiful young actress without a bad—or even an awkward—camera angle to her entire body.” Sexist perhaps, but it’s an on-target observation about a character whose physical allure—conforming to conventional notions of beauty—is central to the story. It’s hard to fathom Tony attracted to quirky looks, though it might make for an interesting twist. (Now there’s a new facet of his personality that could be explored in a reboot.)

Speaking of retreads, a larger question is how it might handle the incestuous relationship between Tony and his sister (Ann Dvorak in ’32, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio in ’83) that bordered on gothic camp even 35 years ago. Tony eyeing his kid sister with lust, not to mention their over-the-top dual deaths, is cringe-worthy, eliciting gasps and giggles. What was the spirit in which De Palma incorporated those scenes? In all fairness, 50 years earlier it may well have been daring to even broach the topic of incest, however coarsely off-kilter those portrayals may feel now.

The preachy tone that belies Hawks’ film is also difficult to swallow today. So too is De Palma’s morality tale, though it’s a hell of a lot of fun, culminating with Pacino in the interminable throes of death, twisting this way and that while bellowing in anguish, “I’m still standing!” as endless bullets in succession explode into his body.  The choreography is peerless and the coda hokey beyond belief, yet like its forerunner (at least in part) as timely as it is retro. A modest proposal: Release both films together.