“He was Tony Montana. The world will remember him by another name…SCARFACE.”
Director: Brian De Palma
Cast: Al Pacino, Michelle Pfeiffer, Steven Bauer
Synopsis: In 1980 Miami, a determined Cuban immigrant takes over a drug cartel while succumbing to greed.
The glorification of the gangster has a long and ignoble history in American cinema dating back more than a hundred years to D. W. Griffith’s The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912). It first reached its height in the 1930s when the Hays Code insisted that no crime went unpunished, but unwisely said nothing about how glamorously the bad guys could be depicted before receiving that punishment. Actors like Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney, aggressive and pugnacious, thrived in the milieu, and seemingly won the admiration of an entire nation. The performance given by Al Pacino as Tony Montana, the megalomaniac anti-hero of Brian de Palma’s Scarface, echoes those of Cagney at his peak — but with an audacious Cuban accent and a swaggering confidence that appeals as much as it repels. Until, that is, the paranoia that seems to be an unavoidable accessory to an excess of success starts to kick in…
Montana arrives on the shores of Miami in 1980, a Cuban prisoner expelled from his native country and placed on a boat with honest refugees seeking a better life in the States. His claim to be a political refugee cuts no ice with the border police, but Montana, along with his friend Manolo (Steven Bauer), wins his freedom from the refugee camp in which they are placed by murdering a fellow refugee who happens to be a real political prisoner. Out on the streets, it’s not long before Montana and Manolo are employed by drugs kingpin Frank Lopez (Robert Loggia) after they impress him by emerging from a particularly violent drugs deal with both the drugs and the money. While working for Lopez, Montana meets his boss’s girlfriend, Elvira (Michelle Pfeiffer); blonde, slim, elegant — she represents one more piece of the American Dream Montana desires so badly.
It’s not long before Montana’s drive and ambition lead him to branch out on his own, setting in motion a chain of events which sees him surviving an assassination attempt commissioned by Lopez and exacting justice of his own on his former boss. With Lopez out of the way, it isn’t long before Montana has claimed Elvira for himself, and he oversees a rapid expansion of his empire in partnership with the Bolivian drugs manufacturer Sosa (Paul Shenar).
Scarface is all about Pacino. The movie would be nowhere near as effective without him at its heart, investing his character with a manic energy which is exhausting to watch at times. His performance is sometimes criticised for being over the top, but then the character he portrays is one who is necessarily over the top. Montana is essentially an empty vessel, driven by the capitalist dream of wealth and power, filled with a violent bravado borne out of the necessity to be more reckless and unpredictable than his rivals. And yet writer Oliver Stone (who was battling his own cocaine addiction when he wrote this) invites the audience’s admiration for and identification with Montana in much the same way that the writers of the 1930s used to. Montana is his own man, who has succeeded against the odds without relying upon or asking for the help of others. He’s a model of resourcefulness and ingenuity who puts his animal cunning to use in a vicious multi-million dollar industry that is unforgiving of failure.
Stone is careful to ensure we never see Montana killing anyone who doesn’t ‘deserve’ their fate. Apart from his first victim in the refugee camp, whom Montana murders for his own survival and in retribution for the oppressive Communist regime under which he was imprisoned, his victims have all tried to kill or harm him in some way. Despite his increasingly drug-addled condition, he draws the line at murdering innocent women and children, even though doing so will ensure he doesn’t go to prison. He’s crude, boorish and cruel, but he is a man of principles of a kind.
Like the 1932 movie of the same name on which it is loosely based, Scarface devotes a good portion of screen time to the relationship between Montana and his sister Gina (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), but this is by far the weakest strand of the plot. We first meet Gina at her mother’s modest family home, and there is no hint given in this establishing scene of the promiscuous behaviour that will prove so important later on. When we next meet Gina she is drunkenly dancing in a nightclub (and, if anything, it’s those nightclub scenes that really date this movie) with a rival mobster and about to snort coke in the gents before Montana breaks up her little party. That leap from her first scene to second is a gargantuan one that really takes you out of the film. In fact, the whole Gina sub-plot feels as if it’s told in a kind of Reader’s Digest condensed version.
The other criticism regularly levelled at Scarface is the amount of graphic violence it contains. Well, guess what? It’s a movie about gangsters, set in the vicious, dog-eat-dog world of drug smuggling. These guys are hardly likely to be pelting each other with snowballs. Just try watching the version edited for network TV and you’ll soon realise how unwatchable an attempt to sanitise the action is.
De Palma films the movie with an energy and verve which matches Tony Montana’s, and Scarface benefits from a wealth of talent in supporting roles. Michelle Pfeiffer as Elvira, Lopez’s, and then Montana’s trophy girlfriend, projects a kind of lost indifference to her life that would be heart-breaking if it wasn’t barely visible beneath her icy veneer. She disappears a little abruptly from the tale, leaving us to wonder about her fate, which could go either way. Robert Loggia also scores as Lopez, a mobster who just isn’t quite tough and ruthless enough to withstand Montana’s increasing strength. It has to be said, though, that F. Murray Abraham, in his pre-Salieri days, appears to be miscast as one of Lopez’s henchman.
(Reviewed 1st April 2013)