Scarface

One of the most powerful moments in Scarface is the culmination of a violent, perfectly judged sequence of events crafted for maximum impact by screenwriter Oliver Stone and staged with ferocious efficiency by director Brian De Palma. It takes place at the end of a night when Al Pacino’s Cuban gangster, a feisty little hard-on named Tony Montana, has survived an attempt on his life that left him with a bullet in his shoulder. He has overseen the execution of his boss, who was behind the hit. He has shot dead a corrupt cop who was extorting his cash and favours. And he has just been upstairs to collect from between satin sheets his boss’s woman, a sleek blonde dressed in white who is his prize. The camera zooms out from a medium close-up on Pacino’s face as, still bleeding, arm in a sling, exhaustion writ large across his face, Tony Montana peers through 20-foot-tall glass windows, staring dumbly into a Giorgio Moroder sunrise as an advertising blimp floats over the water, its pithy slogan an empty promise of greatness yet to come: “The World Is Yours….”

The film fades out, and I imagine that even the dimmest wit watching detects the irony on screen: Tony Montana’s greatest triumph, his arrival at the highest level of cocaine society circa 1983, plays ominously. For one thing, there’s soundtrack composer Moroder’s “Tony’s Theme” swelling up in a minor key, sounding more like a funeral march than like a victory anthem. For another, there’s De Palma’s framing of Tony, small amidst his surroundings, his future wife barely visible above and behind him, gathering her things on the second floor. And it’s a rare glimpse of Tony, who’s usually wheeling and dealing or conspiring with his one-man entourage, Manny Ribera (Steven Bauer), standing by himself. Instead of considering a future rich with sex, drugs, and salsa cubana, the haggard Montana here gazes onto the Pacific like a man confronting the abyss, wondering, perhaps, how it feels to have nowhere to go but down.

The first time I watched this cursed drama unfold, my 15-year-old face was about 18 inches away from a 13-inch Toshiba tube TV tuned to HBO, volume dialled way down so nobody else in the house would hear the screams and gunfire and fuck yous emanating from my bedroom. That fade to black occurs exactly 103 minutes into a 170-minute movie full of grandeur and devastation in equal measures. If you’re watching Scarface, you’re rooting–in spite of yourself–for Tony Montana, Al Pacino’s spirited updating of the maniacal Paul Muni character from the Howard Hawks original. Montana may be a drug dealer, a violent opportunist, and an egomaniac, but his personality is magnetic. Lacking the usual filter between his brain and his mouth, Montana lets fly with stream-of-consciousness invective and profane one-liners that might seem de rigueur in an era where every other screen thug takes charm lessons from Quentin Tarantino, but were derided as scandalous by establishment critics on the film’s release.

The violence, too, was the subject of moralizing screeds, though that’s just another way that Scarface forces audience identification with Tony early on. Barely 20 minutes in, there’s a lurid, tense scene where Tony is held captive in a drug deal that rapidly devolves into shouting and chainsaw murder. The sequence is so grossly tawdry and horrifying that Tony earns sympathy merely by surviving the confrontation. If Tony’s a bad man, his competitors are monsters. (Only among the drug-runners of Miami Beach circa 1981 could Tony Montana come across as reasonable and principled.) Moreover, Tony Montana’s threadbare origin story–he’s one of thousands of criminals loaded, along with legitimate Cuban refugees, onto boats bound for Miami by Fidel Castro’s government in 1980–allows him to claim a bare patch of moral high ground. He breaks into the Miami crime scene as a hit man, agreeing to assassinate a Cuban Communist he perceives to be a pawn of the hated Castro. Stone’s scenarios key us into the kill-or-be-killed drug underground from Tony’s point-of-view, while De Palma’s elaborate-verging-on-ornate camerawork enhances the suspense we feel when he’s in danger.

Tony starts working for second-string crime boss Omar (F. Murray Abraham), then curries favour with kingpin Frank Lopez (Robert Loggia), who sees him as a potentially useful but naive asset. The mistake they both make is to underestimate Tony’s ambition. One of the film’s many darkly comic moments comes when Lopez’s coveted wife, Elvira (Michelle Pfeiffer), cracks that Frank’s love of routine makes him an easy target. Frank responds, with mock innocence and a cheesy grin, “Who the hell would want to kill me?” De Palma cuts immediately to a reverse angle on an unsmiling Pacino, who quickly eyes Frank and then Pfeiffer, solving the world’s easiest logic problem inside his head.

Contrary to some readings of the film, Tony does not betray Frank. He only makes his move after his boss turns on him. Stone has written Montana as a talented and loyal truth-teller among schemers and back-stabbers, and De Palma mostly opts to embrace, rather than criticize, his crude code of conduct. But once he’s sated by an all-you-can-eat buffet of sex and power, Tony loses the edge that being hungry gave him. Roughly the film’s final third depicts Tony’s descent into impotent self-satisfaction, motoring the picture towards a conclusion that sees him perched on a gaudy throne behind a desk piled with inches-high mounds of cocaine, the better for him to pitch into, face-first, like a fat man at a pie-eating contest. That’s grand, funny stuff. Yet Scarface stumbles elsewhere in its second half. Sent to manage an assassination outside the U.N. building in New York City, Tony balks when the target’s wife and children get in the way, derailing the hit. “No women, no kids” is a weak moral defense for a drug lord, and this semi-political intrigue is a bizarre side-trip for Scarface. It’s a convenient, last-ditch mechanism through which Montana asserts his humanity in comparison to the bastards he travels with. His refusal to play along leads directly to his death, but it’s hard to buy Tony as a drug lord with a heart of gold, hobbled by an inability to be ruthless enough.

Truly slapdash is the subplot involving Tony’s weird fixation on the sexual purity of his kid sister, Gina (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio). She drifts in and out of the narrative; in one nightclub-set scene, Tony traumatizes her by beating the hell out of her date in the men’s room. Her final appearance, after Tony has gone too far in his quest to protect her, comes as part of what may as well be Tony’s cocaine-addled fever dream: Semi-nude, she advances on him with a pistol drawn, his own private Rosebud returned from his past to rob him of the notion of lost innocence she represents. I enjoyed the pulpiness of the visual, which plays directly to De Palma’s strengths as an orchestrator of psychosexual nightmares, but Gina, like Elvira, is a purely one-dimensional character.

The film’s final minutes, depicting an overwhelming siege on the Montana compound by a fighting force of hired killers packing the firepower and know-how of a Special Forces unit, are nonetheless extraordinary. Montana meets the assault with thrilling bluster and rage. It’s not so much that he refuses to surrender as that he never once seems to realize that his fight is not simply unwinnable, but already lost. Especially in these coked-up climactic moments, Pacino’s performance is a thing of rude brilliance, an intense, occasionally risible, circus-act caricature that’s simultaneously paralyzing and dizzying in its spun-out audacity. It’s unfortunate that the story and screenplay never quite mesh with De Palma’s strengths; you can feel in the bones of its set-pieces a bit of the old tug-of-war between Stone’s what-it-means-to-be-a-man overtures and De Palma’s leanings towards Grand Guignol. The levelheaded Dave Kehr described Scarface on its release as “De Palma’s first attempt at a ‘serious’ film,” which is not just a backhanded dismissal of the man’s career to that date but also a good example of how the film was misconstrued by critics who were expecting hard-boiled as opposed to fully ripened. Oliver Stone may well have had the measured sobriety of The Godfather in mind, but Brian De Palma was making a pulpy thriller.

Over the decades, of course, Scarface has more than held its own–it is, arguably, De Palma’s best-loved film. That’s a Pyrrhic victory for a director who stood accused of making movies that were technically precise but emotionally shallow, because despite its strengths, Scarface tends to bolster, instead of mitigate, the critical rap against him. Scarface is morally vapid by necessity if not necessarily by design, and though I think there’s meaning in that emptiness–a general takedown of American Dream capitalism appears to have been on Oliver Stone’s mind, while De Palma has hinted that Tony’s conspicuous consumption is partly reflective of profligate Hollywood lifestyles of the period–it’s hard to argue that the picture’s greatest appeal isn’t pure sensation.

You’ll hear some observers tut-tutting over it even now, worrying at its adoption by rap artists whom they fear glorify Tony’s life because they haven’t processed the movie’s presumed anti-drug message. But glorification is the reason for the film’s existence. Gangsta rappers saw in Scarface the same thing a dumb white kid like me saw–the opportunity to experience life vicariously through the eyes of an uncompromising kingpin–but also more. In this film, Pacino was in the same business they were, creating larger-than-life shit-talkers who regale anyone within earshot with tales of their exploits on the mean streets. Surely they identified with the movie as a cautionary tale as well, taking to heart the moral that life is short and the good life shorter still. The most bellicose rap can have mournful underpinnings, and Scarface, like Citizen Kane before it, is a warning that time catches up to even accomplished men. Their protagonists may be living large, but Scarface and gangsta rap have the same measured sadness about them. It’s the feeling, hard to shake, that death waits around the next corner.

Universal’s new Blu-ray of Scarface is something of a mixed bag. On the one hand, it’s about time the film’s fans got an excuse to revisit it–five years have passed since the most recent DVD reissue–and the HD upgrade is welcome. Unfortunately, the image quality of this 2.35:1, VC-1 encode is a little uneven. Many shots are beautiful, especially daylight exteriors, which tend to retain abundant detail under a comfortable patina of grain. Low-light shots often have a harsher, processed look, as though they were degrained and artificially sharpened. Further, I suspect blacks may have been crushed too aggressively across the board, perhaps in an effort to reduce the amount of noise dancing in those darker patches. A comparison between the Blu-ray presentation and the old, letterboxed transfer excerpted in some of the older bonus material shows that some detail is missing in the blacks of this particular transfer. I’d expect a film print to reveal that much more.
The default English 7.1 DTS-HD MA mix is surprisingly robust for a track from a 1983 film, but a comparison with the lossy DTS 2.0 stereo alternative reveals significant differences in the sound effects. (The back cover of the 2006 DVD, where the new mix apparently originated, touted this as a feature: “Every sound effect has been replaced and remixed for the ultimate Scarface experience.” The Blu-ray case doesn’t mention it.) In almost every way, the 7.1 version is the technically superior sonic experience, delivering much more accurate gunfire and a broader soundstage that changes the feel of the score and songs. Then again, only the 2.0 track accurately reflects the picture’s theatrical release, so purists may prefer its rawer but more lively dialogue channel and much noisier rat-a-tat SFX. I’m not sure which track I would opt to turn on for another viewing, so Universal gets points for including both.

Supplements are plentiful, but mostly borrowed from previous DVD and LaserDisc releases of the film by extras impresario (and longtime De Palma fan) Laurent Bouzereau, who returned for this go-round. The most efficient approach is probably to re-watch the entire movie with “Picture in Picture” selected. (Universal’s contrived U-Control feature meanwhile gives you the useless option of seeing an on-screen tally of the number of times fuck is uttered, or the number of gunshots fired.) Various bits of ephemera appear in the secondary picture window as the film plays back—interviews, alternate line readings, clips from the edited-for-TV version of the film and the 1932 Scarface. Although the PiP content overlaps substantially with other extras on the disc, it also comprises material that does not surface elsewhere.

That means completists have to watch everything else here, too. The three-part, new-to-Blu “The Scarface Phenomenon” amounts to 39 minutes of talking-head footage plus clips in 1080p HD. It’s a decent sit, concentrating on the film’s impact over the years on some Hollywood notables, although a few of the choices of interviewees are head-scratchers. (Jillian Barberie Reynolds, anyone?) De Palma, producer Martin Bregman, and actors Steven Bauer, Robert Loggia, and Angel Salazar all participate, as do Julie Salamon (author of The Devil’s Candy, the book-length making-of devoted to De Palma’s ill-fated The Bonfire of the Vanities), Ken Tucker, Keith Gordon (star of De Palma’s Dressed to Kill), Antoine Fuqua, and Eli Roth, who surprises no one with his claim that he saw Scarface 56 times in seventh grade. My favourite moment finds De Palma observing that Tony Montana’s mounds of cocaine were nothing unusual by hard-partying studio-executive standards. “Please,” he says, with just the hint of an eye-roll.

If you want to hear what Pacino has to say, you’ll have to peruse the three SD-only featurettes, which are reworked from the documentary Bouzereau created for the 1996 Signature Collection LaserDisc. Titled “Rebirth” (10 mins.), “Acting” (15 mins.), and “Creating” (30 mins.), these segments are the most information-rich material on offer. The disc also features a funny three-minute piece on “Scarface: The TV Version,” as well as 22 minutes’ worth of inessential deleted scenes that will be familiar to anyone who’s seen the LD. A Digital Copy is provided as a download, and the disc supports the Pocket BLU second-screen app. Additionally, a DVD of the Howard Hawks Scarface is slotted into this “Limited Edition,” and it looks and sounds as you’d expect, given the film’s vintage.

Scarface fans can stop right there, because the rest is pocket lint. A condescending documentary titled “The World Is Yours: The World of Tony Montana” (12 mins., SD) dates to the 2006 Platinum Edition DVD and trots out DEA-agent types along with editors from Maxim and XXL, who pander to their perceived audiences. Another 12 minutes are given over to the bland, out-of-date videogame featurette “Scarface: The World Is Yours: Making the Game.” The steelbook packaging contains postcard-size reproductions of fan art that won an Internet design contest.

In a Similar Vein (related by tags)

Leave a Reply