Does Scarface Deserve Its Lofty Reputation?
Written By Michael Goth
In nearly 29 years, Brian De Palma’s ultra-violent gangster epic Scarface has gone from a critically panned, moderate hit to a pop- culture institution. People who were not even born in December 1983 when the film was initially released can quote Oliver Stone’s screenplay word for word. The special edition DVD released on the film’s 20th anniversary went on to be one of the biggest sellers of all time. I’ve always felt that the film gets a bit more attention than it should, however.
Unless you’ve spent the last nearly 30 years living in oblivion I’ll assume that you know what Scarface is about. However, if you don’t Scarface is a brash and blood soaked tale about Tony Montana (Al Pacino), a member of the Cuban crime wave who arrives in Miami in the spring of 1980 and in about a year rises to be the biggest and most deadliest drug dealer in town. However, Tony fails to follow the advice of his first employer Frank Lopez (Robert Loggia) in the narcotics business to “not get high on your own supply.” Tony soon spirals down into a drug induced existence which makes him little more than a walking zombie. By the end of the film Tony and almost everyone associated with him, including his best friend Manny (Steven Bauer) and kid sister Gina (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), are dead.
Scarface is a good movie. In fact, it’s a very good movie. However, does it truly deserve the lofty reputation that it has gained over the last three decades? For me Scarface has always been to Brian De Palma what Psycho is to Alfred Hitchcock. Psycho is the film most associated with the late great master but I think any true Hitchcock fan regards Vertigo as his masterpiece. I know that very few, if any, of Brian De Palma’s legion of followers regard Scarface as his greatest film. Personally, I can think of four Brian De Palma films that are more deserving of this honor: 1980’s Dressed to Kill, 1981’s Blow Out, 1984’s Body Double and 1987’s The Untouchables.
If you’ve seen The Twilight Zone episode “The Mirror” with Peter Falk’s performance as a Castro like dictator, you’ll probably recall how over the top Falk’s performance was. It’s like Falk knew that an Italian could never be convincing as a Cuban so he decided to simply have fun with the part and play it almost like a parody. Pacino does exactly the same thing with his performance as Tony Montana. Pacino is brilliant in the role but like De Palma, Scarface is not his greatest work. His portrait of Michael Corleone on the original Godfather certainly ranks higher in my opinion. Quite possibly his role as Sonny in Dog Day Afternoon, as well. Still, Pacino has fun with Tony Montana and we have fun watching him.
Scarface and Tony Montana are admired by legions of hip-hop artists who are inspired by Montana’s rise from a dishwasher to a drug kingpin. Though most of them seemed to have failed to notice that Tony and his posse are all dead by the end of the film. Tony is an example of a person not to be like and in many ways Scarface is an anti-drug film.
Tony Montana’s image can be found anywhere from posters to t-shirts to coffee mugs. The film’s dialogue is some of the most quoted in film history. Though the screenplay by Oliver Stone is probably the films’ greatest weakness and for a movie from Brian De Palma, Scarface is a little on the talky side. Stone’s often silly dialogue (“You know what capitalism is? ‘Get fucked!’”) would have sounded absurd coming from an actor of lesser talent then Al Pacino. However, some of the movie’s more memorable slogans like “Say hello to my L’l Fren!” and “The world is yours “can be heard anywhere from college campuses to shopping malls.
Where Scarface excels is as great slice of early 80’s pop culture. I can think of no other film with the possible exception of Flashdance that so perfectly captures this era. Like Ronald Reagan, Tony Montana was a big fan of capitalism and greed. If Tony had lived I’m sure he would have voted for Reagan over Walter Mondale in the 1984 presidential race. The music by Giorgio Moroder (who also wrote the score any many of the songs for Flashdance) is a perfect backdrop for Brian De Palma’s stylish, operatic style and Al Pacino’s tour-de-force performance.
Though Scarface is not the greatest achievement of either its director or star, it’s a great piece of entertainment and a realistic look at the decade of excess and greed and it’s a film that will no doubt be watched and enjoyed for years to come.
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