Scarface (United States, 1983)

April 08, 2009
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Scarface Poster

Upon its initial release, Scarface was savaged by many critics and suffered from tepid box office performance. Opened at the height of Oscar season with awards aspirations, it was shut out by the Academy - although it did receive three Golden Globe nominations to go along with director Brian De Palma's Worst Director Razzie nod. Cartoonish and campy, Scarface played like a pastiche of hard-core violence and unintentional parody with a profanity-laden soundtrack so saturated with fucks that rarely does more than a few seconds without the word being uttered. (There are reported to be 226 instances of its usage.) Somewhat mysteriously, the film has acquired a large enough following during the 25-plus years since its release to push it into "cult classic" territory. However, viewed today, while Scarface seems less shocking than it did during its initial theatrical run, it's no more substantive or interesting. There is limited entertainment value for those who savor over-the-top, gratuitous exploitation, but the level of quality is not such that Scarface deserves a full re-evaluation by the critical community.

Technically, Scarface is a remake of a 1932 film of the same name, although only the structural skeleton remains. The decision was made to shift the action from Depression-era Chicago to Miami around the time of the 1980 Mariel Harbor boat lift as a means to give the movie new relevance. It's interesting to note that De Palma apparently wanted to do a Chicago prohibition picture, since that's what he did four years later with The Untouchables. However, although Scarface is set in Miami, most of it was filmed in California due to opposition from the Miami tourist board.

Scarface focuses on the rise and fall of gangster Tony Montana (Al Pacino). It begins with him arriving in Miami from Cuba along with his friend, Manny (Steven Bauer). The two quickly discover that menial work doesn't suit them and they make themselves available for a "job" for boss Frank Lopez (Robert Loggia). A simple drug transaction goes wrong, but Tony and Manny escape with both the stash and the money. Frank is duly impressed although his right-hand man, the slimy Omar Suarez (F. Murray Abraham), is not. Soon, Tony is one of Frank's go-to guys, but he has aspirations of striking out on his own and not only surpassing Frank, but taking his boss' girlfriend, Elvira (Michelle Pfeiffer). Manny also has his eye on a woman, but it's his bad fortune that Gina (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) happens to be Tony's sister, and that makes her "hands off."

It's a strange thing how a miscasting can lead to an iconic performance. Pacino, who has turned in his share of powerful and forceful portrayals over the years, is so over-the-top as Tony that the character turns into a live-action cartoon character. It's the campy nature of the acting that makes Tony so memorable. Sometimes, it's as impossible to forget the really bad performances as it is the really good ones. Given Pacino's track record, one has to assume that the ham is a result of De Palma's direction. Subtlety has never been the director's hallmark, but he outdoes himself here.

Pacino is not the only miscast actor. Three prominent Cubans are played by Italian Americans, and all of them are awful. In addition to Pacino, there are Robert Loggia and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio (making her feature debut). It's hard to say whether Loggia and Mastrantonio are simply bad or whether they are undone by their accents. At least Manny is played by real Cuban Steven Bauer, although his Latino heritage doesn't compensate for the stiffness of his performance. The only one who comes through the movie relatively unscathed is Michelle Pfeiffer, who used Scarface as a stepping stone to transition from minor TV roles to a major motion picture career.

As mob tales go, this one is pretty standard, although it contains enough blood and gore to keep things lively. The ending, with the bizarre interaction between Gina and Tony followed by the bloodbath, provides Pacino at his scenery-chewing best and utterly undoes any pretensions Scarface has about being serious. The scene, which is hugely entertaining, borders on farce, and every time I watch it, I wonder if that was De Palma's intention. Does he want us to believe this is Tony going out in his vision of a blaze of glory, or is it a send-up of gangster movie endings? To this day, I'm unsure.

Amidst all the bad acting and cheesy plotting, there are some gold nuggets. The first is the infamous chainsaw scene. Some have compared what De Palma accomplishes in that sequence to what the director's hero, Alfred Hitchcock, did when Janet Leigh took a shower in Psycho. I won't go that far, but it is impressive how the scene manages to suggest X-rated violence without showing explicit carnage. The sound of the saw, some splashes of blood, and a lot of frantic fast-cutting is all that's needed to convince us we have seen something more horrific than what is before our eyes.

Another sequence that stands out is the third act restaurant scene, in which Tony realizes how pointless his life has become. Had the character been better realized and more firmly grounded, this two-minute, unbroken take would have added an element of poignancy to Tony's downfall but, even as it is, it's still effective. This man, who has fought and clawed his way to the top, discovers that the mountaintop is barren. What's left? Drugs, meaningless sex, and money - pleasures of the body but not the spirit or mind. It's a bitter comment on the "American dream." If life is given meaning by the pursuit of a goal then Tony has reached the end; the dream he chased so doggedly has turned into a nightmare. De Palma and screenwriter Oliver Stone are shrewd enough to include these themes in the movie, but the director hasn't provided surrounding material of equal quality. The ideas are good; the context is weak.

Scarface contains its share of frequently quoted lines, the most common of which is probably, "Say hello to my little friend!" However, as with Bela Lugosi's Dracula, the appeal in quoting Tony seems to be more in mimicking the accent than in repeating the actual words. Regardless of how "accurate" Pacino's accent may be, it sounds exaggerated. Tony would probably seem more real and less of a caricature if Pacino toned it down a little.

Scarface is structured around a series of mostly warped relationships. The only one approaching normalcy is the friendship between Tony and Manny, but that goes off the track toward the end. Tony never views Elvira as a woman. She's an object to be obtained and, once he gets her, he's not sure what to do with her. For her part, her vision is blinded by money and her nose is full of coke. Like all mentor/student relationships in gangster films, Tony's interaction with Frank becomes twisted by betrayal and backstabbing. Finally, there's Tony's attitude toward his sister. He has an idealized vision of Gina as a virgin princess and he's willing to kill and brutalize to keep that image intact. He would rather she be locked in a convent than consort with even the most decent man he knows. It's too bad the movie doesn't do a better job exploring the psychology of these two, because it might have made their final confrontation more credible.

Scarface is beautifully shot and edited. One area in which De Palma excels is in crafting the look of the film. Despite having only a couple of weeks to shoot in Miami, there's never any reason to question that events transpire in South Florida. Of course, since it's not a period piece, there's no trouble capturing the feel of the era. Giorgio Moroder's score emphasizes the time frame - the dated electronic music drips '80s. Some movie music is timeless. That does not apply to Scarface.

It's a little hard to understand or explain why Scarface has become ingrained in '80s pop culture. The movie does not get better with repeat viewings - if anything, it gets worse. Maybe Scarface's popularity is a result of its unabashed campiness - perhaps audiences react to that on some level. There's also the theme (although one not presented in an especially compelling manner) of the underdog slogging his way through blood and shit to reach the pinnacle, then finding there's nothing at the top and the only trajectory is down. That resonates, especially in an era of excess. Al Pacino could come back today without the accent and play Bernie Madoff. That would be Scarface without the gore. And maybe that's the key to its popularity - the style and approach may be over-the-top, but some of what the film has to say is tragically universal.

Scarface (United States, 1983)

Run Time: 2:50
U.S. Release Date: 1983-12-09
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Drugs, Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2:35:1