Sunday, July 12, 2009


An oft-repeated criticism of 'Scarface' is its portrayal of Cubans. Which is kind of laughable given the American government's attitude towards Cuba. I don't really think there's much American film-makers can do to compound the insult. Nonetheless, it's an easy criticism to understand. Opening with a news footage montage showing the boat people arriving in the US, title cards inform us that of the quarter of a million refugees who left Cuba in 1980, an estimated 25,000 had criminal records.

It's swiftly insinuated that Tony Montana (Al Pacino) counts for one of them. Detained, along with his friend Manny (Steven Bauer) at the ironically-named Freedomland (a refugee camp situated beneath an underpass), Tony embraces the American dream by undertaking a hit on a political dissident in return for a green card. Oh, and a job. If you can call sweating over a greasy stove in a burger van a job. Needless to say, Tony and Manny soon investigate career opportunities outside of the catering industry.

Omar Suarez (F. Murray Abraham), number two to paunchy mob boss Frank Lopez (Robert Loggia), gives them a taste of the criminal underworld - both its dangers (Tony is almost eviscerated by a chainsaw when his contact on his first job pulls a double-cross) and its rewards. One of the rewards is that a balding declasse middle-aged guy with a fake tan and a lot of bling gets the svelte, smart-mouthed and sexily contemptuous Elvira (Michelle Pfeiffer) on his arm. Tony decides he wants what Frank has. Particularly Elvira.

Tony strengthens his powerbase after Frank sends him and Omar to lay the groundwork for a deal with Bolivian drug lord Alejandro Sosa (Paul Shenar). Sosa recognises Omar as a stool pigeon and has him taken care of. Sensing he can trust Tony, Sosa makes the deal directly with him. This doesn't go over too well with Frank, who decides Tony's becoming a liability.

The key scene for me - and one of de Palma's trademark set-pieces - takes place in a nightclub. Plot points and narrative developments converge in such a cluster it's surprising one of the staff doesn't show them over to a table of their own. One near the stage. That way they could enjoy the cavortings of Octavio the Clown, though they'd have to scoot out the way PDQ as soon as the shoot-out starts. But I'm getting ahead of myself ...

Tony and Manny show up, the former not impressed to see his sister Gina (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) enjoying a bit of the old bump and grind with some greasy lowlife, the latter not impressed that he's not the object of said bumping and grinding (Manny's hots for Tony's sister is something that has serious ramifications later on). When Gina's bit of rough leads her off to the toilets for a quick fumble and a line of coke (classy guy!), Tony sees red. His mood is already tense after a conversation with bent cop Mel Bernstein (Harris Yulin) who wants monthly payoffs from Tony and his holidays paid for. Then Frank and Elvira turn up, the latter unresponsive (as yet) to Tony's attentions and there's an altercation.

So we've had, in one ten minute scene, the Tony/Gina/Gina's boyfriend situation, the simmering Gina/Manny tension, the Tony/Bernstein issue, the unresolved Tony/Elvira tension, and the Tony/Frank stand-off. Throw into the mix the two gunmen waiting for the spotlight to drift away from Octavio's performance and light up Tony's table ...

De Palma's camera navigates the nightclub, and the intricacies of the scene, with effortless panache. In a film that has more than its share of set-pieces - the aforementioned business with the chainsaw, Tony's settling of the score with Frank, the abortive hit Tony undertakes at Sosa's behest, the 'Wild Bunch'-style shoot-out at Tony's mansion - this is a stand-out both technically and in terms of advancement of narrative. It's after Tony survives the ensuing gunplay that his ruthless ambition really drives him forward; ten minutes later, we're in montage territory, hundred dollar bills whizzing through a counting machine, Elvira on Tony's arm, vans pulling up in front of a bank and tough guys in sharp suits hauling bulking sacks of currency inside. All cut to Giorgio Morodor's pumped-up score.

And from here, 'Scarface' enters the downward curve of its narrative arc. If 'Little Caesar' is perhaps cinema's first rise-and-fall gangster epic (albeit shoehorned into 77 minutes), then 'Scarface' is one of its fullest expositions, the narrative arc charted across a properly epic running time of two and three quarter hours.

'Scarface' blew me away the first time I saw it, in my late teens. Everything about it was big: its length, the performances, the production design, the verbal outbursts (particularly Pacino's "take a look at the bad guy" rant in an upmarket restaurant) and the violence. I watched the video quite a few times in my twenties. I picked up the DVD as part of a Pacino box set recently and this afternoon is the first time I've seen it in maybe a decade. It's still a hell of movie, for all of the reasons mentioned. But it's an empty one. All surface: glossy and immediate and superficial. Which is kind of the point - the theme is moral bankrupcy, and de Palma achieves some 'Citizen Kane'-style images of his protagonist alone by his own actions in a mansion filled with very expensive but worthless things - but the bravura staging of the final massacre (with its all-together-now iconic line "say hello to my little friend") strives to make a martyr of Tony Montana. Unlike Henry Hill in 'Goodfellas', he doesn't get to live out the rest of his life like a shmuck - he gets to be the messiah of movie violence, instead, only defeated when someone shoots him in the back; the poster boy for everything de Palma and writer Oliver Stone were meant to be criticising.

"First you get the money, then you get the power," Tony declares soon after he and Manny get their start with Frank, opining that it's only after these two achievements that you get the women; "that's the way it works in this country." From the outset, Tony's vision of America is as a big fat dollar sign waiting for him to grab a chunk of it. The blimp he sees shortly after taking over Frank's operation - the message "THE WORLD IS YOURS" blinking out in huge letters - is at once his mission statement, his epitaph and the big lie he fell for.

A film criticised for its depiction of Cubans? As much as 'Scarface' can be said to be about anything, it's about how the American dream, no matter how villainous those who pursue it, is always the bigger bad guy.


Unknown said...

SCARFACE plays quite a bit on cable TV here so I've watched it in bits and pieces a few times in the past month and it still captivates me. It is such a vulgar, materialistic film - intentionally so, I believe - but also an incredibly engrossing one. It really is a fascinating snapshot of the times, a time capsule of Miami in the 1980s.

Have you ever played the video game? It is basically a sequel that posits, what if Tony survived the shoot-out at the end? The guy they got to do Pacino's voice is quite good and it's fun to run around as Tony blowing away things and stealing drugs all to the film's soundtrack.

Neil Fulwood said...

Funny you should mention the game, my wife bought it me for a birthday present in April. Work, blogging and a million other things have prevented me from playing it yet, but I think I might give it a go now. You'll know when I get into it - productivity on the blog will drop to one article a month!

Unknown said...

"You'll know when I get into it - productivity on the blog will drop to one article a month!"

Heh, yeah, I know the feeling. I'm resisting getting the GHOSTBUSTERS video game for that very same reason.

Meeg said...

Aah, every coke fiends favorite movie ;)

I've watched Scarface more recently than Carlito's Way so it's sharper in my memory.

I loved the scene in the restaurant you mentioned. I think it really showed not only how Tony was losing it, but also how both he and Michelle Pfieffer's character had such sad, empty lives.

And you mentioned his sister Gina: what about Tony's crazy insistence that she wasn't allowed to date or go out (did he want to shut her up in a nunnery?). And that at the very end, when he's out of his mind on drugs I guess, his obsession with Gina crosses the line and become physical.

My only big complaint are all the bad Hispanic accents (how about when he's talking to Sosa in South America, why aren't they speaking to each other in Spanish?), but it's still a good, memorable movie.

Unknown said...

As a cuban I can tell you that this movie teaches ignorance to the already ignorant especially about anything Cuban. If you really want the real story on Miami Cubans watchclips or even episodes of Que Pasa Usa on the web, YouTube, or Netflix. It actually stars one of Al Pacino' costars in the movie but here his character is more authentic to Miami Cubanism which is actually very middle class unlike the Macho thug fantasy of tbis movie that to me has succeeded in spreading ignorance about the Miami Cuban community. I know that well traveled people know better but I'm thinking about a kid in Iowa whose never off the farm or a kid in East L A who doesn't know anything outside of the barrio.