It’s not often that a Brian De Palma film has dialogue that becomes part of pop-culture lore. This isn’t to say that his films aren’t commercially or artistically successful, simply that De Palma primarily expresses himself visually. While The Untouchables has its fair share of quotable lines (courtesy of David Mamet), it’s the dialogue from Scarface that’s endlessly repeated (preferably with a heavy Cuban accent), as affected by Al Pacino as the ruthless small-timer Tony Montana, who rises rapidly to the top of the underworld. He gets the money, the power, and the woman (Elvira, played by Michelle Pfeiffer) that he desires, but it’s not long before he just as quickly falls from on high, in spectacular style. Aside from the now-famous lines, Scarface is also remembered for other reasons: the huge amount of swearing; the graphic violence (particularly the chainsaw murder), the mountain of cocaine that Tony buries his face in (the perfect symbol of destructive excess and oblivion), and the climatic “Made it, Ma! Top of the world”-style gun battle, to name but a few.
It’s therefore surprising to think that this hugely popular and highly influential update of Howard Hawks’s classic Scarface met with howls of criticism when it was originally released. Remaking a Hawks film may have seemed sacrilegious at the time, but this Scarface remake is vastly superior to the majority of recent updates of classic films and TV shows. Instead of an actor, director, and screenwriter working on autopilot, Scarface has the impressive filmmaking triumvirate of De Palma, Stone, and Pacino. This combination of talent in front of and behind the camera must have had the executives at Universal eagerly anticipating another Godfather-style epic; a tasteful and sober examination of organised crime and the Miami cocaine business, and a film that would bring in big bucks and gain critical kudos. The result, though, wasn’t a subtle dissection of gangster life, but the equivalent of a bloodstained and bullet-riddled body, with De Palma and his crew ripping the guts out of the gangster movie and leaving the result on the operating table for all to see.
Scarface presents us with a tacky, gaudy, sleazy world, where billboards and murals depict a paradise of sunsets and palm trees (a “fake paradise” look that’s carried over into Body Double and reappears in Snake Eyes), which hides the ugly reality of the drug world, and eventually serves as a backdrop for violence and murder. Although the combination of gangsters, guns, and cocaine promises a rapid-fire pace with flashy camera moves to match, this is one of De Palma’s most visually restrained films. The camera often drifts slowly into scenes from above and picks out characters, or starts in close-up on an object and pulls out into a wide shot. But the languid camera moves are deceptive, slowly luring us into a world full of flamboyant characters who express themselves through aggressive talk and violent action. The sunlit streets and disco nightclubs (backed up by Giorgio Moroder’s electronic score, reinforcing the artificiality of the film’s world) suck these gullible characters into a corrosive capitalist nightmare that will consume and destroy them.
Although the film depicts a nightmarish world, it’s also very funny. There’s the “Fuck you!” “Fuck you!” one-upmanship between Tony and Omar (F. Murray Abraham), Tony telling a little kid on the beach to watch as the mafioso’s friend Manny (Steven Bauer) gets slapped by a girl, and Tony wearing Elvira’s sun hat (leading to a burst of laughter from Pfeiffer). But alongside the humor there are elements of horror. When Tony’s bloodied hand reaches into frame and rests on a sleeping Elvira, it’s like a beast rousing his beauty, or the Phantom of the Paradise getting his Phoenix. But the monstrous Tony also has a code of honor, an example being the moment when he refuses to blow up a car with children inside—an agonisingly suspenseful scene that was recently echoed in Spielberg’s Munich, and is a nod to Hitchcock’s Sabotage). This fateful decision precipitates Tony’s downfall: as frequently happens in De Palma’s unforgiving film world, if a character suddenly acquires a conscience, they’re mercifully punished for it.
Like the tiger chained up outside his mansion, Tony eventually becomes a prisoner in his own palace. He’s the ‘80s gangster equivalent of Charles Foster Kane—a demented capitalist trapped in his own Babylon, who ends up being bored, alienated, and alone. We only see Tony enjoying the high life in a brief montage sequence (the rapid scenes conveying the fleeting pleasures on offer), with the remainder of the film concerned with his slow descent into mistrust and paranoia. Tony ends up destroying himself and those he loves, including his younger sister, Gina (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), an innocent whom he swiftly corrupts. The promise (seen on the side of the Goodyear blimp) that “The World Is Yours” at first seems like a gift to Tony, but it soon becomes a millstone around his neck, and finally an ironic epitaph when he dies, with the neon sign above the fountain where he falls to his death like an engraving on a headstone.
At the beginning of Scarface, we see archive footage of Fidel Castro giving a speech and Cuban refugees arriving on boats in Florida, echoing LBJ’s appearance on TV in Greetings. But the ‘60s mix of idealism and scepticism (with De Niro and his crew in Greetings rushing around New York dodging the draft and trying to get laid) is replaced by the ‘80s business ethos (with Pacino & Co. pursuing the era’s dream of accumulating wealth at the expense of anything else). When Tony berates the social x-rays and businessmen in a fancy restaurant, we’re seeing a Bonfire of the Vanities-type saga filtered through the gangster genre. Tom Wolfe’s hefty tome may be considered the literary summing up of the “greed is good” decade, but Scarface is the cinematic equivalent: a gun-toting, coke-snorting, chainsaw-wielding, no-holds-barred epic. “Push It To The limit” goes one song in the film and De Palma wilfully obliges.