Thursday, 8 August 2013

Review: Scarface (1983)

Spoilers ahead!

Classic One Man Show

Almost everything about that movie is mediocre. Oliver Stone's screenplay is the ordinary, even trivial, story of the American Dream from a gangster's point of view: from a destitute Cuban emigrant to the most powerful mafia boss on the East Coast, if not in the whole country. There are some really memorable lines but they are usually diluted with, if not obliterated by, a good deal of foul language (the charming word “fuck” and its derivatives are reportedly used 226 times, although it's difficult to count all of them). Brian de Palma does have occasional shots that are singularly illuminating, even haunting (check the sequence after Frank’s death, for instance), but on the whole he is the most overrated director after Tarantino and Scorsese. Giorgio Moroder's soundtrack is a cheesy semi-trash. The supporting cast is reliable and serviceable enough, but none of the players – and these include Michelle Pfeiffer, Robert Loggia, Steven Bauer, and Mary Elisabeth Mastrantonio – has much chance of making anything memorable.

Tony Montana: the American Dream from an underworld POV.
If this movie is a classic – and it certainly is – this is solely because of Al Pacino, one of the last actors in possession of genius and charisma prodigious enough to make a whole movie (and a long one, ca. 170 min uncut) well worth watching for generations ahead. If the brash, bumptious, having tons of ''balls'' Tony Montana has become one of the most iconic characters on the screen, this is entirely due to Al Pacino's incredibly vivid portrayal of every detail from his make-up. From the Spanish accent all the way to the violent temper, everything is presented in a most compelling and convincing way. Great acting simply doesn’t get better than that. Take special notice of the following lines, sometimes delivered with breathtaking audacity, sometimes with smug calmness:

Tony [to Sosa]: All I have in this world is my balls and my word and I don't break them for no one.

Tony: The only thing in this world that gives orders... is balls. You got that?
Frank [to his men]: Let’s go.                     

[Note Tony’s preoccupation with balls.]

Tony: Me, I want what's coming to me.
Manny: Oh, well, what's coming to you?
Tony: The world, chico… and everything in it.

It is incredible that this is the same man who played the title role in The Godfather a decade or so earlier, yet it happens to be true. The cold, extremely sophisticated and highly intelligent Michael Corleone is the very antithesis of Tony Montana who is clever and shrewd, rather than intelligent and sophisticated, and flies into passion at the smallest provocation. Having created these two extremely different faces of the same coin, it is safe to say that Al Pacino has done everything there is to be done as far as mafia bosses on the screen are concerned. (Of course, The Godfather is infinitely superior to Scarface in every other aspect, but this is not the point here.)

In addition to completely overshadowing a very decent, if far from brilliant, supporting cast, the explosive Tony Montana is also the only character in which there is some sort of deeper meaning than the small talk that occupies 95% of the screenplay. There are, indeed, some lines, such as those from the embarrassing scene in the restaurant, which are almost too perceptive to be entirely in character. No matter how clouded by the torrent of obscenities or by his innate inability to express himself with words, there is an important message in Tony’s rambling:

What you lookin' at? You all a bunch of fuckin' assholes. You know why? You don't have the guts to be what you wanna be? You need people like me. You need people like me so you can point your fuckin' fingers and say, "That's the bad guy." So... what that make you? Good? You're not good. You just know how to hide, how to lie.
Nevertheless, one is bound to ask: why does Tony Montana fail? And fail he does, in the most pathetic way possible. After the world almost literally was his, he ended up with more lead in his body than it was used in the Gulf War. (Compare this with the aged Michael Corleone dying peacefully in the dusty garden of his Sicilian house.) The more simplistic explanation is probably the truer one: Tony is victim of his own temperament that knows no restraint. Perhaps, for all his cleverness, there also is some essential lack of astuteness in Tony; even though he ''knows the street'' and ''makes all the right connections'', he entirely fails to grasp that Alejandro Sosa is not somebody to screw up your business with. Then again, the rupture occurred at one of the very few instances – perhaps the only one – when Tony’s not exactly simple make-up is additionally complicated by traces of conscience. When it comes to killing women and children, he balks. This may not seem much to the faint-hearted, but in Tony’s circles it is a veritable proof of humanity.

Tony doesn't use the snowy mountains for skiing.
In a way, Tony Montana is a curiously inspiring figure, suggesting that you can achieve everything in this life – including the most important thing: freedom and opportunity to realise your personality to the full – if you have the character (or the ''balls'', to use his colourful language). And yes, it is dead true that most people simply don't have the guts to be what they want to be and have to satisfy themselves with third-rate lives rife with hypocrisies at every corner. On the other hand, if you aim at big money and unlimited power, you should keep in mind that ''balls'' may well put you at the top, but only brains may keep you there. What’s more, the higher you go, the more successful you become, the closer you get to the ultimate insanity of loneliness. Very few manage to overcome this. Tony wasn’t one of them.

Perhaps I was unfair to the supporting cast above. Of course they all pale in comparison with Pacino’s frightfully intense performance, but that can’t be helped: it’s inherent in the script. Yet there is more in Elvira, Gina, Manny and Frank. There is some superb light entertainment, for one thing, and there is, timidly peeping through the obscenity of the dialogue, some relevant commentary on human nature and the ill-suited society in which we try to imprison it.

Michelle Pfeiffer as Elvira Hancock.
The young and seductive Michelle Pfeiffer as Elvira Hancock, Tony’s wife after her former – shall we say, benefactor – was bumped off, provides some examples in both directions. In the restaurant scene mentioned above, she has a rare moment of brilliant if not very eloquent insight: “Can't you see what we're becoming, Tony? We're losers. We're not winners, we're losers.” This is both true and false. It is true because Tony is doomed by default. He just lasts longer than most, but in the end he is one of the losers; if he hadn’t been murdered, an overdose of snow would’ve killed him anyway: towards the end he was sniffing mountains of it. But it is also false because Tony lives more intensely than the vast majority of people do. In this case, he is clearly a winner, fulfilling his character to the highest degree, something unknown to most of us.

As for the light entertainment, there is plenty of sharp and saucy exchange not without humour. It is coarse, offensive and vulgar, but unless you’re a pathological prude or an arrant prig, you may find it funny. For example:

Tony: Now you're talking to me baby! That I like! Keep it coming!
Elvira: Don't call me "Baby". I'm not your "Baby".
Tony: Not yet. You gotta give me some time.

Tony: You know what your problem is?
Elvira: What's that?
Tony: You don't got nothing to do with your life. Why don't you get a job? Work with lepers. Blind kids. Anything's gotta be better than lying around all day waiting for me to fuck you.
Elvira: Don't toot your horn, honey. You're not that good.

Tony’s sense of humour is the very definition of triteness. What makes it funny is the delivery, the quaint inflections of the text and the elaborate body language. What makes it inoffensive, quite an achievement considering his vocabulary, is the attitude. Tony is always sincere and entirely devoid of self-consciousness. Perhaps his witty repartees deserve a few examples more:

Omar: Watch my back.
Tony: Better than your front, lemme tell you. Much easier to watch.

[Tony shoots Bernstein in the gut, he gasps and groans]
Bernstein: Fuck. You can't shoot a cop!
Tony: Whoever says you was one?

Frank: Hey, Tony. Remember when I told you when you first started working for me, the guys that last in this business, are the guys who fly straight. Low-key, quiet. But the guys who want it all, chicas, champagne, flash... they don't last.
Tony: [scoffs] You finished? Can I go?

Hector the Toad: You want to give me the cash, or do I kill your brother first, before I kill you?
Tony: Why don't you try sticking your head up your ass? See if it fits.

Tony: I kill a communist for fun, but for a green card, I gonna carve him up real nice.

Tony and Frank (Robert Loggia)
Robert Loggia, deeply sunburned and dressed in a dashing white suit, plays Tony’s old boss, Frank. His bluff friendliness is in many ways the biggest diversion on the screen. It’s hard to suppress a smile when he teaches Tony his own “lessons”. These include the wisdom of ages concentrated in maxims like “Don't underestimate the other guy's greed!” and “Don’t get high on your own supply.” Like all other characters, there isn’t much depth in Frank, but there is more than meets the eye. He is smart but gutless, or “ballsless” if we have to use the movie’s official language. He lacks completely Tony’s visionary flair for enterprise. There are several telling moments, easily missed in the hectic action, where Frank briefly drops the hearty laughter or the artificial grin and his face becomes permeated by insecurity and fear. The latter reaches its culmination in his death scene, such as it is, where he sinks to the bottom of humiliation, pathetically groveling and begging for his life. Even Tony is embarrassed by such total lack of dignity.

Gina (M. E. Mastrantonio) and Manny (Steven Bauer). 
Tony’s young and sultry sister, Gina (Mastrantonio), and his best buddy since the very beginning as destitute émigrés and blue-collar slaves in a fast-food restaurant, Manny (Bauer), are characters who almost reach tragic dimensions.

Gina, in particular, goes all the way from pure innocence to glamorous decadence – and back. She has her big moment in the end when, now largely out of her mind, she suggests a most plausible incestuous hypothesis why Tony should be so jealous of any man who dares to touch her, and that includes his best friend. Of all characters in the movie, she comes the closest to happiness. And she is robbed from it in the most brutal way. This is genuine tragedy. It’s a far-fetched parallel, but with Gina’s madness and Tony’s delusions of immortality, the finale of Scarface is almost Macbeth-like.

Manny is the voice of common sense, a rather ineffective antidote to Tony’s explosive temperament. Yet without Manny, he never would have made it to the top, and it is not a coincidence that their estrangement is the last straw in Tony’s self-alienation and, finally, self-destruction. Manny also shows himself as a fine psychologist. He is the only one who perceives the real reason for Tony’s deep attachment to Gina, or at least what is most likely the real reason. She is the only pure and innocent thing in his sleazy world of corruption. He is too simple-minded to realise that, but somewhere in his heart of hearts he probably feels it.

Paul Shenar as Alejandro Sosa
Tony and Omar (F. M. Abraham).
Even minor characters are rather unforgettable, mostly thanks to great actors who make you forget Oliver Stone’s indifferent writing. F. Murray Abraham as Omar, one of Frank’s most reliable guys, is a wonderful source of farcical fun. He is especially hilarious when he is “high”, as in the first confrontation, almost literally, with Tony. Harris Yulin plays the corrupt narc Mel Bernstein, a cocky fellow who considered himself untouchable (wrongly, as it turned out). Paul Shenar is Alejandro Sosa, the courteous, calm and dangerous drug baron from Bolivia, owner of a magnificent mansion in a place with the picturesque name Cochabamba. Sosa’s hit man, Alberto, is a particularly sinister fellow, beautifully described as “an expert in the disposal business”.

Like all classics, Scarface can always bear yet another rediscovery. It may be appreciated at so many levels. For my part, Al Pacino’s incandescent portrayal is by far the greatest asset of this movie. Tony Montana is not just one of the highest peaks in Pacino’s long and illustrious career, but a fascinating character in his own way. The subtle complexity of the secondary characters and the naughty piquancy of the dialogue are two reasons more to enjoy this movie. And if you simply want to savour the intricacies of the plot, the lavish sets and costumes, or the lots of rabid violence, you are at perfect liberty to do so.

Last but hardly least, it may be remarked that, sadly, there are some pusillanimous countries (like Germany, for one) where the movie used to be offered (hopefully this is now fixed?) only in a censored version some 16 minutes shorter. The final gunfight melee, the notorious scene with the chainsaw and the one in which Frank met his maker are the parts that suffer most badly, everything that offends the fainthearted being severely cut; also, a lot of cocaine sniffing and the scene of Manny with his bombshell blond in bed have been left out. Needless to say, this mutilated version is weaker than the original one. Besides, none of the cut passages has anything really shocking to offer; even the horrid chainsaw scene, though it does have lots of blood, is no big deal by the modern standards. I am always amused at such silly censorship today, when kids may easily access on the Web the most disgusting stuff human nature is capable of producing.

PS I've just learned a TV version exists, heavily edited of course. In addition to extensive cutting, even the dialogue has been re-dubbed with harmless alternatives of the numerous "offensive" words. Judge the results for yourself.

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