Scarface (1983)

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*. My goodness, what’s with that technopop disco music? Is it Giorgio Moroder? Why, as a matter of fact, Yes it is.
*. I want to start with Moroder because he sort of embodies the paradox of this film. Today, mention of his name usually gives rise to looks of embarrassment, not because he was without talent but because the music he was most identified with, that synth-disco sound I mentioned, along with early-days-of-MTV pop tunes, is so out of favour. Personally, I don’t mind Moroder’s score, but songs like “Rush, Rush” and “Push It to the Limit” make me laugh. And the even bigger hit movie Moroder scored in 1983, Flashdance, well . . . who watches that today with a straight face?
*. In another thirty years perhaps this music will be fashionable again. I don’t know. The thing is, despite this musical time stamp, Scarface, for all of its ’80s excess, its gold chains and unbuttoned shirts swept aside to reveal chest hair (remember that?) has not dated, even among young people. I have a friend in her mid-20s who has “Say hello to my lee-yul fren'” as the ring tone on her cellphone. I was shocked she’d even heard of this movie. And it’s among a music subculture, hip-hop, that the movie has been most widely adopted.

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*. This is the paradox: How has a movie so deeply rooted in, so about the now much derided fashion and style of its time not dated more than this? Why is it not seen as the gangster equivalent of Showgirls or Valley of the Dolls or . . . Flashdance? Why, instead, is it today seen as more relevant, more contemporary, than ever?
*. In answering that, I’ll start by taking a step back and ask what Scarface is about. What it’s about is excess. “Nothing exceeds like excess,” Elvira says, in one of her only attempts at wit. Everything about Tony’s proto-gangsta lifestyle is larger than life, from his ridiculous Caddy (which appals Elvira), to his big fucking gun, to that mountain of cocaine on his desk at the end (the film’s signature, iconic image).
*. It was a movie made without any sense of restraint, deliberately. Oliver Stone, for example, was upset because in his script he had a death squad of four or five guys sent by the cartel to kill Tony. This was turned into an invading army, and a climactic battle scene where Tony is torn apart by bullets but keeps standing asking for more (“I take your fucking bullets!”) before finally receiving his Wagnerian stab in the back.
*. And yet Stone had to admit that it all worked in the end. The gratuitous, over-the-top, “operatic” climax (Tony’s home even looks like an opera set) was the perfect culmination for all that had gone before.

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*. This is important because if excess is what Scarface is all about, then we know it hasn’t gone out of style. Is it any coincidence that a year later the TV series Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, hosted by Robin Leach, debuted? And that by today’s standards those luxurious homes seem like mere cottages? As wealth has continued to pile up and concentrate within a tighter circles of elites, the 0.01 percent, what began as near parody has become our reality. Critics today speak of our new “gilded age,” and doesn’t Scarface provide a pattern for its opulence, corruption, lack of taste, and decadence?

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*. Decadence? It’s hard to mistake that note in Gina’s appearance at the end as avenger-in-underwear. Shades of Caligula! This was a note that could only be subtly struck in the 1932 version, but it’s something Hawks and Hecht both wanted to include. What they envisioned was an American crime family as a modern-day version of the Borgias. Though I don’t recall ever hearing anything about Al Capone having any such feelings for his sister. So where exactly did all this come from? Somebody’s tortured psyche.

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*. But is Tony really interested in Gina in that way? Pauline Kael: “the whole feeling of the movie is limp. This may be the only action picture that turns into an allegory of impotence.”
*. Not quite, Pauline. As is made explicit in a deleted scene where Tony mockingly comes on to Manny in the refugee camp while backed up by a group of transvestites, Tony (at least initially) may be less impotent than repressed. Just keeping to the homoerotic, it’s worth noting too that in the opening interrogation scene Tony is questioned about being gay. A form question, perhaps, but Pacino does have an unmistakeable feminine vibe in this film. Is it his walk? Note his exaggerated hand gestures, and how he rolls when walking beside Manny (whose name indicates his gender role in the relationship).

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*. Does he feel sexual desire for Elvira? I don’t sense any. He wants a trophy wife who will fill a glass case with trophy babies. Later she will simply disappear from his life, and the film.
*. So then we’re left to ponder whether Tony really does want to fuck his sister. In his decline it seems as though the drugs may have had their accustomed effect on his libido and performance, but as I mentioned in my notes on White Heat, it’s Cody Jarrett in that film who is more obviously an impotent gangster. I don’t think Tony wants to fuck Gina so much as he wants to be her (and fuck Manny). Is that reading too much into things? It seems clear to me, though I’ll admit it’s not explicit, at least in the final cut.
*. The Platinum Edition DVD has a feature you can turn on that keeps a running Scarface Scorecard of how many rounds of ammuntion are blown off and how many f-bombs (the word “fuck”) are dropped. In case you haven’t seen it, the final tally is 226 f-bombs and 2 049 rounds of ammo.

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*. On Wikipedia, however, the number of f-bombs is listed as 207. Which doesn’t even place it in the top 50 in a list of films using that word the most. Although in 1983 it would have been number one. More recent movies dominate the list. As of this writing, the first four films are specialty items. The Wolf of Wall Street comes in at number five.
*. At the time Pacino was the big name. Looking back on it, could you have imagined a more dynamic duo than De Palma and Stone, in David Thomson’s words, “two self-indulgent would-be hoodlums”? There was no way putting those two together was going to result in a dull movie, at least not in 1983.

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*. It’s dedicated to Howard Hawks and Ben Hecht. Would they be proud? I think they would be. Though I imagine they would be as disappointed as everyone else, at the time and ever since, with the one element that seems to have been cut and paste from the original and dropped in here: Tony’s visits to his Mama. Even the exterior of Mama Montana’s bungalow looks like an old set from the studio back lot. De Palma could have shot those scenes in black and white and they would not have been more out of place.
*. Mama is played by Miriam Colon, who was four years older than Pacino, and looks it. But then Tony appears to have been born a man of a certain age.
*. In my notes on the original I mentioned the obvious nod to Gatsby in the scene between Tony and Poppy and all of his beautiful shirts. I think there’s another Gatsby reference here in Tony’s taking Elvira’s hat and asking her if she’d kiss him if he wore it (the allusion is to The Great Gatsby‘s epigraph). Indeed Tony’s motto — that first you get the money, then you get the power, then you get the woman — is just Gatsbyism distilled to its essence (and Gatsby was a bootlegger, we should remember). This is no doubt another reason for the movie’s longevity, as Gatsby is the essential romantic American novel.

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*. What happens to Elvira? It bothers some people that she just disappears, and when Ken Tucker (in an interview for his book Scarface Nation) asked Oliver Stone about her he admitted he’d forgotten if he’d ever written any explanation for her disappearance. This is, however, also in keeping with the original, where Tony just makes a phone call to a seemingly disengaged Poppy at the end but dies with his sister.
*. Tucker: “The goddamn thing is indestructible — it remains as exhilaratingly funny, vulgar, gaudy, violent, surprising, and angrily unruly as it was the first time it unspooled in 1983.” So is it a great movie? Well, it’s great trash, even classic trash, and its vision of excess has lasted for over thirty years now with no diminishment of its impact or energy, which is an amazing feat. Everything about it is too much — the camerawork, the score, the performances, the sets — and yet it somehow never falls over the line into being camp. We recognize and accept its absurdity. Why? Surely not because we believe in Tony Montana but because we want to believe in him. Yes, we’re on his side. We all want what’s coming to us, which is the world and everything in it. And if Tony is left abandoned and alone, what of it? He don’t need nobody. Every man dies alone.

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