Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Essentials- Scarface (1983)

The Essentials- #69

Scarface
The World is yours

That little sentence echoes throughout all of Brian de Palma’s “Scarface,” a remake of an old 1930’s gangster movie directed by Howard Hawks. (At the end of “Scarface,” right before the credits roll there is a dedication given to Howard Hawks.) To say de Palma’s 1980’s update of Hawk’s film is completely different would be the understatement of the century. Yes, both films deal with a poor kid becoming a powerful crime lord almost overnight. Yes, both films deal heavily in the world of organized crime and are somewhat gritty, dirty movies. There is a lot about de Palma’s film that is taken to the extreme (just consider a scene where a man is murdered by a chainsaw.), and the harshest dissenters may say that “Scarface” is just another “crime-doesn’t-pay” fable set in the lucrative world of organized crime. But those people missed the point of the film completely. I think the quote “The World is yours” can help somebody’s understanding of the film. The quote plays almost like a personal philosophy for Tony Montana (an electric Al Pacino), the main character of the movie. Tony Montana was not just looking for the American Dream when he came to America from Cuba, he wanted the world. Montana was willing to take the world for himself, as he knew nobody would give it to him, and he was willing to crush anybody (and I do mean anybody) to get it. While I find “Scarface” a great film, a classic film, it is also a heartbreaking film under the surface. The film paints a portrait of a man destroyed by power, and what is worse that he does it to himself.

Many of you probably know the story by now, “Scarface” has been inspiring rap stars for years now. Barely any crime movie comes out nowadays that doesn’t reference the movie in some form and it put Al Pacino on the map in a way “The Godfather” could not. We learn from title-cards right before the opening credits that Fidel Castro decided to help Cubans on his island unite with their families in the USA. Castro also had a sinister plan underneath this seemingly noble deed, he emptied out his prisons and sent them to America too and we learn that out of the 125,000 refugees that made it to the states, that 25,000 had criminal records. We then see Montana’s life play out. We see him at a refugee camp, we see how he and his friend Manny (Steven Bauer) exit the refugee camp, we see Montana and Manny go to work for Frank Lopez (Robert Loggia) and we see Montana fall for Frank’s wife Elvira (Michelle Pfeiffer). At this point, we begin to see Montana’s rise to power, and he goes from servant to boss in a small amount of time. Then we quickly see how that power tears him apart.

There is also a subplot that is very harrowing and relenting as it unfolds. We know Tony Montana was a criminal of some kind in Cuba, but he also had family in Florida. With a job that pays huge bucks, he wants to take care of his mother (Miriam Colon) and his sister (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio). His mother rejects his son’s new future, she knows how he is making his money and she would have never wanted that for her son, and most of all she doesn’t want her daughter going into that world. But it is to no use, her daughter is well on her way toward the paths of Hell and it wounds her mother deeply. The subplot involving Montana’s family is some of my favorite material in the film. It is the pieces of the film where everything isn’t taken to the extreme, where everything is not totally ham-handed. It is the time when these characters are the most human and it grabs me by the heart every time I watch the movie.

The acting is superb, and it is hard not sit down and kiss every inch of Al Pacino’s ass. I know I wrote a piece about the horrors of white-washing a role in Hollywood, but in Pacino’s case he becomes so alive in this role that it is hard not to gravitate toward him. Pacino steals every single scene in this movie and when he appears on the screen, you will want to observe his every move. If somebody didn’t know Al Pacino, they be fooled by his acting skills, feeling full-well that Pacino was Cuban. I think that could be the greatest thing I could say about Pacino’s performance; he plays everything so authentic that it is almost scary. Pacino has never been more alive in a role before and when an actor is playing at that level, it is hard not to be astonished by him. I think Pacino also does a good job of playing off the other actors well. Robert Loggia’s Frank Lopez is a man without a heart, and Loggia does that well and he has magnificent scenes with Pacino. So does Michelle Pfeiffer, whose character always seems to be trapped by powerful yet strikingly flawed men.

I have to say that my favorite character is Manny, and he is brought to great life by Steven Bauer. I think Manny is my personal favorite best friend in any movie. When I think my personal friendships, I strive to be like Manny. He has a devotional loyalty to Montana that is quite endearing. But he is also not afraid to stand up for himself when fighting with Montana, and he makes sure his voice is heard. Bauer gives a powerful performance and it shocks me that Bauer is not a big name in Hollywood currently. As much as Pacino steals the scenes in the movie, it can definitely be argued that Bauer gives the film a heart and soul that it really needed.

“Scarface” is a film filled with blood; it does not feature the short bursts of violence we usually see in gangster movies. Everything is cranked up as high as it can go in this movie, but it never feels forced, it never once feels unnatural. I also like that there are pockets of humor in an otherwise depressing film, and there is also catchy music which is a big plus. All I am saying is that there is a reason why “Scarface” has been the hub of so much debate, so much inspiration and so much grandeur. It may be loud and crazy, but it is completely worth every minute of your time.

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