Scarface (1983)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #561


Number of Views: Three
Release Date: December 1, 1983
Sub-Genre: Crime Fiction
Country of Origin: United States
Budget: $25,000,000
Box Office: $65,900,000
Running Time: 170 minutes
Director: Brian De Palma
Producer: Martin Bregman
Screenplay: Oliver Stone
Cinematography: John A. Alonzo
Score: Giorgio Moroder
Editing: Jerry Greenberg, David Ray
Studio: Universal Pictures
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Stars: Al Pacino, Steven Bauer, Michelle Pfeiffer, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Robert Loggia, Miriam Colon, F. Murray Abraham, Paul Shenar, Harris Yulin, Ángel Salazar, Pepe Serna, Michael P. Moran, Al Israel, Dennis Holahan, Mark Margolis, Michael Alldredge, Ted Beniades


Suggested Audio Candy

[1] Elizabeth Daily “Shake It Up”

[2] Paul Engemann “Push It To The Limit”


A little power can be a dangerous thing. It has been scientifically proven that it can go to your head and there is nothing more unsightly than the sight of someone who genuinely believes that their shit has no odor. Whatever happened to good old humility anyhoots? Should I be complimented on my appearance then my reaction would be to deflect that back and return the favor in whatever way possible. Of course, I would take their comments on board and perhaps walk away with additional spring in my stride as everybody loves the occasional ego massage. However, I wouldn’t let it go to my head as the results can be particularly counter-productive. I love to be patted on the back as much as the next man but, if there is one thing life has taught me, then it is that feet are far better kept on the ground. The moment we believe the hype, it can all go terribly wrong and all our hard work can be undone in a second.


Small businesses are often culpable of this very crime. Should annual turnover be encouraging then, chances are, expansion is the next topic placed on the agenda. Intentions may well be honorable at the offset but, as organisations begin to grow, too often greed rears its ugly head and the quality of service begins to falter. Moreover, the contributions of any front line staff are overlooked and precious little investment is placed into keeping said work force happy. I’ve seen it time and again, having worked for well over a decade in the retail industry, and watched many flourishing businesses fall by the wayside due to lack of nurture. I’m no less guilty than the next man as I struggle to scribe for twelve hours a day and keep up appearances on social networks. That said, I will never be culpable of power going to my head and I have a certain Tony Montana to thank for that one.


You see, Montana had the world in the palm of his hand and was looking pretty indestructible as he built his empire. Sure, he had suffered his fair share of hardships en route to becoming a criminal kingpin but they were way behind him by the time that the whole world knew his name. He had a taste of power and found it to be much to his liking. However, his short reign at the top of his game was littered with mistakes as he made the mistake of believing the hype and forgetting what got him where he was in the first place. Of fall of my cinematic teachers, few have taught me more about the art of humility than he and he did so by exhibiting none whatsoever. It’s time to say hello to my little friend.


Brian De Palma’s Scarface is largely regarded as the best gangster movie of all time and I make no qualms with that sentiment. At 170 minutes, this is very much an epic piece of crime fiction and represents De Palma, screenwriter Oliver Stone, and its titular wise guy Al Pacino at the very apex of their A-games. Moreover, it offers a fascinating case study and can teach the most basic of life lessons should we be in it for higher learning. That aside, it offers pleasures unbounded to those just looking to fire off a few rounds and an ideal example of what happens when the stars align in unison. Released in 1983, De Palma’s film went on to enjoy a highly successful theatrical run before being regarded as the bona fide classic it is now. My primary introduction was at ten-years-old and, over three decades later, it is every bit as magnanimous as it was way back then.


What many people aren’t aware of is that we have Pacino to thank for De Palma’s remake of Howard Hawks and Richard Rosson’s 1932 film of the same title as he got the ball rolling after spotting the potential for a modern-day retelling. Initially, Sidney Lumet was attached to direct but creative differences saw him bowing out so De Palma was drafted in as a replacement and Stone hired for screenwriting duties. Given that he was in the midst of battling against his own Class A dependency, Stone was a little unsure as to whether this was a shrewd move but, after relocating to Paris in order to thrash out a script as he believed he could not beat his addiction in the States, he came up with the goods and then some. Robert De Niro was actually offered the lead role and turned it down which suited Pacino down to the ground as he knew there was only one person destined to play Tony Montana and insisted that be the case. The rest is cinematic history.


“This is paradise, I’m tellin’ ya. This town like a great big pussy just waiting to get fucked.”

In case you’ve spent the past thirty years under a rock, this is pretty much the ultimate tale of rags to riches. Tony Montana (Pacino) is a Cuban refugee whose welcome in Miami starts off anything but hospitable. Packed off to a refugee camp with his best friend Manny (Steven Bauer), the pair are offered a life line when wealthy drug dealer Frank Lopez (Robert Loggia) spots untapped potential in Tony and takes him under his wing.


Starting from the bottom rung, Tony begins to make a name for himself in no time and has one thing going for him that sets him apart from the usual wise guy wannabes. You see, what he lacks in airs and graces, he makes up for with heart and his insistence on always telling the truth (even when he’s lying) makes him a valuable asset to Frank. Not everyone is so enamored by our ballsy upstart and head henchman Omar (F. Murray Abraham) doesn’t take kindly to the intrusion. However, Tony has the American dream in his crosshairs and isn’t about to relinquish that for anybody.


“Okay, here’s the story. I come from the gutter. I know that. I got no education… but that’s okay. I know the street, and I’m making all the right connections. With the right woman, there’s no stopping me. I could go right to the top.”

Moreover, he has his eye on a fair lady and, though Frank’s girlfriend Elvira (Michelle Pfeiffer) initially rebuffs his persistent advances, he is convinced that he can win her over once the big bucks start rolling in. She’s not the only woman in his life and, while his mother Georgina (Míriam Colón) makes it clear that she despises what he has turned into, his baby sister Gina (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) idolizes her big brother and he is fiercely protective of her. Before long, he is somebody, and the sky appears to be the limit for Tony. Having clawed himself out of the gutter, his focus and single-mindedness serves him well, as he reaches for the pinnacle in no uncertain terms. However, with all this new-found power comes great responsibility and, as his empire continues to flourish, he starts to take his eye off the prize. He’s under no illusion about the business he is in and, with cocaine becoming a staple part of his diet, paranoia isn’t far behind. Those closest to him become more distant and it matters not as he still has himself, the one person that he feels he can rely on.

“I’m Tony Montana! You fuck with me, you fuckin’ with the best!”

Watching him transform before our eyes is fascinating as, much as we start to loathe what he is fast becoming, Pacino ensures that we still don’t wish for harm to befall him or any of his nearest and dearest. This is quite a thankless task in itself as he exhibits all the signs of a lost cause and his frequent outbursts make him a far less than sympathetic protagonist.


His treatment of Elvira is contemptible, while Gina’s blossoming relationship with brother in arms Manny is not one he is likely to provide with his blessing, even thought he young couple are evidently very much in love. It’s a balancing act which would be troublesome for lesser actors to juggle but Pacino cannot help but win us over and shows enough flashes of humanity to keep fighting his corner, even when his actions become increasingly lamentable.


However, while Montana seems insistent that it is a one-man show, there are a number of other reasons why Scarface is such a captivating tale. Refusing to be pure token characters, both Pfeiffer and Mastrantonio are exceptional as the women in his life and Bauer just as committed as his long-suffering buddy. Moreover, Stone’s screenplay is watertight and all the more relevant given his own personal struggle with drugs. De Palma’s direction is never in question in my opinion but here he tables his affection for Hitchcock and ensures we never once become distracted from the story being told. Our investment to Montana’s faltering plight is paramount and the whole project rests squarely on Pacino’s broad shoulders. He repays our faith by providing us with effortlessly one of the most iconic turns in modern cinema and 170 minutes positively flies by as we career towards his explosive swan song.


“You wanna fuck with me? Okay. You wanna play rough? Okay. Say hello to my little friend!”

Violence is always likely to be necessary to a tale like this and, when it is called for, De Palma doesn’t hold back from placing us front and center. However, when the bullets aren’t ricocheting around us, it’s just a simple tale of desire. Scarface should appeal to anyone who has ever had a dream as we all have goals but few of us can ever hope to achieve them quite as conclusively as Tony Montana. In that respect, he truly is somebody to aspire to and his refusal to give up on said dream provides a lesson to us all. That said, how he goes about it offers a stark warning to us all that, while a little power is intoxicating, taking it for granted can have dire repercussions. I pride myself on my humility and, thanks to Montana’s fateful foibles, learned that lesson the easy way through the medium of film. For someone who has dedicated their life to film, there can be no finer compliment than that.


Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 10/10


After my surgical operation on Gaspar Noé’s Love, I boldly take my bistoury to concentrate on a most fascinating cinematographic case : the beyond cult Scarface. Without the slightest hesitation I agree with Keeper of the Crimson Quill when he says that Scarface is one of the grandest gangster movies ever transferred to the silver screen. It is a classic of the genre, an unquestionable masterpiece. Brian de Palma’s movie relies on a universal and almost biblical history: the meteoric rise and, in no way less breathtaking, fall of a man who took the shortest route for climbing the social ladder. Oliver Stone who “took refuge” in France to write this remake of Howard Hawks’s movie wanted to wean himself off of a certain kind of hard drug not much in vogue in Europe at the time. The result is a story full of fury and bleeding emotions where violence and vulgarity vie with the upscale aestheticism and flashy coldness. Although I’m a fervent admirer of Paul Verhoeven’s work, the movies that I have watched the most in my life are probably those of De Palma. We cannot grow tired of the masterpieces he made from 1974, where he presented his first cult movie: Phantom of the Paradise, to 1984, year of the release of the extraordinary Body Double. To view a De Palma feature means to accede to the dream, the thrill, the danger, eccentricity and excess. Only a filmmaker with his brilliance and style, was able to offer the ideal setting for Stone’s excellent screenplay. Scarface is part of these regenerating movies we particularly appreciate when we suffer a loss of power or our morale is at half-mast. It possesses the perfect elements to make you feel strong, intelligent, and better, while in addition to that offering a journey to the heart of the danger in a paradise of luxury.


Exceedingly current since the story makes a migrant the protagonist, the movie unravels the traps of a spectacular and unnatural social rise. Tony Montana fascinates both by his extremism and temper. His delusions of grandeur touch us and reveal, in addition to his hubris, an amazing frailty. We feel enhanced facing a character of this magnitude who “always tells the truth even when he lies” but falls into the trap of appearances and ultimately destroys what he has worked so hard to build. The scarred gangster exerts so much energy into making the people around him overlook his origins that he forgets who he is and neglects the most essential thing. While it is happiness, a better life, and also love that Montana is searching for, he believes he can get it all quickly by permanently pushing aside his rivals, gaining power and amassing wealth. Once that wealth arrives, Tony marries Elvira, the girlfriend of a drug kingpin he is looking to surpass. Sublime, inaccessible and indifferent, she has all the characteristics of the woman he dreams of but cannot have. Elvira is his ideal lady and Tony is convinced that status and being a strong man that will shower her with precious possessions is all this arrogant beauty is lacking. Whether Elvira is actually the woman for Tony is irrelevant, for him it is all about appearances and these can be deceptive. He buys her as one would purchase a property or luxury car, forgetting that love cannot be bought and even a marriage of convenience still requires work.


This attractive blonde was languishing in the shadow of an aging Godfather from whom she wanted security, marriage, and recognition, but actually what she was really dreaming of was love. Falsely superficial, she desires more from her marriage than a shallow existence purely for show. However, Tony sees her as a trophy and does not know how to make her truly happy. He continues to accumulate his fortune, gets lost in drugs, takes more and more risks and neglects his wife, letting her steadily self-destruct before him. This culminates in the wonderful restaurant scene where he gives her a blasting because he can no longer approach her and complains that what he has achieved leads to an existence without meaning. Elvira’s response is significant. However, Tony is regrettably unable to hear the words of his wife, nor can he grasp her need for attention, understanding and tender love. Elvira then leaves Tony. Despite this, he remains convinced that his wife will come back, and never stops questioning his circle of associates about her until his very last breath. Appearances are not the reality and being happy is an inside job. That’s what the ex-Cuban refugee, now a figure of great stature, who was convinced that the world belongs to you simply because you want it and take it by force, is never able to put into practice.


Emilie Flory


Read Cruising Appraisal

Read Blow Out Appraisal

Read Body Double Appraisal

Read The Fury Appraisal

Richard Charles Stevens

Keeper of The Crimson Quill

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