We invite you to Flickfeast and Chill and get to grips with the best new shows on streaming services. This edition, Francis Walshe settles down with Netflix and Scarface. Five minutes in and he’ll give you that look…
Regardless of what anyone may think about its merits as a film, it is difficult to think of a gangster movie that has embedded itself quite so profoundly into our popular culture as Scarface. Sure, everyone knows that The Godfather trilogy is the standard bearer when it comes to this genre, but there’s something different about Brian De Palma’s 1983 remake. It has some irresistible, undeniable X-factor that has propelled it to the status of cult classic, a certain quality that has seen its iconic black and white cover stuck to the bedroom wall of countless college students in poster form.
It did not always enjoy such adulation. Indeed, upon its release, many viewers and critics were disgusted at its gratuitous violence, ceaseless profanity and unapologetic depictions of cocaine abuse. So disgusted, in fact, that it was initially rated X in America, a classification usually reserved for pornography. This may seem somewhat surprising given the sort of content that makes its way onto our cinema screens nowadays (although the scene in which Tony’s friend is dismembered by a chainsaw is gruesome by anyone’s standards).
We meet Tony Montana (Al Pacino) as he arrives on the shores of Florida in 1980, as part of the Mariel boatlift. Upon arrival, police send him to a refugee camp as they suspect (correctly) that he is an ex-convict. After he and his friends carry out a murder for a local drug dealer, they are taken out of the camp and given green cards, and waste no time in involving themselves in crime once more. The rest of the film charts the trajectory of Tony’s criminal career, his fearlessness the key to his success, his hubris the catalyst for his downfall.
It quickly becomes evident that this is not the story of a good man who is led away from the path of righteousness by temptation or necessity. Whether because of events that take place before we meet him, or merely because of his very nature, Tony Montana is an intrinsically ruthless and amoral sort; a cut and dried gangster from the very beginning. This is not to say that he lacks charm; his smooth talk and confident manner is quick to win over those he comes in contact with, including the initially revolted Elvira (Michelle Pfeiffer), who comes to be his wife. By the time he comes to the height of his power, however, we have witnessed enough violence and careless denigration of those around him to know that Montana is an antihero in the truest sense of the word.
It is interesting to consider that, while Scarface was originally considered controversial because of its graphic nature, it would probably be divisive nowadays for altogether different reasons, were it a new release. Its depictions of violence, drug use and sex are relatively tame by modern standards; Tony’s treatment of women, however, is decidedly shabbier than would be deemed acceptable in a 21st century film. He thinks nothing of attempting to force himself on Elvira or hitting his sister (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio). What’s possibly even worse is the fact that neither woman is especially outraged by either event; Elvira goes on to marry him afterwards. The movie doesn’t necessarily glamourize this behaviour, and it could be argued that such an attitude would have been typical of a remorseless criminal at that time. It is difficult to imagine that his character would have climbed to such widespread cultural recognition were the film released today, however.
When Scarface is appraised as a work of its time, however, its allure is obvious. The influence of the 1980s is everywhere, from the outfits and hairdos to the famous montage scene featuring Push it to the Limit by Paul Engemann. Its flair is irresistible, thanks to the masterful touch of director Brian De Palma. The man regarded as one of the New Hollywood era’s most stylish directors succeeded in injecting Scarface with a distinctive feel that still works beautifully today.
Of course, he owes a large debt to Oliver Stone’s script; the storyline is well crafted, and the film has produced some of cinema’s best known quotes. Possibly an even greater debt is owed to Al Pacino. His brash, unapologetic approach to the character of Montana is a joy to watch, and his clipped Cuban accent is judged perfectly. It is hard to imagine anyone else succeeding so comprehensively in the role.
35 years on from its initial release, how is Scarface holding up? In most ways, very well indeed. Its status as an icon of the gangster genre is not undeserved. Its deliberate ostentatiousness makes it engaging from start to finish: not an easy trick to pull off for a film with a running time of 170 minutes. Sure, we might get more in the way of flashy fight scenes than profound reflection on the psyche of a violent criminal, and the story does become undeniably far-fetched as it presses on into the final stages. It’s tremendous fun, though, and at the end of the day is that not enough?
How do you feel about the bad guy these 35 years since its release? Let us know in the comments below.