Without further ado, fifteen reasons to love Brian De Palma’s Scarface.
1. Al Pacino‘s Tony Montana just might be his gravestone role, the one everyone knows — moreso even than Michael Corleone (whose legacy was hampered by a weak third movie). Pacino, of course, goes way over the top and through the floor on the other side — and that pretty well describes the arc of his character and his performance. He starts out young and hungry, his eyes mischievously alive in the detainment room, and ends up face down in (literally) a pool of his own blood. Along the way Pacino invests the scummy Tony with a surprising amount of humor, compassion, and humanity.
2. Brian De Palma just wants to have fun. Occasionally he can be serious, as in Casualties of War (for me his masterpiece). But for the most part he’s a coldly brilliant prankster with a camera. He fools you into thinking you saw the chainsaw carve up Tony’s unfortunate partner (you didn’t); he pulls off any number of dazzling set-pieces thick with menace, as when Tony and Manolo (Steven Bauer) stalk Rebenga through a chaotic detainee tent. If your blood doesn’t freeze when Manolo calls out “Rebengaaaaa!!” and De Palma cuts to Manolo’s hand holding a knife and Manolo picks up the chant “Libertad! Libertad!”, you don’t have any blood.
3. Oliver Stone, in his day, was the rudest screenwriter ever to win an Oscar for screenwriting. Other screenwriters used the F-word — Stone used it 218 times. And he contributed dialogue that will outlive almost anything else he’s ever written (with the possible exception of Wall Street‘s “Greed is good” speech). I won’t take your time quoting it all, but I will say my personal favorite is the “Say good night to the bad guy” monologue (it truly begins, I think, when Tony is seated and feeling sorry for himself: “Is this it, Manny?”), which hits amazing notes of pride and contempt.
4. Giorgio Moroder (who also scored the Stone-scripted Midnight Express) gives us an immediately recognizable theme — a spaghetti-western sound weighed down by the Miami heat and piles of cocaine. Ominous yet fundamentally cheesy, the music nonetheless fits the images like a leopard seat. And don’t get me started on the songs, many of which turn up in Grand Theft Auto on the radio station. Rush, rush, get the llelo…
5. Michelle Pfeiffer, at that point, could’ve been just another chilly blonde (though she’d shown some spirit in Grease 2 the year before). In retrospect, after years of complex performances, we can better appreciate what Pfeiffer is doing as the jaded, coked-out Elvira Hancock (“Like a bird flyin’ around,” Tony comments rather inaccurately — Elvira barely moves if she doesn’t have to, even on the dance floor). Pfeiffer has the perfect look for a snooty white girl that a crude Cuban like Tony would fall for, but she backs it up with subtle intonations of disdain and also sadness at the glitzy but hollow life Elvira has chosen.
6. Robert Loggia. He owns you. He owns everything. And he would own this movie if not for the extreme competition all around him. His Frank Lopez is a past-his-prime mobster, soft in the middle and no match for an amoral up-and-comer like Tony. Frank is pathetic and murderously duplicitous, but he retains our guarded affection right up until Tony’s cruel “I won’t kill you” switcheroo. Frank’s indulgence of choice is food and booze, not cocaine, so he has no edge, and Loggia etches a funny and, in the end, poignant portrait of a man who has outlived his own effectiveness in a violent career.
7. What has F. Murray Abraham done besides this movie and Amadeus? (Go ahead, think about it. I’ll wait.) Even if those two roles were all he did, what more do you need? Abraham raises the bar the second he hits the screen as the slimy Omar, who has one of the absolute all-time great Oliver Stone dialogue exchanges with Tony:
Tony: Okay, fuck you. How’s that?
Omar: …Fuck you.
Tony: Fuck you.
…I mean, if you can’t appreciate that, we really have nothing more to say to each other.
8. Harris Yulin as corrupt cop (“Whoever said you was a cop?”) Mel Bernstein, if only because he paves the way for perhaps Al Pacino’s funniest line reading ever: “HOKAY MEL.” But Yulin is more than that — his Mel is so puffed up with white male privilege he’s negotiating with Tony even after a bullet to the gut: “We’ll just get this fixed up…” Talk about denial, man. I love that his final choice of words on this earth is a hearty “FUCK you!” — again, Oliver Stone in action.
9. Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as Tony’s mercurial little sister Gina, who wastes no time hoovering cocaine with some dork in a toilet stall once she gets some money. Gina is the most significant holdover from the Hawks/Hecht Scarface of 1932, wherein Tony’s sister also dallied with his best friend, thus fucking with Tony’s twisted incestuous fixation on her. In this version, Gina gets to wear a skimpy nightgown and offer the coke-befuddled Tony what he really wants. Mastrantonio commits to the moment wholeheartedly without looking foolish, no mean feat for any actress, never mind a 25-year-old in her first movie.
10. John A. Alonzo‘s cinematography makes the most of Miami’s sizzling lurid topography, from the neon nightclubs (with their mirrored walls that made the scenes a bitch to shoot) to the bleak clutter of motel rooms where drug deals go sour. Without this movie’s influential look, you have no Miami Vice (TV series, not movie) and none of the many, many urban action flicks to follow.
11. The character actors that thicken the tapestry of evil: Al Israel as the chainsaw-wielding Hector (“Ahora tú!”); Paul Shenar as the big boss Alejandro Sosa, who inspires that Pacino phone-juggling moment that always makes me laugh like an idiot; Mark Margolis as Alberto the assassin, whose insistence on blowing up Sosa’s target along with wife and kids provokes Tony’s legendary post-mortem tirade (“I tole you, no fuckin’ kids! No, but you wouldn’t listen! Well, you stupid fuck — look at you now!”); and the wordless Geno Silva as “The Skull” (the baddest-ass name in a movie full of bad-ass names), who finally pulls the trigger on Tony.
12. The novelization by Paul Monette, before he started writing about AIDS. It offers a lot of backstory on what Tony was doing in Cuba before he came over with the rest of the Marielitos. I just thought I’d give the book a shout-out, since novelizations usually suck, especially novelizations from the ’80s, but this one is worth seeking out. There’s also, as yet unread by me, a new Scarface series of books that launched in December 2005.
13. The network-TV version, worth watching just for the hilariously insufficient substitutions for all that Oliver Stone obscenity. For instance “Miami is one big pussy just waitin’ to get fucked” becomes “one big chicken just waitin’ to get plucked.” Not quite as funny as “melon farmers” in the TV edit of Repo Man, but close.
14. The sheer ballsy length of it. Sure, it takes De Palma ten minutes shy of three hours to tell a story that took the 1932 version 90 minutes to cover. I don’t care. I never find it boring, except maybe for the scenes at home with Tony’s disapproving mother. It’s a movie you sit down with and either nibble on or kick back for the whole ride. It’s a big thick colorful comic book you can open up at any point and lose yourself in.
15. The enduring cult. The hip-hop culture has embraced Tony and his upwardly mobile ethos, apparently without irony. I can go to the corner convenience store and buy Scarface keychains and stickers — who anticipated that in 1983? Analysis of this particular phenomenon is better left to analysts of such things, but I’ll give it a shot anyway (hey, you got this far, didn’t you?) — I think it’s just that Tony is the original bad-ass mofo, and Scarface was playing endlessly on cable when so many rappers in their impressionable formative years watched it and studied it. They wanted the mansion, the bodyguards, the piles of cash, maybe the white girl. First you get the money. Then you get the power. Then you get the women.
Well, that about covers it. To paraphrase John D. MacDonald’s intro to Stephen King’s Night Shift: If you have read this whole thing, I hope you have plenty of time. You could have been watching Scarface.