GOOD BUT NOT GREAT: Scarface (1983)

Scarface (USA, 1983)
Directed by Brian De Palma
Starring Al Pacino, Steven Bauer, Michelle Pfeiffer, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio 

IMDb Top 250: #128 (31/3/13)

Scarface is often held up at the quintessential violent gangster film. While The Godfather series is arguably the most revered gangster saga, Scarface is the film whose posters adorn student walls and whose many quotable scenes are a meme generator's wet dream. But after 30 years, the film that took so long to become cool has started to lose some of its sheen, and is now, for good and bad, the epitome of 1980s indulgence.
Scarface was a watershed for many a career. For Al Pacino, this performance can be seen as the beginning of his over-the-top streak, which slowly but surely started to erode his technique and which has rarely been reigned in since Scent of a Woman. For Oliver Stone, it was the film which launched his career: a few short years later he was the toast of Hollywood, directing Platoon and Wall Street and penning The Untouchables. And for Brian De Palma, it marks the point where his love of visual extravagance began to dominate his sense of discipline; his later works are, for the most part, a never-ending pursuit of style with little time or care for substance.
In remaking the 1932 film by Howard Hawks, Stone and De Palma shift the setting from Chicago to Florida and change the central crime from bootlegging alcohol to shipping cocaine. The original was modelled around the real-life gangster Al Capone - who allegedly liked the film so much that he bought one of the original prints. But while both films feature a protagonist who rises to the top by running his former bosses out of town, this version adds the twist of our lead being a foreigner. In making Tony Montana a Cuban immigrant, the filmmakers are attempting some kind of satire of the American dream, in which anyone can come to America and make it as a successful businessman.
At least, you'd like to think so. In reality Scarface is far more interested in how best to shoot excess or bloodbaths than it is in offering any insights into their cause, repercussions or wider meanings. No-one can deny De Palma's brilliance in terms of cinematography and choreography, not to mention his use of Giorgio Moroder's famous score. But once you stop admiring how well a given shot is framed, or how sleazy Pacino looks, there isn't a great deal more going on to justify the running time. In short, the film has all the style in the world, and all the depth of a teaspoon.
To put it another way, this is how The Godfather I & II would have looked, had Francis Ford Coppola only been interested in period detail. While both parts are longer than Scarface, clocking in at around 3 hours each, Coppola's films are better-paced, have much more nuanced characters and have a far greater amount of depth. Even in its slowest, quietest, least consequential moments, The Godfather series had a lot to say about family dynamics, the position of outsiders, the role of crime in American history and the corruption of the human soul. Scarface looks lavish and excessive, but it has nothing to say beyond the old adage that crime doesn't pay.
Part of the problem is that the film is incredibly episodic. It takes an awfully long time to set up Tony Montana, and an equally long time to go through the familiar motions of a gangster story: the initial encounters, the rapid rise, the enjoyment of one's success turning to hubris, and the fall from grace. The film is one of many memorable moments which loosely connect together until the last 20 minutes - which might help to explain why it is so easily quotable. You might say that this this is the closest we got to a Quentin Tarantino film before Quentin Tarantino; certainly the violence rivals anything in Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction.
One of the big disappointments of Scarface is that De Palma doesn't make a great deal out of the modern-day setting. This is surprising considering what a political filmmaker Stone is: you would expect him to use an event like the Havana boatlift as a springboard for some kind of commentary on race relations or American politics. The opening montage is very well-assembled, so that we cannot tell whether we are watching actual news footage or fake footage shot on different formats (something that Stone is known to do). But after this there is little or no attempt made to tie Montana's story into wider ideas about immigration, police corruption or the influence of Latin America on American crime.
More than any other film of the 1980s, Scarface raises the question: at what point does depicting excess become revelling in excess? We're not just talking about the impressively stylised violence, but also the lifestyle enjoyed by Montana, Sosa and the other characters. The film's narrative arc and unlikeable, sleazy characters would seem to support the argument that the visual excess demonstrates how bankrupt their lifestyle is. But this is somewhat undermined by the many long, wide-angle establishing shots which show off the characters' wealth. The director may not approve, but the camera is in love with the money.
Ultimately the visual style of Scarface is enough to drive the film over the line of ambivalence. We're still left with plenty of questions about the intentions of the film, but the experience of watching it is so full-on that these concerns are not always at the forefront of our minds. The film is operatic in scale and intent, with every scene playing on big emotions and impulse where The Godfather thrived on subtlety and nuance. It's not hard to see the influence of the film in contemporary music videos, with the 'push it to the limit' montage being a good example of what was to come.
Accepting the operatic nature of Scarface is in many ways the secret to appreciating it. We could sit there looking at our watches, wondering where cuts could have been made or whether in real life the characters would behave like this. Or we can take the grandiosity and indulgence at face value, seeing them as extensions of the acting style and regarding the film as a hallucinogenic trip. The film unwittingly draws us into the same high as the characters, and our discomfort and desire for things to be over is as much out of objective frustration as it is a shared subjective experience.
If we allow ourselves to be seduced by Scarface's repulsive extravagance, the performances begin to feel like more than pantomime tomfoolery. In any other context Al Pacino would come across as a ham, but Tony Montana is so larger-than-life, so much a symbol rather than an individual, that he holds our attention even in his nastiest, scuzziest moments. Paul Shenar is terrific as Alejandro Sosa, conveying genuine threat while keeping suave and restrained. And Michelle Pfeiffer manages to make the best out of what is essentially a nothing role. Pfeiffer would later joke that she won her part when she accidentally cut Pacino with a plate during her screen test.
Having flannelled around and drawn itself out for so long, Scarface really starts to gather pace and reward its audience in the final act. The last 20 minutes are worth the price of admission alone, as all the different aspects of Tony's life begin to collapse and the film begins to focus on what little it has been trying to say all alone. In these last few scenes the screen is veritably dripping with cocaine, and we find ourselves in the middle of Tony's desperate and tragic high. The final fire-fight is very well-orchestrated and the pay-off is both memorable and blackly funny.
Scarface is a bloated and indulgent epic which leaves its audience enthralled, exhausted and ambivalent all at once. Enjoying it involves suspending a great deal of critical judgement, treating the film as an experience rather than an analysis, and for all its memorable moments it is ultimately very shallow. But for all its many flaws and excesses, it remains an essential watch, for those who can last the distance and tolerate its reckless showboating.