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Class of 1983: “Scarface”

by on December 29, 2013
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In the “Class of …” series, Nick Rogers takes a monthly look back at films celebrating either their 20th or 30th anniversary of initial release this year — six from 1993 and six from 1983. The rules: No Oscar nominees and no films among either year’s top-10 grossers.

Leading up to its Christmas release, “The Wolf of Wall Street” — which follows the true-life tale of ’90s stockbroker crook Jordan Belfort and, rather awesomely, feels like Martin Scorsese’s “Animal House” — drew comparisons to “Scarface,” Brian De Palma’s 1983 remake of Howard Hawks’ 1932 film, which follows a fictionalized Cuban drug lord named Tony Montana over a very similar rise and fall.

The comparison isn’t unreasonable. Equally off-putting louses stand front and center in both films — one in double-breasted, shoulder-padded Armani, the other content to wear leisure suits with lapels so wide several eight balls of yayo can comfortably rest and open-buttoned shirts stuck on solely by virtue of back sweat.

Both also have memorable scenes involving helicopters, reference Quaaludes with regularity, are roughly the same running time (although “Wolf” is slightly longer) and are twinned in hubris that defies the season’s mainstream-moviegoing tastes:

“Candles in asses and three-ways with Jonah! Street executions, chainsaws through a bone-ah! One wants his sister, one ruins men for bling. These are a few of my favorite things!”

Whereas “Wolf” appears headed for numerous Oscar nominations, “Scarface” was reviled and Razzie-nominated at the time, written off as salacious, career-sinking stupidity for both its star, Al Pacino and De Palma. For Pacino, that was certainly the case. After 1985’s disastrous “Revolution,” he self-imposed exile before resurfacing years later for the remarkable run of “Sea of Love,” “Dick Tracy” and “The Godfather Part III.”

But gangster rappers who recited Montana’s mantras rejuvenated the film by way of pop-culture cachet. Its embrace extended into the realm of international politics. Saddam Hussein named his money laundering company Montana Management after the film. And, because no cultural touchstone is complete without a journey into parody, “Scarface” gave Michael Bolton what is arguably the highpoint of his career.

While it’s unlikely anyone will spit flow about “Wolf” in 2043 (what rhymes with Belfort?) or spoof it three decades on, people will certainly talking about it then in the way that “Scarface” conjures up an immediately iconic image today.

To revisit “Scarface” now is to still find a graphic and garish good time, but something that feels lethargic and tame next to “Wolf’s” 179-minute livewire act. And this is in a movie where no one is hung from a helicopter skid.

Arguably, that’s a factor of the times in which each film was made. Remember, “Scarface” required almost a half-dozen edits to avoid an X rating from the MPAA, around whom De Palma went anyway to release his original cut without them even realizing it.

As for the chainsaw sequence, the result of a drug deal gone bad, it’s compelling only from a point of exuberant style. Next to a complementary pool hall scene in “Carlito’s Way,” it offers few intriguing insights about Tony; it introduces, perhaps, his luck for surviving dicey situations, but that’s circumstance, not character.

There’s another key difference between “Wolf” and “Scarface” that makes the fall depicted in the latter — no matter how eminently quotable and culturally influential — far less interesting than that in the former. (MINOR SPOILERS FOR “WOLF” AHEAD.)

At the apex of their amorality, both men discover the slightest hint of a conscience and, perhaps, a path to moral, but not legal, redemption. For Belfort, it’s a rediscovery; the compass of this fresh-faced, naïve low man on the totem pole doesn’t lose true north until wooed into wrongdoing by Matthew McConaughey’s character.

For Tony, it feels like the movie’s last-ditch desperation not to make him seem totally reprehensible when, up to that point, reveling in that has been the entire M.O. Tony seems to have sprung forth from the womb with avarice in his heart. Nothing can keep him from it — not family, not friends, not watching associates chopped up by a chainsaw. So why would sparing a troublesome journalist’s anonymous wife and child get in the way?

The moment comes well into “Scarface’s” third act, after the Feds have busted Tony for money laundering and tax evasion. Alejandro Sosa (Paul Shenar) — the Bolivian cocaine kingpin whose product Montana is pushing in America — offers to use his U.S. government connections to get him off on one condition: That Tony blow up the car of a journalist threatening to blow their empire wide open.

To assist Tony, Sosa sends his henchman, Alberto the Shadow (played Mark Margolis, best known as bell-ringing malcontent Don Salamanca on “Breaking Bad” — yet another of “Scarface’s” pop-culture tendrils). Alberto has no compunction about continuing on after the journalist’s wife and kid get in the car with him, but somehow, that’s a karmic line Tony isn’t willing to cross. “Fuck that! I don’t need that shit in my life!,” he yells.

Is it tied to anger that his trophy wife, Elvira (Michelle Pfeiffer), has given him no heirs? That’s tenuous, given how the topic is a tossed-off throwaway during an argument scene. Is it his own disturbing love for family, which includes a likely incestuous attraction to his sister, Gina (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio)? Maybe, but the specific parent-child bond isn’t something he’s big on, as his own mother (Míriam Cólon) spits in the face of his largesse and runs him out of the house.

Paul Muni’s incarnation of the title character made no such course correction during the Hays Code heyday of 1932, so why have Tony find a soft spot here? A concession to the star power of Pacino? Perhaps. A studio’s insistence that someone, anyone be sympathetic at some point during a three-hour movie? Maybe. Today, it stands out most as the moment to which rappers likely latched on in carrying the movie’s flag.

It certainly wouldn’t seem to be in its depiction of Tony’s opulence, in which, outside of a brief montage in a 170-minute film, he seems to find only dejection. Very rapidly does Tony go from an alpha dog perched proudly on a throne, balls thrust forth to visitors in challenging dominance, to a cowed, slumped despot with all the confident posture of Richard III. “The World is Yours” is his slogan. Yes, and the more it burdens your weary shoulders, the more you’ll despise it. “Wolf” finds manic majesty in the minutiae of ostentatious living. “Scarface” finds only misery.

In the moment that Tony refuses to kill the kid and wife, his fate is etched in stone. It’s a demise etched in humanity, not the greedy capitalism Tony has celebrated for so long. In other words, it’s a formative, hypothetical code of the streets on which he grew up (but that we never see). Sparing these lives is the only reason Tony eventually plummets into his pool with 100 rounds passing through his body. He need not fall with arms outstretched like Jesus for this to seem like a martyr’s sacrifice to principles more honorable than the game or the hustle — and a way for rappers to rationalize their extensive idolatry for him.

It’s a fundamentally dishonest character choice that launched a billion-dollar industry. But it hardly sours the “Scarface” experience. A film that seemed destined for insignificance upon its initial invasion of theaters became a garishly ghoulish, bleakly funny and compulsively watchable template for countless modern deconstructions of the American Dream by way of criminal behavior.

In 1983, however, it felt like a leprous scourge across Hollywood. After its premiere, Lucille Ball — a patron of far more sanitized depictions of Cuban-Americna relations — lambasted the film. Dustin Hoffman is said to have fallen asleep. Neither a stranger to button-pushing fiction, authors Kurt Vonnegut and John Irving allegedly walked out after the chainsaw scene.

But perhaps most tellingly, Scorsese reportedly cornered co-star Steven Bauer (who plays Tony’s second-in-command, Manny) and told him: “You guys are great, but be prepared because they’re going to hate it in Hollywood … because it’s about them.”

Today, Universal Studios can’t wait to crank out more of “Scarface” and turn the cowboy into a commodity. There have been a handful of video games (one hilariously suggesting Tony survives Sosa’s assassination), and a third film incarnation is in the works — with, of all people, David Yates, who made the final four “Harry Potter” films, in talks to direct.

When this “Scarface” was theatrically re-released in 2003 for a 20th anniversary, Universal even wanted to swap out the very first thing you’d hear in the movie — Giorgio Moroder’s quintessentially ’80s score — for timely tie-in rap songs. (Never mind the anachronistic goofiness of this; this movie’s just far too morose for it, although it didn’t keep Nas and Mobb Deep from sampling it for 1999’s “It’s Mine.”)

Moroder’s score sounds like he hired bodybuilders to stand on every synthesizer in his studio — the sort of digitally operatic overture that was his oeuvre. And because everything old is new again, you can hear the same zeroes-and-ones grandiosity in Daft Punk’s score for “Tron: Legacy” or M83’s work for “Oblivion.”

Is it cheesy by today’s aesthetic standards? Of course. The movie’s even got its own title song (with a parenthetical subtitle of “Push it to the Limit”) that exclaims, “You’ve reached the top but you still gotta learn how to keep it!” But when you consider it’s the music Tony might hear in his head — especially as it stops on a dime and spins into an atonal drone when anyone eyeballs Gina — it’s much more interesting.

What’s initially amateurish and bothersome about the movie is the polish (or lack thereof) in its opening scene, wherein Tony shuffles his way into America. He’s one of thousands of Cubans granted asylum by President Jimmy Carter. But it becomes clear he’s only escaping communism because it’s stifling his criminal success.

This moment suffers from some of the worst ADR work in mainstream film history. Yes, that’s Charles Durning’s distinctive voice emitting from an obviously different mouth. Ditto for Dennis Franz, and even Pacino’s voice is botched — his accent so distracting that you understand why Adam Sandler courted Pacino for “Jack & Jill”; it sounds not unlike Sandler circa “Saturday Night Live.”

Eventually, though, the ear adjusts to to his linguistic eccentricities — whether adding a syllable to “cockroach,” subtracting one from “paranoia” or pronouncing “balls” in a way that makes it feel like one “L” is silent. If Pacino’s broader powers of expression feel somewhat trapped in Tony’s mas macho mannerisms, at least he’s having a good time, and there’s much less Shouty Pacino than “Scarface’s” most visible history suggests.

Measured is the volume with which Tony suggests much drug-game strategy. But he’s a jackal who only wants to pillage and plunder, concealing himself behind a cover of rational thought. After a handful of assassinations and deals, Tony ascends to the cocaine trade’s upper echelon — shepherded by kingpin Frank Lopez (Robert Loggia), whom you know he’s simply biding time to supplant. All that was Frank’s will be his, including Elvira, who hitches her wagon to Tony more out of fear.

Tony’s apex arrives during the film’s best scene — a confrontation in Frank’s office after his henchmen try to assassinate Tony. In he struts, wearing the same suit bloodied by Frank’s bullets, waving a gun. He plops down confidently in front of a mural in Frank’s office — a skyline of Miami not unlike the “Escape to Paradise” billboard in “Carlito’s Way.” It’s crucial and telling that Tony never really looks at this depiction of paradise. Carlito Brigante looked forward to it. Tony Montana wants it behind him — a grand theatrical backdrop rather than any sort of tangible enjoyment, a set dressing for his life.

Also great in this sequence is legendary character actor Harris Yulin, as a corrupt cop who has previously tried to shake Tony down. Rather than intervene, he keeps still, not even uncrossing his arms, because he knows he’ll have to adapt to the new ecosystem soon to arrive. But he’s called on the delusion that he’s running the room soon enough. And the punchline to hapless lackey Ernie’s fate? Priceless. (Before he was a celebrated director, Oliver Stone wrote “Scarface” while trying to kick his own cocaine habit, and it’s full of his best wily sonofabitch tendencies.)

If “Scarface” ever slams the pedal to the floor a la “Wolf” to illustrate the highs of living large, it’s a montage at the 103-minute mark — after he sees a Pan Am blimp soar by his window that reads “The World is Yours,” a preprogrammed message he adopts as his own. Fat bowties of hundred-dollar bills bulge in a money counter. He presents a chained tiger to Elvira as a wedding gift. He buys Gina a salon she can call her own. We see the debut of his logo — a set of bones that cross together to create a “T” and “M.” He turns his home into a mansion replete with Roman decoration accents. He brazenly nickel-and-dimes a money launderer over a half-a-percentage discrepancy on his $284,000 take.

But even each of these is soured by reality that is soon to strike. The greedy suits at the bank inevitably want a higher percentage of the take. Elvira loathes and leaves him. His affection for Gina leads to tragedy. His logo looks as much like a pair of crutches as it does a badass representation of swagger. His vast home only accentuates his isolation. And that guy whose balls he’s busting about $1,500 turns out to be an undercover federal agent.

If Tony learns anything from all of this, it’s that the hoity-toity need the hoi polloi like him to be the bad guy — a notion he points out during a fine, foul-mouthed monologue at a fancy restaurant.

But just because he calls them out on their hypocrisy, the movie doesn’t suggest he wants to defy it by sparing the mother and child. “Scarface” suggests Tony’s grasp-exceeding reach for American “exceptionalism” will be his undoing. Too bad it doesn’t more rigidly stick to its guns before bringing them out blazing for the indelible climax.

Elvira is gone. Tony insists he’ll start a war with Sosa he can’t possibly win. He has killed his lieutenant, Manny, for the unpardonable crime of marrying Gina. As Sosa’s men storm the grounds, Tony’s face is framed atop piles of cocaine from which he’s snorting — hung low but still at the summit of this mountain before his death. An inconsolable Gina, who calls Tony out on his incestuous desires, shoots him, and then the siege begins.

Given Tony’s previous luck, it’s not unreasonable to think he can outrun this, too, especially when he pulls out his now-infamous “little friend,” an M16 with a grenade launcher. However misguided the motivation that brings it on, this final scene is brilliantly composed — a humid, horrific orgy of blood, wood, fire, sweat and dust that’s like Shakespearean tragedy spilling forth from a neon-lit stage.

Ultimately, neither “Scarface” nor “Wolf” predictably wag their fingers in cautionary fashion or pumps their fists in unfettered celebration of mankind’s awfulness. Both, however, are unapologetically unafraid to force a gaze at the decrepit human condition behind the pursuit of excess and let you reconcile how you feel about what you’ve seen all on your own — and for those reasons, both films have earned a legacy however co-opted or commodified they might become. 



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