Scarface 20th Anniversary SE Review
Scarface wants to be an epic drama of Shakespearean proportions about a little man who, in classic style, gains the whole world but loses his soul in the process. If it ultimately fails to reach such heights of grand tragedy, it's a pretty damn good effort helped along by some gorgeously stylish filmmaking and a monumental performance from Al Pacino.
The film is broadly based on the 1932 Howard Hawks film which was set during Prohibition in the 20s. De Palma and screenwriter Oliver Stone update this to 1980, when President Carter opened the Miami harbour to Cuban refugees. Castro used this as an opportunity to clear his jails of minor-league thugs and assorted political prisoners, and out of the 125,000 people who arrived in Florida, over 25,000 had criminal records. One of these is Tony Montana (Pacino), a small-time hood who dreams of making it big in America, the land of opportunity. The opportunity comes when his friend Manny (Bauer) takes up a contract on a Communist secret policeman who has fallen from grace, in exchange for green cards for the men who carry out the killing. One hit later and Tony and friends are on their way to the big time, hooking up with drug dealing would-be playboy Frank Lopez (Loggia). Tony falls for Lopez's girlfriend, Elvira (Pfeiffer) and falls even harder for Lopez's lifestyle and power. It's only a matter of time before he is rising to the top, double-dealing where necessary and killing anyone who gets in his way. Tony's fatal flaw, however, is revealed when he visits his neglected family - his feelings for his sister, Gina (Mastrantonio) are considerably deeper than simply brotherly affection. Meanwhile, the money is piling up, as is the cocaine, and a terrible price is about to be exacted for Tony's success.
It's the old Mephistophelean bargain again, in other words, but it's given new life through Al Pacino's remarkable performance. From the opening scene where he wisecracks his way through an interrogation to the riveting cimax where he defies his enemies to destroy him, he radiates charisma and that alert intelligence which is the mark of most classic Pacino performances. Tony is a fascinating character in Pacino's hands; he's a foul man in virtually every way, but Pacino redeems him through a humour that emerges now and then and, ultimately, through a sense that Tony is destroyed by the ambition that initially drives him to succeed. Like Macbeth (how's that for impudent comparison ?) Tony exploits his dark side for the sake of power, but is eventually brought down by his own hubris - and in the Tony's final scenes, I'm always reminded of Macbeth's redemption through courage as he goes to certain oblivion at the hands of his enemies. Pacino's physical performance is also interesting, as the initially wired Tony becomes increasingly lethargic and eventually just slumps in front of mountains of cocaine on his desk.
Remakes are a tricky thing. It's hard to renew material without arousing unfavourable comparisons with the original and the only other way would seem to be attempting a complete reproduction - which is what Gus Van Sant did in his ambitious and interesting, but basically pointless version of Psycho. It's made even harder when you're remaking a classic. Philip Kaufman had this trouble with Invasion of the Bodysnatchers but he got away with it by framing it in such terms that one could regard it as much as a sequel as a remake - after all, Kevin McCarthy is still shouting his warnings just like at the end of the original film, and still being ignored. But remaking Howard Hawks is another matter. Hawks is rightfully regarded as one of the all-time Hollywood greats, a director who made more than his fair share of classic movies and Scarface is loved by many people as one of the defining gangster films, along with The Public Enemy and Little Caesar. Personally, I think it's one of Hawks' weaker films but it's still pretty amazing to see what he was managing to do with the relatively new medium of sound cinema back in 1932. However, as De Palma himself has said, his remake is just as much inspired by a film like Huston's Treasure of Sierra Madre, a cynical examination of the failure of the American dream in which Humphrey Bogart played Fred C.Dobbs, another low-life turned anti-hero
Brian De Palma tones down his usual stylistics in favour of a more controlled narrative approach which is centred around Pacino's performance. He works with the brilliant cinematographer John A.Alonzo to create a heated, hyper-intense version of Miami, actually shot in Los Angeles, and allows his actors breathing space to create characters. This is more successful with the men than the women. Steven Bauer makes something genuinely touching out of the naive Manny who is dangerously innocent of Tony's obsessions and Robert Loggia is hilariously smug as Frank Lopez, prone to handing out fatuous paternal advice - "Lesson number one; never underestimate the other guy's greed" - which he fails to follow himself, with disastrous consequences. There are also great bits by Harris Yulin as a self-satisfied cop and F.Murray Abraham as Omar the henchman who looks like a velocipator, but slightly less friendly. The women, unfortunately, tend to be landed with the remnants of the original film. Michelle Pfeiffer is funny and elegant as Elvira, oozing bored decadence from every pore, but she has very little to do apart from bicker with Tony. Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, suffering one of the worst hairstyles in film history, tries hard, but the script defeats her since there's only one aspect to her character, and not a very interesting aspect at that.
In fact, the script is the biggest problem with the film. Oliver Stone writes good, snappy dialogue for Tony and the other men - their in-car conversations are a delight - but once the big speeches begin, he seems rather lost. Tony's set-piece rant to a restaurant full of WASPs is one long collection of cliches, saved only by Pacino's delivery, and when Elvira says, "Look what's happened to us", you're reminded of the old dictum that if you want to send a message, you should use Western Union. She spells out the point of the film - that Tony destroys himself and everyone around him - in unnecessary fashion, insulting the intelligence of the audience. Worst of all are the family scenes when Tony returns home to his mother and sister. His mother delivers the sort of poor-but-honest drivel that would have been considered passe back in 1932. As for the incest subplot, the kindest description would be that it is slightly less subtle than it could have been - when Tony has one of his funny turns upon seeing sis with another bloke, the music goes hyper and Pacino gives us the mad, staring eyes. He doesn't actually say, "You touch my seeester gringo and I keeel you," but it's a close-run thing.
What's amazing, and a tribute to his skill as a director, is that despite the script problems, De Palma keeps the film under control with remarkable restraint for this period in his career, and serves the narrative and characters while still throwing in a few irresistable set-pieces in his classic style. Foremost among these is the classic chainsaw sequence - a drug deal goes horribly wrong and ends up as a bloodbath. It's executed so well that only on a second viewing do you realise that De Palma actually shows very little gore and uses angles and editing to get the required effect. There's also a kinetic shoot out in a mirror covered nightclub, featuring two of the most incompetent hit men ever to grace a thriller, and some inspired camerawork - I love the scene with the blimp saying "The World Is Yours", followed by the lingering crane shot away from Tony at the window, since it's beautiful and sad and more eloquent about spiritual desolation than the screenplay.
Scarface is a powerful film with a familiar message. If it fails to be genuinely tragic, that's because we never quite get the sense of Tony having very far to fall - he always seems to stay the same vicious hood he was at the start. Other aspects of the film don't help. The fashions are perfectly accurate for the period but look unfortunately ludicrous - was there ever a worse time for men's clothing - and its difficult to suppress a giggle when Pacino turns up sporting a collar the size of Bolivia. Worse still is the music score., Giorgio Moroder, erstwhile purveyor of disco-pap for films such as Flashdance, provides a score which is so dated it is, paradoxically, entirely appropriate for 1980. Unfortunately, it doesn't have the power to match the images and ends up sounding inadequate for the emotions it is supposed to be supporting. The only time it's effective is during the opening credits, when it has the right pounding sense of anticipation to go well with the TV news clips of the Cuban exodus.
This film isn't quite the neglected masterpiece that some claim, although time has been very kind to it, but nor is it the piece of trash that most reviewers felt it was on first release. It's well made, well acted piece of cinema which takes a familiar genre and re-defines it for the drug culture of the eighties. As such, it's probably right that it should take its place among the great gangster movies. Whether or not I prefer it to The Untouchables and Carlito's Way depends on mood but I think it has something special and unique which those two films, good as they are, can't quite match.
The first question fans of this film will want answered is whether its worth upgrading the original R2 release from 2001 for this new 2 disc release. The answer is yes, but not without certain reservations. Those whose priority is the quality of the transfer will certainly want to replace their old copies but anyone who is interested in the bonus features is likely to be disappointed.
Let's start with the good news. This new anamorphic 2.35:1 transfer is pleasing to look at. At first, I feared the worst as the Universal logo contains some nasty white scratches. But as soon as the credits started, I relaxed in front of a detailed, clean and sharp transfer. The colours will knock your eyes out, as they should considering the rich cinematography from John A. Alonzo and the reds and yellows are particularly lively. The excessive grain and print damage of the 2001 release, which was otherwise an improvement on the original US release, has largely gone although I did notice some serious edge enhancement issues in places and occasional texturing is distracting in some of the richer colours. Blacks are deep and there are few issues with artefacting. Overall, despite a few minor flaws, this is a very nice transfer.
Two soundtracks are provided; DTS 5.1 Surround and Dolby Digital 5.1. The original release contained a DD 4.0 soundtrack which did the job quite nicely but lacked a certain punch. These remixes, presumably authorised by the director, are an improvement although in some respects they're not much different from the 4.0 version. Separations are improved with the front channels coming across considerably more strongly and the surround channels are used to reasonably good effect, largely with the musical score. But the rears are hardly used at all and the sub doesn't seem to get much action either, except during the gun battles towards the end. I didn't notice a great deal of difference between DTS and DD 5.1 tracks to be honest, although I found the dialogue more natural sounding on the DTS track. The best way to appreciate the soundtrack is to play it as loud as you can, if only in order to give the cat a well-deserved fright.
The main disappointment with this set is that the extras - all contained on the second disc - are so flimsy and, in one key case, all too familiar. This is the documentary, divided into three segments for no good reason and virtually identical to the one on the original release. The main change is that its cut up into three parts - The Rebirth of Scarface, lasting 10 minutes; Acting Scarface, lasting 15 minutes and the 30 minute Creating Scarface. From what I could see there is no new material here and some comments have been removed. You can watch all three parts in one go by selecting Play All but, frankly, I preferred this in its original incarnation. The producer of the documentary, Laurent Bouzereau, said back in 2001 that the new edition of the film would feature new interviews with Michelle Pfeiffer but this has not transpired in this release. The content of the documentaries is fine but a bit superficial somehow - interviews with Pacino, De Palma, Stone, Alonzo, Bauer and Martin Bregman, interspersed with a lot of film clips.
Scarface: The TV Version is a brief look at the clean-up changes made for the film's premiere on American network TV. The Deleted Scenes section lasts a little over 20 minutes and contains a seemingly random selection of cut scenes that are presented with no contextualisation at all. The best of them are the duologues between Pacino and Bauer but there's nothing in this selection which isn't eminently missable. All the scenes are presented in non-anamorphic 2.35:1. We get two trailers; the teaser trailer, portentous and unintentionally funny, and the quite lengthy full theatrical trailer. Both these are presented in non-anamorphic 1.85:1. Picture quality is very good.
The most bizarre extra is Def Jam Presents: Origins of a hip-hop classic. I'm going to sound my age here but I have no knowledge of hip-hop music and I didn't know that this film is revered amongst that genre's practitioners. This 20 minute featurette enlightened me on some scores and puzzled me further on others. Why do they all have such ridiculously impractical names ? Why do they have no sense of irony or proportion ? Why do they think Tony Montana is the ultimate ghetto super-hero when his sole goal in the film is to get out of the ghetto and make lots of money in as capitalist a manner as possible ? "I think people don't realise the importance of a film like this. A film which failed at the box-office but which has become a ghetto classic." Quite apart from the fact that it didn't fail at the box office, being one of the big hits of the 1983-84 holiday season, I'm not entirely sure what a ghetto classic is, apart from any film with lots of guns. Full of unintentional humour, this is a must-see for anyone middle aged who thinks that youth culture is getting sillier all the time.
English subtitles are provided for the film and the extras and there are some marvellous animated menus which are atmospheric but not too tricky to navigate.
Scarface was a hugely important film for De Palma. It showed that he could handle material outside the horror/suspense genre with a sure touch and paved the way for films like The Untouchables and Casualties Of War. This new special edition isn't particularly special in terms of the extra features but the improved sound and vision make it worth buying for fans of the film.