Scarface (1983)recommended viewing

It's all okay, because he had a code of honor
★★★★
☆☆
Released: 
1983
Director: 
Brian De Palma
Starring: 
Al Pacino, Steven Bauer, Michelle Pfeiffer, Robert Loggia
The Setup: 
Rise and fall of a gangster.
Discussion: 

Now if you read this site much at all you know that Brian De Palma is my favorite director. So obviously I had seen this movie previously, twice, and been really unimpressed each time. One factor is that I have no inherent interest in gangsters or the typical rise-and-fall structure of their films, which this one definitely follows, but mostly that this doesn't really have any of De Palma's showy film setpieces, and just seemed really straightforward. Then I recently re-watched the 1932 Howard Hawks film, and it made me realize, in a way I hadn't before, how much of a remake this is, and that offered me a way to enjoy this movie: to see how De Palma would approach remaking the Hawks film. I also found that although the film still doesn't feature a lot of showy De Palma flair, it does have a lot of less noticeable lengthy, complicated shots and a lot of other features that make it very much a De Palma film, although one of more solid, steady craftsmanship more than big and ornate. I should mention, also, that this has a script by Oliver Stone, so you also have to factor in that big influence in its creation.

We open with a title saying that upon taking power, Castro let anyone who wanted to leave Cuba leave, and also emptied Cuba's prisons and sent 25,000 criminals to the U.S. This movie places Tony Montana as part of that population. We have footage of real boats filled with Cubans approaching the U.S., which nicely gives this whole thing a historical context, and also brings that Oliver Stone edge of social commentary. We then kick off the movie with a long interview with Montana by the immigration authority, which introduces us to the character and his chutzpah, as well as delivering a short history and just letting us get to know him in general. This could be seen in contrast to most contemporary films, which usually let us get to know its characters by seeing them in action. Montana and his best friend, Manny, are in a detention camp underneath an interstate, which is where it occurred to me that there is something distinctly De Palma about creating shots that buzz with a strange energy from taking place in bright, unforgiving sunlight. Tony is told that he and Manny can win favor with local gangster Frank Lopez, as well as get out of he camp and get a green card, by killing a person being processed through the camp, which a prison riot allows them to do. This is the first scene in which you'd expect a big De Palma setpiece, and it kind of is... just a very tepid, more workmanlike than flamboyant one.

They are released, and go to work in a burger shack, where Tony is flipping burgers. He complains that it's a crappy life, and not at all a step up from where he was, etc. He and Manny are offered a small job by Lopez, a marijuana deal, but Tony refuses it as too small, and ends up getting a cocaine-based job. These are delivered by F. Murray Abraham as Omar, and... I just love F. Murray Abraham in these roles. Yes, he veers into camp, but... so? That's what makes him delightful. So Tony, Manny and two others have to deliver money and pick up the coke. The other guys wait in the convertible, parked along the boardwalk outside, as Tony goes in. Here's where I noticed a complicated De Palma shot I hadn't noticed before, as the camera tracks across the street and up to the apartment. They meet a guy who introduces his moll, splayed across the bed, and she looks like a nasty dried-up lizard. The deal quickly goes sour, and Tony watches as the guy he came with is carved up by a chainsaw. Then more De Palma fun as we see the window from the outside, knowing what is happening just within, and come down slowly to the car of Tony's assistants, where one of them is flirting with bikini-clad girl. Then the camera tracks back across the street and up to the apartment, all one unbroken take. The assistants soon barge in and Tony escapes with the drugs and the cash.

Tony brings the money and cash back to Lopez himself, who is impressed. There he gets an eyeful of Michelle Pfeiffer as Elvira, trophy wife of Lopez. Tony comes on to Elvira right there, on the first night of meeting her, with no regard that she's this fearsome crime boss' wife. She is hilariously bitchy at the beginning. One key feature of Tony's character, especially clear in the Hawks film, is his almost psychotic confidence and sense of entitlement. There it was just a feature of his character, making him what he is, but here, somehow, it takes a while to sink in. Tony says he wants "What's coming to me. The world and everything in it." He is pining over her to Manny, who tells him "You get the money, you get the power. You get the power, then you get the woman."

SPOILERS > > >
Tony is reunited with his mother and sister, Gina. I didn't catch how they had come to be in the States, but no matter. His mother wants nothing to do with him and disowns him, while Gina is delighted to see him. Outside, Manny observes that Gina is pretty, and Tony tells him that she is off limits. We start to have the device to show Tony's mania over his sister, which is hearing an insectoid buzzing as he starts to think about her.

Tony and Omar are sent on a job, and Omar is dumbfounded as Tony starts making a deal himself, against Lopez's orders. The thug tells Tony that Omar is a federal agent and hangs him from a helicopter. Back home, Lopez berates the enraged Tony for making his own deal. Tony stands up to Lopez, and soon makes an explicit play for Elvira, right in front of Lopez. He sees Gina on the dance floor with a man, and beats the guy up. In the Hawks film, the sister explains that she is eighteen and just wants to start living life, but Tony is keeping her sequestered, and we have a lot more of her yearning to break out of Tony's control. She also makes several plays for the Manny character, who refuses because he knew the trouble it would bring. I'm not sure why they omitted all that stuff, as it sets up a key development later, but they do, and Gina vanishes until the end of the film.

Two thugs shoots up a nightclub, trying to kill Tony, in another sequence begging for the full De Palma treatment, but he plays it cool. Tony knows that Lopez sent the guys to kill him, and arranges for someone in on it to call Lopez at 3am. Tony and Manny go to Lopez's office, which has a large bright red and orange mural of the Havana skyline, used to deft effect as the backdrop here. The call comes in, Tony knows Lopez did it, and Lopez ends up begging for his life, offering ten million and Elvira. He is killed, as well as a corrupt cop, leaving only one large thug of Lopez's. He's standing there, bravely expecting to be shot, when Tony offers him a job. One of Tony's assistants hilariously says "Hey man! You got a job!" and there's a great shot of the thug, hands shaking, taking a drink as he calms down from his near death.

Seizing Lopez's assets, the money starts rolling in. Tony buys a huge mansion and marries Elvira. In this film, he sees the phrase "The world is yours" on the Goodyear blimp, and adopts it as his motto, having it put on a large globe that stands in his home. It was a surprise to see that this element also originates in the Hawks film. Tony sets up a hair salon for Gina and is taking so much money to the bank it's becoming a bit of a problem.

Things start to sour fast. Manny thinks Tony is going a bit nuts with the security on his home. Tony and Elvira are sucking up cocaine, and we're supposed to understand it as breaking a cardinal rule to get high on your own supply. Tony is caught by the police, and it looks like he'll face three years in prison, where he is not at all keen to go. He is introduced to this bigger gangster Sosa, who in turn introduces him to a number of officials. Sosa will keep Tony out of prison, but the jobs and the stakes are going to get even higher.

Meanwhile, Elvira is getting snippy, and Tony is offending them both. One night at an expensive dinner, Tony looks around and say "Is this it? Is this what it's all about?" He insults Elvira by saying that she's done so many drugs that she's infertile. She stands and makes a scene, then walks out. She is never seen again. Then he insults Manny, and he walks out. Tony gets up and starts screaming at the disturbed patrons of the restaurant, telling them "You need people like me."

Then he meets with another of Sosa's men, who plants a bomb under some politician's car. They are going to follow him down to the United Nations, where he is scheduled to give a speech (denouncing Sosa), and blow him up. But suddenly the politician's wife and daughters get in the car with him--De Palma has some wicked shots of the girls playing patty-cake in the back window, driving up the suspense--and saying that killing women and children is beyond the pale. The bomber is still going to go through with it, so when the time comes, Tony kills him. This seals his fate. When Sosa calls, Tony just acts like he can do it sometime later. It's a little funny, because when Tony gets home from the assassination attempt, he throws open a cigar box-sized box of cocaine, tips it on its side, cuts it with his palm, and snorts it all.

He finds out that Gina is missing, and when he finds her, Manny answers the door. When Tony sees Gina upstairs emerging in a bathrobe, he impulsively shoots Manny. They were married, and thought they'd surprise Tony. This is a bit disingenuous, as both of them know that Tony would NOT take well to the idea. In the Hawks film, we see the Manny character resist and finally give in to the sister, and when he does give in, it's partially because he's tired of playing second fiddle. I don't know why they chose to jettison that part, but they did.

Back at home, we see Sosa's forces infiltrating Tony's house on the security cams, but Tony doesn't notice. He has a huge pile of coke on his desk, and is sucking up a ton. Gina comes in with a gun, and starts shooting at him. She is shot by one of Sosa's agents, and the giant final shootout begins. This is where the famous line "Say hello to my little friend," comes from, and Tony gets shot up beyond all belief, and realism, and only dies when shot in the back by some badass. This is one of the few subtle differences from the Hawks film, where Tony realizes there's no hope and essentially commits suicide by cop. Here, Tony is cast as somewhat of a mythological figure, who stands up to an insane amount of bullets and only falls when shot in the back, which is supposed to be understood as dishonorable. He falls into the pool below him, right under the globe that says "The World Is Yours."
< < < SPOILERS END

So I enjoyed it much more this time than I ever have, I think because more than another rise-and-fall gangster film, which I have little interest in, I was able to look at it within the context of a remake, and as a De Palma film, and as De Palma remaking a Howard Hawks film. Pacino gives an excellent performance, although one in which we have no idea where his confidence and entitlement come from, and we aren’t let into his darker thoughts or vulnerabilities that much to give him too much shading. De Palma’s direction is good, and you have to admire him for having the sense to step back and let the outrageous story tell itself. Although, by this time, the story isn’t all that outrageous anymore. People walked out and the film originally received an X rating, but now, when you see the chainsaw scene, you notice that you don’t really see anything except spattered blood. By the way, the MPAA finally gave an edited version an R rating, but De Palma realized that they had no idea which version was which. So he switched the films and released an X-rated one under an R rating.

Comparing the two versions reveals two subtle changes that mark this film as belonging to the contemporary idea of the gangster as a somewhat romantic and perhaps a touch misunderstood figure. In the Hawks film, Tony is a bad person, and the whole point of the film is to demonstrate what happens to such bad people. Here, Tony refuses to kill the woman and children, because he has morals, see, and this is the reason he ends up killed. So this movie makes him out as a bit of a martyr—he died for his ideals!—and thus becomes one of the early examples of the criminal having a “code of honor,” a cliché seen as recently as Fast and Furious 6. You see, all that crime and killing is pretty much okay, because he had a code of honor. And if your spouse or child were killed in a drug slaying, I’m sure you wouldn’t mind at all, if you knew the gangster had a code of honor. So it’s just an extremely specious way to justify crime, and this is one of the earlier examples of it. For an example of what happens when two “codes of honor” come into conflict, see Only God Forgives.

The second key difference is that in the Hawks film, the crime that leads to Tony’s death is the murder of his best friend, here the Manny character. He kills his friend for marrying his sister, then that act is what gets him killed, by the police. This positions the reason for his death as his own moral failing, whereas in the remake, as noted, he is killed because underneath it all, he has morals. You can decide which view is actually harsher. It is SO Oliver Stone that in the original the cops kill Tony, while in the remake, the cops are powerless, and it’s only the rival drug dealer that is able to bring Tony down.

On a separate note, as an example of why a respectable Wikipedia is a worthless Wikipedia with no reason to exist, note how you can get through the entire page on this film without seeing a single mention of this film’s iconic place in the hip-hop community.

Anyway, you’ve probably seen it by now, so no need to tell you. If you haven’t, it’s a very good rise-and-fall style gangster film that is very rooted in the events and look of the 80s, with a great performance at its center. But you still have to like gangster flms.

Should you watch it: 

If you’ve never seen it, definitely.