Introduction to Scarface (Brian De Palma, 1983)

September 1, 2011 by Simon Kinnear in Introductions, Retro with 0 Comments

Bling is Blu with the hi-def debut of Brian De Palma’s Scarface. Here’s an introduction to the film I gave at Derby QUAD in June 2010.

Introduction to Scarface

Loud suits. Electro-pop. Undiluted greed. Right-wing politics. Welcome to Brian De Palma’s Scarface, not just one of the defining films of the 1980s, but probably the defining film about the 1980s.

If Scarface has an almost self-parodic quality of being ‘ripped from the headlines,’ it’s entirely deliberate. The film is an update of the 1932 Scarface, one of those great screen originals that pioneered the gangster movie by providing a shocking mirror to the era of Prohibition and bootlegging. Produced by Howard Hughes, directed by Howard Hawks, the men offered up Tony Camonte, a thinly disguised avatar for Al Capone, then still at large on the streets of Chicago. With a hurtling camera, endless murder and a punchy, non-judgemental standpoint on its villains, the film had the vibrancy of newsreel – a perceived authenticity that frightened the censors into delaying the film’s release until a moralistic subtitle, ‘The Shame of a Nation,’ could be added.

Fast-forward to the 1980s. The obvious temptation would be to remake Scarface as a period piece. That was the default setting for the major gangster films of the previous generation, such as Bonnie and Clyde and The Godfather, not to mention Once Upon A Time in America (then still in production) or De Palma’s later The Untouchables. Fortunately, the director first hired to remake Scarface, Sidney Lumet – the veteran of contemporary law and order dramas 12 Angry Men, Serpico and Prince and the City – had a brainwave. His suggestion was to make Scarface in the same way as Hawks and Hughes did, a film about the here and now.  And Lumet knew exactly where to look for Tony Camonte’s modern-day equivalent.

The remake has its roots in an actual incident in 1980 – the Mariel boatlift – which represented a significant flare-up in the ongoing dispute between America and Castro’s Cuba. Facing an economic downturn, Castro granted an exodus to a number of Cubans who wished to leave his dictatorship. Of course, by the time over 100,000 refugees made the journey from the port of Mariel to Miami, the U.S. Government realised that the numbers had been swelled with ‘undesirables,’ released quietly from prisons and mental institutions and put on the boats. It was another nail in the coffin of the Carter administration, paving the way for Ronald Reagan and a free-market era. But for the Cubans who made it across the water, Miami was a land of opportunity.

Enter Tony with the scarred face, now renamed Montana and played with undisguised relish by Al Pacino, the flamboyant flipside to the introverted Michael Corleone. Pacino painted a fictionalised but scarily believable character study of an unrepentant, ambitious thug, prepared to do anything to get to the top. A billboard glares in garish neon, “The World is Yours,” and Montana believes it. Friends might get executed, enemies slaughtered, but that doesn’t matter as long as Montana survives to make the money. And, of course, when you get the money, you get the power. Then when you get the power, then you get the women.

As written by Oliver Stone, this was politics with the gloves off: a bloody, bombastic rise and fall saga.  Lumet hated it, and so it was that the door opened for Brian De Palma – a director who, ironically, had passed on the project when it was still a boring pastiche of a 30s gangster flick – to realise that Stone’s treatment was probably the perfect showcase for his bravura talent.

De Palma had been directing since the late 60s, and had made a fascinating career journey from revolutionary firebrand to postmodern stylist. His early films, inspired by the political cinema of Jean Luc-Godard and made with a pre-fame Robert De Niro, were angry attacks on Vietnam-era America…but by the mid-70s, he’d followed fellow Movie Brats Coppola and Scorsese into Hollywood, making a splash – literally – with the rivers of blood seen in Carrie. De Palma was like a boy in a sandpit, pushing cinema technique to its limits by, well, flinging everything at the screen: complex camera moves, split-screen, vivid colours. More often than not, this meant copying and refining specific shots and sequences from his heroes, notably Alfred Hitchcock.

Having seen what friend and rival Coppola had done in the Godfather films, De Palma wanted a gangster epic of his own – and here he had one with Al Pacino attached, for good measure. But it was only by updating Scarface from the cold Chicago of the 1930s to the hazy excess of 80s Miami, that the material clicked with De Palma. Now he could do what he did best: redo a classic, with as much modern flamboyance as he could get away with.

And, as it turned out, he could get away with a lot. With Stone’s profane, psychotic script providing a suitably unrestrained and unhinged template, De Palma went for it. Montana’s rise to the top is stratospheric, an orgy of death and destruction motored by Pacino’s non-stop yammer. It’s a big performance, so De Palma makes everything else bigger to compensate – sets, costumes, music. Look out in the credits for Ferdinando Scarfiotti, the Art Director who made his name on the opulent, stylish films of Bernando Bertolucci, and who would later win an Oscar for The Last Emperor. What is Scarfiotti’s job title here? “Visual Consultant” – and this is one of those films that deserves such a job, a three-hour catwalk of early 80s fashion. Similarly, the soundtrack isn’t by the usual orchestral manoeuvres but a pulsating, synth-pop shimmer created by disco legend Giorgio Moroder. This is a film that screams 1983.

But Stone had done his homework. Underneath De Palma’s high style lurked a scarily realistic look at the growing influence – and menace – of cocaine in Miami. The Florida city had become a dropping-off zone for the blizzard of blow surging north from Colombia and its neighbours, the conduit by which middle-men like Tony Montona reached the noses of America’s rich and famous. For a guy like Tony, this was prime real-estate: the 80s equivalent of a Wild West frontier town, and just as lawless. Judging from Cocaine Cowboys, the 2006 feature-length documentary about the real-life events behind Scarface, the film actually downplayed the level of brutality and excess.

Culturally, though, Scarface opened the doors to a new aesthetic. Its most obvious imitator was Miami Vice, which brought De Palma’s style into primetime, but the film has seeped into pop culture as a shorthand for excess – it’s the model for video games like Grand Theft Auto, and a benchmark of aspiration for wannabe gangsters everywhere. This is the film often cited as the favourite of Premiership footballers and rappers, who see a kindred spirit in Tony’s rise from no-good punk kid to multi-millionaire, and who tend to model their palatial mansions on the gaudy décor seen here.

The fact that Scarface shows the rise and the fall doesn’t seem to have occurred – but then that’s what you get when you let Brian De Palma loose on a film. Oliver Stone’s script, beneath its hip profanity, is an old-school morality tale, but De Palma is all about the bling.  Even Tony Montana’s downfall is so over-the-top it becomes a kind of cock-eyed tribute to consumption, albeit here it’s about the size of the artillery rather than the size of the medallions. When Tony asks his enemies to “Say hello to his little friend,” he is of course joking. Nothing is little in Scarface.

Read more of my film introductions here.  Scarface is released on Blu-ray on Monday 5th September.

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