Scarface (1983) movie poster

(1983) dir. Brian De Palma
viewed: 09/08/06

For some reason, I had never seen this iconic 1980’s film from the significant, if not brilliant Brian De Palma.  My personal favorite of De Palma’s was his poppy, strange adaptation of Stephen King’s Carrie (1976), but his career has been marked by interesting, if not fascinating fare.  Perhaps, Scarface was one of his true peaks in terms of popularity.  It’s an epic, clocking nearly 3 hours of running time.  Oliver Stone wrote the script.  Giorgio Moroder created the original music.  And a young, beautiful and compelling Michelle Pfeiffer is the cocaine-addicted moll.  It’s got a lot going for it.  It’s a re-imagining, if not a re-make of Howard Hawks’ earlier gangster film.  And actually, in retrospect, watching it prior to this could have been informative.

Frankly, Al Pacino is a joke.  He doesn’t just chew scenery, he utterly masticates it, digests it, shits it out.  His Cuban accent is ridiculous.  There are a lot of Italians and Jews, but not a lot of Cubans or even Latinos playing primary roles.  It’s bizarre.  Pacino acts well with his face and body gestures, but emotes like the proverbial ham, hammier than ham.  He’s the whole pig.  It is painful at times to hear him speak.

The film has this cultural focus on the Cuban immigrants of 1980 and this criticism of Fidel Castro that I don’t have enough historical information to fully critique.  It just strikes me as weird and lacking analysis or true cultural connection.  A strange, phony atmosphere.  Fully 1980’s, which feels genuine due to the hairdos and the post-disco pop.

The best scene in the movie is the “chainsaw” scene which is relatively early in the film and seems to promise more than the rest of the film has to deliver.  I love the shot that tracks from the apartment down to the car outside, waiting, casually, while the inside is going crazy and someone is getting chainsawed to bits.  It’s the masterpiece of the film.  Later, the film delivers a fine camp moment, when Tony Montana’s younger sister comes nearly nude, provoking him sexually, and then starts shooting at him until she is gunned down by rival hoods.  It’s pretty over-the-top and has some trash appeal.

Overall, though, the film is not De Palma’s best.  The attitude toward Pacino’s Tony is mixed sympathy and total revulsion.  He is just a killer, a criminal, with shallow sensibilities, while living “the American Dream” in criminal style.  It could in a sense be a parable of the 1980’s.  There are probably better contexts in which to watch this.   Some context, perhaps.  On its own, I’d say it’s not bad but not great.  But it’s definitely a movie of its time, which perhaps is the best way to watch it.

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