Sunday, July 20, 2014

Scarface (Universal, 1983)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was the 1983 remake of Scarface, which I’d just recorded from Turner Classic Movies on Wednesday with their double bills of classic crime films and their remakes: the 1931 film The Criminal Code and its 1950 remake, Convicted; then the two versions of Scarface back to back. (Ironically, as I pointed out in my notes on the 1932 version, both The Criminal Code and Scarface were directed by Howard Hawks and featured Boris Karloff in important character-villain roles pre-Frankenstein.) Charles had never seen the 1983 Scarface before and I hadn’t either; the film’s reputation for ultra-violence had put me off, and while I admire its star, Al Pacino, Brian de Palma has never been one of my favorite directors. He has too much of the eager-beaver film student about him, relying way too much on the work of his elders and betters — not only Hitchcock (he made thinly veiled remakes of Vertigo and Psycho that were so obviously derivative Saturday Night Live once did a sketch in which de Palma’s next film was going to be called The Clams, featuring a screamingly funny film clip of killer clams massed on a playground monkey-bars set in homage to you know what … ) but in this film Billy Wilder (two shots of a murder victim lying face down in a swimming pool), Orson Welles (a shoot-out in the mirrored dining room of a fancy restaurant), and Tobe Hooper (one of the early murder scenes involves a crazed drug lord hacking someone to death with a chain saw). I had also assumed from what I’d read about it that the 1983 Scarface took nothing from the original but the basic situation — a kill-crazy thug sets out to murder his way to the top of a criminal enterprise, does so but is ultimately brought down by his enemies — but in fact screenwriter Oliver Stone (who, according to an “trivia” poster, wrote this tale about cocaine dealers while battling cocaine addiction himself) stuck surprisingly closely to the template of Ben Hecht’s script for the 1932 version, and quite a few of the characters (not just the lead) are derived from the original. Tony Camonte becomes Tony Montana[1] (Al Pacino), a refugee from Cuba deported in the 1980 Mariel boatlift (a sententious foreword — another element from the 1932 version that got transferred to this one — explains that Fidel Castro made it seem like a humanitarian gesture to allow Cubans with relatives in the U.S. to rejoin their families, but he also sneaked out some of his most hardened criminals, and the film claimed that about one-fifth of the 125,000 people who left in the Mariel boatlift had criminal records (though some of them may have been Gays and others involved in what we would call “victimless crimes” — indeed, when Tony is being questioned by U.S. immigration officers two of the questions they ask him are whether he’s homosexual and whether he likes to dress as a woman, reminding us that as of 1983 we weren’t welcome either in Cuba or the U.S.).

Tony is one of them; the immigration authorities catch him with a gang tattoo between his thumb and forefinger and send him to the so-called “Freedom Camp” detention center, from which he gets out only by agreeing to murder another detainee, a former high-level official in Castro’s government who later fell afoul of the Jefe and got busted, but while he was in power ordered several people tortured, one of whose relatives wants him dead for revenge). We meet quite a few other people in the course of the movie with close counterparts in the 1932 version, including Tony’s mother (Miriam Colón); his sister Gina (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) — though the incestuous attraction between them is, not surprisingly, played far less subtly than it was in 1932 — his more businesslike boss in the drug trade, Frank Lopez (Robert Loggia); Lopez’s mistress, hard-bitten Elvira Hancock (Michelle Pfeiffer, the one actor in the piece who far surpasses her 1932 counterpart in creating an indelible character), whom Tony immediately gets the hots for even though she couldn’t be less interested in him; and the key role of Manny Ribera, Tony’s assistant and best friend (Steven Bauer — despite his German-sounding name he was actually the only one of the principal actors who was genuinely Cuban ­— playing the counterpart of George Raft’s character in the original) until he marries Gina and Tony catches them together and kills him. The script by Stone also makes use of some of the plot devices of the 1932 original, and the updates are sensible and well thought-out; instead of making Tony just another generic gangster, using the Mariel boatlift to give him a convincing backstory (the idea of Sidney Lumet, who was briefly assigned to this project before de Palma ended up directing it instead) works — and it may have been suggested by a part of Armitage Trail’s original Scarface novel Hecht had left out of the 1932 version, in which Tony (like Humphrey Bogart’s character in the 1939 film The Roaring Twenties) serves in World War I and thus finds, at least temporarily, a socially acceptable outlet for his love of killing. Obviously the criminal enterprise at the heart of the story had to be changed from illegal booze to illegal drugs, and the cocaine epidemic of the early 1980’s and the use of Florida as a smuggling point were easy enough to tie in with the original plot. Even that rather horrible scene in the editor’s office, crudely inserted into the 1932 version in a blatant attempt to appease the censors of the time, has its counterpart in a TV show Tony Montana watches from his sunken bubble bath in an ornate, Gatsby-esque living room, in which a typically hypocritical spokesperson for the “war on drugs” rejects the idea of putting the drug gangs out of business by legalizing drugs.

The best aspect of the 1983 Scarface is the tour de force performance by Al Pacino in the lead; playing a very different sort of gangster from his other most famous role in the genre — as the cool, calculating Michael Corleone in the Godfather movies — Pacino (like Paul Muni, an all-around actor who’d been effective in many different kinds of roles and was hardly a gangster specialist) makes Tony Montana believable; not only does he manage a far more convincing Cuban accent than anyone else in the cast, he manages to convey the character’s intensity, his energy, his drive and his determination to get ahead at all costs. Though Ben Mankiewicz (a nodule from one of Hollywood’s greatest family trees) said in his introduction that Pacino deliberately played the character two-dimensionally and wanted to do nothing that would give us any sympathy for him, he does come off (much the way Edward G. Robinson did in the original Little Caesar) as a striver, an immigrant who’s trying to make a success for himself and achieve the American dream, and like Robinson and Little Caesar’s writers (W. R. Burnett, Robert N. Lee and Francis Edward Faragoh), Pacino and Stone give us a sort of sneaking admiration for his determination and drive even though we loathe him for the way he’s chosen to make it. Pacino is also a good enough actor to make the character both amoral and immoral; it’s clear he takes a psychopathic joy in murder but it’s also clear he doesn’t particularly care about other people one way or another; he considers anyone in his path to be fair game. And that includes his relationship with women, including Elvira; once he kills Lopez, he literally regards her, along with Lopez’s drug organization, as part of his inheritance — and what makes Michelle Pfeiffer so good in her role is that she realizes she’s a pawn in a game between powerful men that literally regard women as property, and in order to get what she wants, which is a life of affluence and leisure, she’s willing to put up with that even though she can’t — or won’t — hide her distaste for the men she’s allowing to use her. Those are some of the good aspects of Scarface — along with the surprising fact that the movie is considerably less violent than its reputation; there are probably more violent incidents in the 1932 version and certainly violence takes up a much higher percentage of the running time of the 1932 than the 1983 version! It’s true de Palma and Stone take full advantage of the greater brutality allowable in 1983, including that early chainsaw scene (in which the first drug deal in which Tony is involved goes horribly awry and his brother is hacked to death before his eyes) and a quite effective suspense sequence in which, told to assassinate a Bolivian activist who’s about to spill the beans about his country’s cooperation with the drug lords before the United Nations, Tony, in his one act of conscience in the entire movie, refuses to set off the bomb — and instead shoots the guy who’s holding the control — because he won’t kill the man while his wife and children are in the car with him. (Remember that in Little Caesar Rico’s downfall also came through his one act of compassion in the entire movie — refusing to kill his best friend.)

The downside of Scarface is its sheer length and ponderousness; the film lasts 170 minutes (almost twice as long as the 1932 version), and whereas it probably would have been quite good at two hours the bloated running time makes the film seem patchy and dull, the sort of movie through which you wait impatiently through reams of boring exposition to get to the “good parts.” Though he’s expert at staging violent scenes, de Palma simply isn’t as good as Howard Hawks was in conveying that violence (mostly against each other) was the very milieu in which the gangsters lived; the big action set-pieces seem more like the production numbers in a 1930’s musical than integral parts of Tony Montana’s story. As Charles noted, the film suffers from an inflated sense of its own importance in more than its running time; while Howard Hawks and Ben Hecht just intended to create an exciting, action-packed gangster story, and succeeded, Brian de Palma and Oliver Stone seemed to want to steer Tony Montana’s story into some Big Statements about violence, capitalism (no doubt a Leftist like Stone liked the irony of having Tony flee a socialist dictatorship and then find that capitalism wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, either), the allure of drugs (one element of Tony’s downfall is when he becomes addicted to cocaine himself — he finally gets shot right after he’s consumed a small mountain of his own product — violating the rule Frank Lopez had laid down that the people in his operation should avoid getting hooked on their own stuff) and the overall Human Condition — only the movie’s political and philosophical pretensions seem spackled on to stretch the running time and make it seem more Important. The 1983 Scarface is a bad movie — despite the excellence of Pacino’s and Pfeiffer’s acting — and yet it’s a bad movie that haunts the imagination, not only because of the gap between what it could have been and what it is but also because the parts that work work so well you want the parts that don’t to be better. An indication of the difference between 1932 and 1983 and the reason movies run so much longer (and often to much less effect) now than they did in the 1930’s comes during the scene in which Tony, convinced (correctly) that Lopez sent a gang to ambush and kill him at the Babylon restaurant (where a young Richard Belzer, virtually unrecognizable in a bad long-haired wig, is the MC of the floor show), arranges for one of his gang members to call Lopez at precisely 3 p.m., tell him the hit on Tony failed and he got away, so Tony can see how Lopez reacts and therefore tell whether Lopez ordered the hit on him. Any 1930’s director would have cut quickly to the clock and then back to the main action (and if digital clocks had been commonplace in the 1930’s he would have cut to the clock at the precise moment it changed from 2:59 to 3:00); de Palma and his cinematographer, John A. Alonzo, pan to it instead, eating up crucial seconds and detracting from, not adding to, the suspense of the scene.

As far as the acting is concerned, it’s a toss-up between the two leads — both Muni and Pacino crudely but effectively “dumb down” their acting chops to play the thuglike character — and Michelle Pfeiffer far outpoints her opposite number in the 1932 version, the always wooden Karen Morley. (When I saw Morley playing the President’s mistress in William Randolph Hearst’s 1933 production Gabriel Over the White House I wrote, “One wonders not only how Hearst resisted the temptation to cast Marion Davies in the role but also if the film might not have actually been better with Davies as the female lead.”) But Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, an actress I ordinarily like, can’t or won’t make the sister either as alluring or as chilling as Ann Dvorak did in 1932, and as handsome as he is and as superficially effective in the part Steven Bauer is just too nice a “type” to be as credible as Tony’s sidekick and co-conspirator as George Raft (though the rumors that Raft had been a gangster himself until he fell into show business first as a dancer in New York nightclubs and then as a Hollywood star no doubt added credibility; he was supposedly the real-life basis for the Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. character in Little Caesar). The whole deficiency of de Palma’s and Stone’s approach to this material can be seen in the way they use the symbolism of the slogan “The World Is Yours,” which in the 1932 version hovers over Tony’s home via a lighted billboard for Cook’s Tours; in 1983 we see it only twice — on a blimp advertising Pan American Airways that flies by as Tony and Elvira are together (ironically Pan American Airways is now part of corporate history — if corporations have souls, as the U.S. Supreme Court essentially ruled in Hobby Lobby, is there a corporate heaven they go to when they die? — while Cook’s Tours is still a going concern), and again on a sculpture we haven’t seen before as Tony finally gets gunned down by a hit squad ordered by his Bolivian contact, Alejandro Sosa (Paul Shenar), for whom he was supposed to assassinate the Bolivian activist and didn’t, and his body falls off a carefully placed railing into a pool below. Once again, as with so much in this maddening movie, a device that in the original seemed well calculated and sensible comes off as just one more bit of ornamental spackling applied to the outside of this version.

[1] — An “Trivia” poster claimed that Oliver Stone gave the character the name “Montana” in honor of his favorite athlete, football star Joe Montana — but the symbolism of the name, which means “mountain” in Spanish, seems to go with and reflect the character’s outsized view of himself and his inflated sense of self-importance.