When I was 13, I made my first attempt at watching Brian De Palma’s Scarface on HBO. I’d heard plenty about the movie and was excited to finally get to watch it, but I didn’t make it far. About 15 minutes into the movie, the chainsaw massacre occurs, and as this was the age Prior to Internet, I had no idea it was coming.
The chainsaw lowers into the guy’s skull, and the blood flies, and that was all I could take. The grisly death was more than I could handle. It was a decade before I resumed watching it!
Today the chainsaw massacre seems fairly tame compared to other stuff I’ve seen, and now that I think of it, you really don’t see that much other some blood and the victim’s eyes. What De Palma sells here is the idea of a guy getting cut up by a chainsaw, and that is plenty disturbing. To be sure, Scarface is the grittiest, grimiest, goriest crime saga in existence — it still packs a punch to the gut, and it is a great, glorious entertainment.
I say that not because I enjoy seeing guys get carved up, but because Scarface is brilliantly filmed and contains a performance by Al Pacino that has more than survived these 30-something years. It might be his best performance ever. This is a long, over-the-top, exhausting, finely detailed portrait of a human cockroach, a man who admits he crawled out of the gutter for his shot at the top. Unfortunately for him and everyone around him, “the top” is the drug world in Miami Beach, c. 1983, a time when human cockroaches were scurrying everywhere. The movie exists among these people but it does not condone their behavior or lifestyle. De Palma condemns Pacino’s character, Tony Montana, while seeming to glorify him. No, Tony glorifies himself. De Palma has the clarity of vision to say, “This guy is going to hell.”
Tony Montana. There’s no other character in movies like him. Pacino plays him as a strutting, vulgar little pimp who quickly comes to realize that murder is his ticket to riches. A criminal who ends up on the streets of Miami thanks to the convulsions in Cuba under Castro in 1980 (the movie includes an apology to Cuban-Americans in the end credits), Tony gets his first taste of blood making a political hit in exchange for a green card and the promise of a legitimate job. But as soon as he turns his first murder into a gopher job for a coke pusher (played with sinister glee by F. Murray Abraham), Tony spits on the legit world and goes whole-hog into dealing drugs. He doesn’t just want to work for The Man; he wants to become The Man. “First you get the money, then the power, then the women,” he tells his buddy Manolo (Steven Bauer). When he meets Frank, a South Miami scumbag, and his wife/mistress/trophy Elvira, he starts entertaining visions of a violent takeover.
All Tony needs is a reason to become a mass murderer, and he gets it when Frank, fed up with Tony’s refusal to play by the rules, orders a hit on him. Tony survives and exacts gory revenge. Soon he’s marrying Elvira (Michelle Pfeiffer, in her screen debut) and running an empire with its tentacles in South America. But with power comes mighty paranoia, and Tony indulges all his worst impulses, blaming everyone else for the perils of his business. There are many famous scenes of Tony soaking in a marble bath big enough for 16, or strutting around in pinstripe suits and gold chains, or sticking his face into mountains of cocaine. This all seems crazy enough, but with Pacino running the dial up to 12 (or higher), it goes off-the-charts insane.
None of this would work if Pacino wasn’t so damned believable as Tony. He deploys a nasty Cuban accent that is, as far as I can tell, accurate enough — he had people on the set speak Spanish to him and correct his accent during filming. He sounds like pure gutter trash and carries himself as if he got all his ideas watching the earlier Scarface movie, on which this one is based. Tony is at least honest — he never wanted to be anything other than a gangster. His personality is based on bloodlust — he would far rather shoot you than look at you, and by one count, he ends up shooting more than 40 people.
The movie bombed in 1983, scoring zero Oscar nominations. But not unlike Blade Runner or The Thing, it gained a passionate following in subsequent years, obsessing masses of filmmakers with De Palma’s sensational style and Pacino’s flamboyant (to say the least) performance. There are scenes of stunning horror and almost laughable excess, and to be sure, large chunks of Scarface are utterly ridiculous. Everything about Tony is larger than life; Pacino even plays his quieter scenes with a kind of animal intensity that forces you to watch him. Tony is constantly scheming, using conversations with people to plan his next moves. Nothing with him is genuine — it’s all about him, and his money and business — but at the same time, he never stabs anyone in the back, and he never lies. There’s even a scene, late in the movie, where he refuses to murder an innocent woman and her children because “that’s not me.” The decision brings down the wrath of a drug lord and ends up costing Tony his life.
The finale of the movie, in which an army of gun-wielding thugs invades Tony’s fortress and murders everyone in sight, is the reason to sit through the thing. Tony is coked up, wasted, incoherent, plunging his face into a fat pile of coke, barely able to function. This is where he introduces us to his little friend — a combination grenade-launcher/machine gun. So coked up and crazed is he that he doesn’t even feel it when scores of bullets perforate his body. His final swan dive is a thing of beauty. At least he lived the life before it all caught up with him, poor bastard.
The Pacino performance is 180 degrees from his portrayal of Michael in The Godfather, but in some ways it is better because A) Pacino, obviously, is not Cuban-American, and B) that damned accent is almost a special effect in itself. Whatever you may think of Tony, the performance itself is magnificent because we forget we are watching Al Pacino. Tony Montana is fully formed. He makes the movie itself not only bearable, but great.