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Empire Magazine Greatest Movies List - #284: Scarface

In the gangster genre, it is an unwritten rule that the bad guy must fall by the end. That was certainly true in the Howard Hawks film Scarface from 1932 in which gangster Tony Montana pleads for his life before making a run for it and getting mowed down by the police. In Brian De Palma’s 1983 remake however, there is no begging for mercy and Tony does most of the mowing down, with the classic line “Say hello to my little friend!” In terms of general plotting, the two films are very similar, but you could say the remake is the same story “on steroid,” or more accurately “on cocaine” as Montana spends most of the third act abusing his product as he nears his downfall.

There are movies you have seen before actually seeing them and that was certainly the case with Scarface. Like Pulp Fiction and Fight Club, it has had a major impact on pop culture, and even crime culture. Would-be rappers want to emulate Tony Montana’s rags-to-riches tale, while would-be gangsters want to imitate his business model: “This country you gotta get the money first. Then when you get the money, you get the power, then when you get the power you get the women.” What always amazes me is how these people fail to see this is supposed to be a cautionary tale. As mentioned earlier, Montana gets shot in the end. Multiple times.

When I first saw the film in Quebec City with my brother, we had both heard of the film’s legendary level of violence, specifically the chainsaw scene. Years later I would see the 1930s original at a film class at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. After having seen De Palma’s version, it was amusing to see the self-righteous cops give Montana a talk as though he was a bad boy who had misbehaved. The Tony from the 80s would have eaten these guys for breakfast.

Set in Miami during the cocaine explosion of the 1980s, De Palma’s version of Scarface follows Cuban immigrant Tony Montana (Al Pacino) as he rises from a dishwasher to drug lord. Along with his best friend Manny (Steven Bauer) he is placed in a refugee camp and is stuck in a legal limbo until America decide what to do with the thousands of immigrants Fidel Castro sent to Miami from his prisons and mental asylums. Custom officials question Tony thinking he is yet another hardened criminal based on the scar on his face, and indeed he has no plans to become an accountant. In order to receive a green card, Tony and Manny agree to kill a former Cuban official at the camp by order of drug kingpin Frank Lopez (Robert Loggia). Setting the tone for the rest of the film, before killing the man Tony says “From a friend you fucked!”

Working as a dishwasher for his legitimate job, Tony has ambitions of climbing up the ladder in Frank’s organization. He gets his chance when Frank’s henchman Omar (F. Murray Abraham) puts him in charge of a drug exchange with Colombian dealers. The exchange goes bad, leading to the infamous chainsaw scene. As Tony reluctantly looks on, the Colombians cut one of his friends to pieces. The camera cuts out of the room to Manny who later comes in to rescue Tony. No cutting is actually shown, but man is it visceral.

Surviving the brutal confrontation and making sure Frank gets his money back allows Tony and Manny to climb up in the ranks. Months later they go to Bolivia to make a deal with cocaine producer Alejandro Sosa (Paul Shenar). After brutally demonstrating what happens to people who betray him, Sosa offers to deal directly with Tony and push Frank out of the way. Tony’s climb continues and eventually he claims Frank’s drug empire and his trophy wife Elvira (Michelle Pfeiffer).

Yet Tony quickly learns that once you are at the top there is no way to go but down. His marriage to Elvira is a sham, as he married her not so much because he loves her but because she came with the empire. Together they consume vast amounts of Tony’s product, deteriorating their relationship.

Sickeningly enough, Tony seems to be more interested in his sister Gina (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio). Ever since his arrival in Miami he pushed away any one who would get close to her, as though they were infringing on his territory. When Manny sets his eyes on Gina, this threatens to destroy his relationship with both his best friend and his sister.

Then of course if you are a big criminal, you will get a lot of police attention. That requires savvy money launderers whose job it is to make you don’t end up in prison for tax evasions like Al Capone. At the end of the day, drug dealing is a business and all businesses leave a paper trail.

This is one of Pacino’s most extravagant performances. Spewing obscenities in a thick Cuban accent, he is the anti-thesis of the tactical Michael Corleone in The Godfather. Tony is not interested in laying low and being a businessman, he wants to own the world and scream it from the rooftops. At the height of his power he sits in his huge mansion sniffing from a mountain of cocaine on his desk.

There have of course been talk of yet another remake, but with Breaking Bad channelling the film’s spirit on TV with the rise and fall of Walter White, I say what’s the point? Plus apart from Michael Shannon I can’t really think of any actor who could come close to Pacino’s energy throughout the movie.


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