“Me, I want what’s coming to me.” “What’s coming to you?” “The world, Chico, and everything in it.”
–Tony Montana in “Scarface”
Brian De Palma’s “Scarface” rises or falls with Al Pacino’s performance, which is aggressive, over the top, teeth-gnashing, arm-waving, cocaine-snorting, scenery chewing — and brilliant, some say, while others find it unforgivably flamboyant. What were Pacino’s detractors hoping for? Something internal and realistic? Low key? The Tony Montana character is above all a performance artist, a man who exists in order to gloriously be himself. From the film’s opening shots, in which he is one more disposable Cuban ex-con in a Florida detention center, his whole drive is to impress his personality and will on others. He begins with no resources or weapons, except for his bravado, and fakes out more powerful men simply by seeming dangerous and resourceful. His act is a bluff, so there is no sense in underplaying it.
Montana is one of the seminal characters in modern American movies, a character who has inspired countless others. If the crime expert Jay Robert Nash is correct, and American gangsters learned how to talk and behave by studying early Hollywood crime movies, then “Scarface” may also have shaped personal styles. The movie has been borrowed from so often that it’s difficult to understand how original it seemed in 1983, when Latino heroes were rare, when cocaine was not a cliche, when sequences at the pitch of the final gun battle were not commonplace.
It takes the name and some of the story structure from Howard Hawks’ famous “Scarface” (1932), starring Paul Muni and inspired by the life of Al Capone. Both movies were assailed for their violence, both are about the rise and fall of a criminal entrepreneur, both characters are obsessed with their sisters, and both die because they used their own product — in Montana’s case, cocaine; in the case of the syphilitic Capone, prostitutes. But the De Palma movie is not a remake in any conventional sense; it takes a familiar story arc, and uses it to look at a new character in a new terrain — the Florida of the early 1980s, after Fidel Castro briefly allowed large-scale immigration from his island, sending us boatloads of his tired and weary masses and seizing the opportunity to empty his jails at the same time.
Some of the early footage is documentary, showing news coverage of the arriving refugees and speeches by Castro explaining how he was happy to be rid of counter-revolutionary elements. Tony Montana, broke and a criminal, will do anything to get started in the new land, and quickly hustles a commission to kill a fellow prisoner who is disliked by a wealthy Cuban American. The payoff will be citizenship. “I kill a communist for fun,” he says, “but for a green card, I gonna carve him up real nice.” Soon he has become a lieutenant for Frank Lopez, a South Florida druglord, and from there his rise to power is inexorable.
The movie was written by Oliver Stone — interestingly, the same man who directed the largely laudatory documentary “Command-ante” (2003), about his three days in conversation with Castro. Stone has always been at home with stories involving men, drugs, sex and violence, and his work here has a fierce energy; it is possible to see Montana reflecting Stone’s own drive to success. His screenplay, like Ben Hecht’s work for the earlier “Scarface,” is filled with quotable lines (“All I got in my life is my balls and my word, and I don’t break them for nobody”). Stone shows a certain toughness in not trying to soften Montana, who remains a snake from beginning to end; when he gives his mother $1,000, she asks him, “Who did you kill for this?”
For Al Pacino, the role was an opportunity to explore a crime boss who is the polar opposite of his Michael Corleone in Coppola’s “The Godfather.” Corleone is slick and smooth, intelligent and strategic; Montana is instinctive, impulsive and reckless.
“Scarface” shows a man who wants the world, and at one point even sees The World Is Yours blinking at him from the Goodyear blimp. The world for him includes the possession of a desirable woman, and from the moment he sees the blond, slender Elvira (Michelle Pfeiffer), he determines that he must have her. She is Frank’s mistress, but soon Frank is dead, and his mistress and his business belong to Tony. That he must have her is clear, but what he intends to do with her is not; there is no romance between them, no joy, and they have two scenes — one with Tony in a swimming pool and the other in a vast bathtub — where her boredom is palpable. She’s along for the drugs. Tony is much more interested in his sister Gina, although his incestuous desires are deflected into a determination to keep all other men away from her. This leads him eventually to the murder of Manolo, his closest friend. Gina’s response to his jealousy is so horrifyingly direct (“Is this what you want, Tony?”) that it shows she knows exactly who he is and what buttons she can push.
“Scarface” is an example of Brian De Palma in overdrive mode. Like Tony Montana, he isn’t interested in small gestures and subtle emotions. His best films are expansive, passionate, stylized and cheerfully excessive, and yet he has never caved in to the demand for routine action thrillers. There is a mind at work in a De Palma picture, an idea behind the style, never a feeling of indifferent vulgarity.
One of the movie’s best scenes shows Tony at a nightclub, drunk, drugged and exhausted — and heartbroken, we sense, because he has gained the whole world but knows he has not merely lost his soul, but perhaps never had one. The music is by Giorgio Moroder, whose impersonal synthesized techno-pop provides the correct tone for a lifestyle that has the surface of luxury but not the comfort.
And then it all comes around to Pacino. What a complete actor this man is. He can play big or small, loud or soft, tireless or exhausted, always as if it’s the only note he has. Pacino has an extraordinary range of styles, and a pitch-perfect ability to evoke them. There is no such thing as “the Al Pacino performance,” because there are too many different kinds of them. Here he plays Tony Montana on an operatic scale, as a man who wants more and more and is finally killed by his own excess. In the final sequence, he has a pile of cocaine on his desk and plunges his nose into it as if trying to inhale life itself. Pacino plays part of that scene with white powder stuck to his nose. The detail is often parodied, but it is a correct acting choice, showing a man who has become heedless of everything except his need. If Pacino goes over the top in “Scarface,” and he does, that’s because the character leads him there; over the top is where Tony Montana lives.