Say happy birthday to his little friend!

Matthew d'Ancona

Matthew d'Ancona says that, 35 years on, Scarface is a masterpiece that is also a terrible prophecy

09 December 2018 07:04

What we call genres are often the canvases upon which artists choose to portray the human condition or the state of the nation. John le Carre has followed Graham Greene in making the world of espionage a vivid microcosm of the follies, dreams and machinations of humankind.

Likewise, the gangster movie has long been a prism through which America understands itself. In the 1930s and 1940s, films such as Little Caesar (1930), The Public Enemy (1931), Scarface: The Shame of the Nation (1932), The Roaring Twenties (1939) and White Heat (1949) became a cultural safety valve that enabled US audiences notionally to deplore organised crime, while simultaneously celebrating the fictional resurgence of the American outlaw.

The Godfather saga was less a mafia trilogy than (on one level) an exploration of the tragic discontents of family life, and (on another) a commentary by Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo upon the corruption of the American empire. Much later, The Sopranos would graft the violence and limitless ambition of organised crime on to a tale of suburban angst, mid-life crisis and Prozac-taking misery. The mystery at the heart of the series was both mythic and specific to its time: why did wealth and power never make Tony Soprano even slightly happy?

It is in this context that we should celebrate the 35th anniversary of Scarface, released outside the US on December 9, 1983: widely-trashed on release it has grown over the years to achieve the status of masterpiece that it richly deserves. And there are, as we shall see, good reasons for its powerful contemporary resonance.

De Palma had absolutely no qualms about depicting the unvarnished brutality of the world he was exploring.

The idea of remaking the original had been doing the rounds for a while. Talent-agent-turned-producer Martin Bregman approached Sidney Lumet to direct, Al Pacino to star and Oliver Stone to write the screenplay. It was Lumet’s inspired idea to extract the story from the standard Italian-American setting and give it a fresh backdrop: the world of the Marielitos, 125,000 Cubans whom Fidel Castro had allowed to seek refuge and join relatives in the US by opening up the harbour at Mariel in May 1980. Then, as now, the migrants were routinely slurred as a rabble of thugs and criminals – the awkward fact being that Castro had indeed taken the opportunity to expel some of Cuba’s nastiest gang members.

From the start, therefore, the premise of the new Scarface was controversial. Bregman’s problems were compounded by the abrupt departure of Lumet, a hugely-distinguished director who had already collaborated triumphantly with Pacino on Dog Day Afternoon (1975).

But an exit that might have spelt disaster turned out to be the key that opened the door to the movie’s horrific brilliance. Lumet was replaced by Brian De Palma – a much less gifted director, but one whose techno-Hitchcock style was perfectly matched both to the material and to the times.

Whatever the political sensitivities of the subject, De Palma had absolutely no qualms about depicting the unvarnished brutality of the world he was exploring. Hence, the notorious chainsaw scene in which Pacino’s Tony Montana is forced to watch as one of his crew, Angel, is dismembered by a rival gang.

It stands proxy for the reduction of the American Dream to an all-consuming fusion of lust and consumerism.

‘I wanted to establish a level of violence like nobody had ever seen before,’ said the director, ‘because this is a whole different level of mob interaction, and I wanted to get it over with early in the movie to say, “This is what it is – we’re in a whole different world here.”’

Indeed, the film shies away from nothing. Montana incarnates the sharpened human appetite, allied to remorseless will. His lines are a demotic catechism of absolute hunger for absolutely everything. Hence: ‘In this country, you gotta make the money first. Then when you get the money, you get the power. Then when you get the power, then you get the women.’ Or: ‘This country was built on laundered money.’ Or: ‘This is paradise, I’m tellin’ ya. This town is like a great big pussy just waitin’ to get fucked.’ Or: ‘Me, I want what’s coming to me…The world, chico, and everything in it.’

So when Tony sees his boss’s girlfriend (Michelle Pfeiffer) descend in a glass lift into the palatial lounge of their home, his transfixed expression conveys much more than what Laura Mulvey would call the ‘Male Gaze’. It stands proxy for the reduction of the American Dream to an all-consuming fusion of lust and consumerism.

The cocaine at the heart of the movie is more than a product. It, too, symbolises the seething narcotic need that gives Scarface its vile, unforgettable power. And – don’t forget – this was a film released in the early years of the Eighties, its soundtrack composed by Giorgio Moroder, its designer wardrobes a taste of what was to come. Watching it now, one has to remember that none of this was ironic.

It is the cartoonishly violent end to a cartoonishly violent life. The point is that there is no point.

Attendant upon this is an unembarrassed amorality. There are no good guys – not even the cop (Mel Bernstein) whose reward for shaking down Tony is a bullet in the gut. Whereas The Godfather Part II ends with that amazing shot of Michael Corleone reduced to autumnal emptiness, drained of feeling, estranged from the very family he became a murderer to protect, Tony Montana’s demise is no more ethically meaningful than the explosive encore at a heavy metal concert (‘Say hello to my little friend!’). It is the cartoonishly violent end to a cartoonishly violent life. The point is that there is no point.

In 1932, Howard Hawks was forced to add the (deeply disingenuous) words The Shame of the Nation to the title of the first Scarface. De Palma did not bother with any such caveats – though he did have to fight hard to prevent his remake from being cursed with an X certificate.

What the two versions undoubtedly have in common is an undercurrent of sexual neurosis. The incestuous desire of Tony Camonte (Paul Muni) for his sister Cesca (Ann Dvorak) is replicated in Montana’s jealous lust for his own sibling Gina (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio). The testosterone that fuels all the violence and empire-building has deep, dark roots in inadequacy and impotence. Ultimately, the world of Scarface is an abyss of irredeemable hopelessness that would have Freud throwing his hands up in despair.

In 2008, the film writer David Thomson mused that Tony should not have died at the end of the movie: ‘really the logic and the drive of the film should have him becoming mayor of Miami or governor of Florida, or…Why should there be any limit? Democracy can yield to this thug…’

In the year that those words were published, Barack Obama was elected President. Eleven years on, Thomson’s whimsical aside reads like a terrible prophecy. Tony Montana’s spiritual heir is indeed in the White House, tweeting outrageously in uppercase, just as Pacino’s character roared his next demand at the world over hillocks of cocaine. For what do such men want? Only the world, chico, and everything in it.