Although Brian De Palma’s 1983 gangster movie ‘Scarface’ is legendary within the popular culture domain, it is hardly considered a masterpiece, such as ‘The Godfather’, ‘The Godfather Part II’ and ‘GoodFellas’. Should it?
Yes, I definitely think so. There is no other movie that shows the rise and fall of a gangster more effectively than Scarface. Okay, the high is pretty brief – and consists mostly of a musical number (‘Push it to the limit’), during which Tony Montana (Al Pacino) is buying tigers and snorting lot’s of cocaine. But I guess that is what a gangster’s high would ultimately feel like; empty, shallow and unsatisfying. Even the kick of having the desirable Elvira (Michelle Pfeiffer) doesn’t last more than five minutes screentime.
The late film critic Roger Ebert – who awarded ‘Scarface’ a maximum of four stars – said it very poignantly. ‘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 cliché, when sequences at the pitch of the final gun battle were not commonplace. Just as a generation raised on ‘The Sopranos’ may never understand how original ‘The Godfather’ was, so ‘Scarface’ has been absorbed into its imitators.’
‘Scarface’ is listed in IMDb’s Top 250 (position 117), but that list is put together by users’ votes. On critic lists, such as the AFI 100 Best American Films, the All Time 100 (by Time) or Rotten Tomatoes’ 100 highest ranked films, it doesn’t appear. So what is it about ‘Scarface’ that obstructs it from being seen as a masterpiece, like the before mentioned gangster classics? Here are the five most probable reasons:
1. The chainsaw scene
Gangster films are violent, that is accepted. But Coppola and Scorsese have a way of turning even the most off-putting bit of violence into something really stylish and cinematic. The way De Palma handles the chainsaw scene, 24 minutes within the movie, is just plain ugly. ‘Now the leg huh’, remarks the sadistic Hector as he puts the saw in Tony Montana’s friend. This scene alone puts ‘Scarface’ in the extreme cinema league. And films that are extreme in this sense are rarely considered as Academy Award contenders.
2. The general ugliness
Most of it is done deliberately, but the look and feel of ‘Scarface’ is just ugly dugly. That shirt that Montana is wearing, holy Christ! Also look at the sets. Miami in the eighties is just terrible. From the refugee camp where Montana and his partners murder the communist Rebenga, to the Miami Beach area where they start their careers as drug runners, these locations are just god awful. The language doesn’t help either: ‘Why don’t you try sticking your head up your ass, see if it fits’, Montana tells Hector. Can you hear Vito Corleone utter such a line? Or how about this one: ‘This town is like a great big pussy just waiting to get fucked.’ That doesn’t sound like ‘Casablanca’ does it? Last but not least: the music. From the cringe worthy synthesizer sounds to eighties hits like ‘She’s on Fire’. It is so wrong, it’s right.
3. The general foulness
‘Scarface’ is in the end a very cynical movie in which the American Dream can only be achieved through extreme violence and corruption. Tony’s quest for power leads to ton’s of dead bodies: even a clown is whacked for god’s sake! A world in which a vile assassin like Tony Montana is the ultimate hero, is just very hard to accept. And the film gets uglier and uglier as it progresses. Tony’s drunken diner speech is the ultimate example of the repellent worldview on display. ‘Is this it? That’s what it’s all about, Manny? Eating, drinking, fucking, sucking? Snorting? Then what? You’re 50. You got a bag for a belly. You got tits, you need a bra. They got hair on them. You got a liver, they got spots on it, and you’re eating this fucking shit, looking like these rich fucking mummies in here… Look at that. A junkie. I got a fucking junkie for a wife. She don’t eat nothing. Sleeps all day with them black shades on. Wakes up with a Quaalude, and who won’t fuck me ‘cause she’s in a coma. I can’t even have a kid with her, Manny. Her womb is so polluted; I can’t even have a fucking little baby with her!’ It is kind of depressing when he puts it like that.
4. The sister storyline
Incest is never a pleasant topic, and even though nothing actually happens sexually between Tony and his sister Gina, it still raises some controversy. It also adds further to the already unpleasant vibe that the movie creates. Tony’s sickening jealousy of every man who even looks at his sister, let alone touches her, leads to aggression and eventually the murder on his best friend Manny. One of the hardest parts to watch involves Gina walking into Tony’s study, undressed, asking him to fuck her while shooting at him.
5. The over-the-top climax
The climax of ‘Scarface’ is so over the top that it is hard to comprehend during the first viewing. Many gangster films end with a massacre, but this is Rambo on cocaine. Fitting how this ending may be, it is so much of everything, that it may affect the judgment of its more critical audience.
None of this really matters though. ‘Scarface’ is a true classic. And though it may not always be appreciated as it should, ‘every dog has its day.’ ‘Scarface’ could go right to the top.