Brian De Palma is a fairly unusual director who oscillates from making great critically-acclaimed films (Carrie), to overrated critically-acclaimed films (Dressed to Kill), to exploitation movies (Sisters), and occasionally mainstream Hollywood fare for good measure (Mission: Impossible). He is one of the ‘70s American New Wave auteurs, and, as such, wears his influences proudly on his sleeve. What sets De Palma apart is he often walks a very fine line between homage and ripping-off. Some of his movies blatantly reference and borrow from so many other films at times it’s hard to distinguish what, if any, material is his. (His allusions to Hitchcock in particular get tiresome.) It’s no surprise Quentin Tarantino cites De Palma as one of his major sources of inspiration.
Scarface is loosely based on a 1932 film of the same title, which was loosely based on the life of Al Capone. Screenwriter Oliver Stone updated the story to present day (the 1980s), where Italian Mafiosos and bootlegging beer are replaced by Cuban refugees/criminals and coke dealing. Both plots revolve around the quick rise and fall of their respective simpleminded gangsters. Tony Montana (Al Pacino) is not on US soil long before he realizes crime is a much better way to earn a green card and make a living than washing dishes. He hooks up with drug kingpin Frank Lopez (Robert Loggia), setting his sights on stealing Frank’s business and his lady (Michelle Pfeiffer).
As in the original, this story is a statement on the American Dream; the fallacy inherent in the idea that everyone is treated equally and all you have to do is work hard and you’ll become successful. Even the criminal who breaks society’s rules and gains enormous amounts of financial wealth is not truly successful; he is empty and alone, surrounded by material goods, bought people, and death. The aspect of Scarface that many who worship the film seem to miss is that Tony is pathetic, not powerful. It’s about artifice; Tony acquires all the trappings of a life he believes he wants, but it is a facade, a mask for the emptiness, and an identity for someone without one. This is reflected in De Palma’s use of paintings and murals of Miami and sunsets on white sandy beaches, they are illusions of the city which stand in contrast to the realties taking place below them.
Scarface is primarily an exercise in excess; everything about the film is intentionally extreme (including the almost three-hour running time). If taken separately and placed in a different context, each cinematic element would seem ridiculous (the performances, costuming/hair, the violence, dialogue, etc.), but they all work when placed together. One of the reasons it works is because of the mature, measured directing style; De Palma’s camera favors slow pans and longer takes, adding a level of seriousness and gravity to the bombastic characters. You are left wondering whether or not it is supposed to be a satire. Much like fellow New Wave auteur Martin Scorsese’s foray into drug-addled excessive egomaniacs, The Wolf of Wall Street, Scarface’s message (this behavior/lifestyle is bad, these are terrible people) can get muddled in the outlandish and downright entertaining quality of their actions.
All the hype the movie has received over the years is not without merit. Scarface is easily one of the craziest crime-action flicks ever made, and enjoyable if you’re into ultra-violence done well.