The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Scarface (1983/USA/dir. Brian De Palma) appeared at #38 on my original list.
What it is • The only film on this list to remake another film on this list, Scarface updates the story of a ruthless Italian gangster in Prohibition Chicago for the 1980s, transforming Tony Camonte into the Cuban Mariel boatlift refugee Tony Montana and shifting locations to sun-struck, coke-fueled Miami. De Palma steps in for Howard Hawks, while Oliver Stone's screenplay adapts Ben Hecht's original. As might be expected based on that personnel switch, the violent, profanity-laden three-hour update trades economy for excess. In other ways, however, the films share a kindred spirit beyond their largely identical plot points and narrative arcs. Both embrace blunt dialogue and characterizations as quietly clever as they are superficially crude. Both center on larger-than-life performances from studious, serious actors embracing vulgarity and vitality as two sides of the same coin. Both embed their lowbrow pleasures in a sophisticated, imaginative visual style, rich with creative camera movements. The 1983 Scarface also has some distinctive qualities the earlier film lacks: a gorgeous, splashy color palette and an immediately evocative Giorgio Morodor electronic score. The film is gloriously trashy, but also wonderfully-executed and, most importantly, honest in its comprehension of Tony's ferocious desires and the world that flatters and frustrates him. That blimp may proclaim "The World is Yours!" but it will eventually reveal itself to be the Hindenburg.
Why I like it •
For starters, trivial as it may be, I like that this movie came out the year I was born. There's something primal about Scarface, partly to do with the hungry simplicity of its protagonist, but also partly to do with when it was made. This film is so very eighties, capturing the distinctive fusion of cool metallic modernism and hot-blooded romanticism that defined the decade. This definitely belongs to a group of movies I instinctively loved before realizing they could be called "great" as well. I considered Scarface a guilty pleasure until I recognized how artfully it packaged its kinetic violence, gleeful vulgarity, and garish glamor. One of my favorite moviegoing experiences occurred in Times Square in 2003, for the twentieth anniversary, as an entire auditorium cheered, clapped, and chanted the many quotable lines along with the film - the most interactive audience this side of Star Wars or The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Years later, I would finally appreciate the film not just as sui generis hopped-up eighties Miami crime flick but as a full-fledged entry in Brian De Palma's oeuvre. Alongside Hi, Mom! and Carrie it inspired my very first (and in some ways, still my favorite) video essay and helped me "get" an auteur I initially considered too baroque and facile. There's a genuine sense of yearning and desperation beneath the bloodshed and the massive mountain of cocaine. Scarface is a biting critique of the American Dream (or at least of an era that thought it found the cheat code to the American Dream), while also clearly conveying why that myth is so beguiling in the first place.
More from me • My first video essay, directed by Brian De Palma (a non-narrated montage) contains footage from Scarface and offers a fresh perspective on its connections to several other films by the director. I discussed this work in 2013 with Kevin B. Lee.
How you can see it • Scarface is available for blu-ray/DVD rental from Netflix and for digital rental/purchase on these sites.
What do you think? • Do you prefer the thirties Scarface or the eighties Scarface? How does it compare to other gangster films, of the classic period, of the New Hollywood era into the nineties, and of the present? Despite its prominent place in De Palma's body of work, does Scarface also feel like an Oliver Stone film?
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Yesterday: Hyperballad (#39)
Tomorrow: Snow White (#37)