Director in Focus: Brian DePalma – Scarface

Scarface (1983)
Starring Al Pacino, Steven Bauer, Michelle Pfieffer, Robert Loggia, F. Murray Abraham, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio

Certain films permeate the pop culture consciousness so deeply that you never have to see them to know them. I was 13 and watching an episode of The Simpsons where Homer ends up in possession of a large pile of sugar. He becomes power hungry as the episode progresses and at one point says. “First you get the sugar. Then you get the money. Then you get…the women.” At the time I found the line hilarious and filed it away as simply something those clever Simpsons writers came up with. Years later I would learn it was reference to Brian De Palma’s trend setting foray into big budget Hollywood movies.

Its 1980 and Fidel Castro has opened up Cuba temporarily to send away those unwilling to conform to his particular brand of Communism as well as a large number of convicts. One of these convicts is Antonio Montana, a small time thug. Very quickly Tony and his pal, Manny come into the employ of Miami druglord Frank Lopez. Tony proves himself a tenacious and ambitious figure and it comes as no surprise that any gangster that crosses his path is in danger of his life. Tony weds his rival’s woman, sets his sister up with beauty salon of her own, and establishes strong ties to a Columbian cocaine grower. However, this film is based on the style of a Greek tragedy, meaning for every rung Tony climbs on the ladder of power he has that hard of a fall waiting for him when it all goes bad.

It’s incredibly interesting watching Scarface in the context of twenty-seven years after its release. Stylistically it bleeds the 1980s. It’s separated by De Palma’s last film, Blow Out, by only three years but the distance between the films feels like a decade. While Blow Out owed much to the paranoiac anti-establishment pictures of the mid to late 1970s, Scarface is a trailblazing film, inventing its own style as it goes. This is an even bigger accomplishment after De Palma was basically tagged as “the new Hitchcock” and produced films that were highly derivative of classic cinema. The choices De Palma makes firmly entrench this picture in a very specific time and place, and there is no way it could ever be called “timeless”. Choices of music and cinematography here basically invent the 80s aesthetic. Everything is neon and harsh and brutal, and underneath it all driven by greed.

The screenplay was penned by a 36 year old Oliver Stone (pre-directorial debut) and reflects a lot of themes he would further explore in his own films. Greed is the driving force here, just as in Wall Street. While Stone hits his criticism of American capitalism right on the nose in that picture, the commentary is much more disguised in Scarface. Tony’s story is the immigrant story; he comes to our shores and works his way up the ladder to become a rich and powerful man. Yet, that classic immigrant story is soaked with corruption and acts of vile depravity. While this picture is very much surreal in how it deals with its characters, its themes lie in utter truth. It’s interesting to note that Tony’s story, while very apropos looking back at the Miami drug trade going on in the 1980s, was also reflective of the Hollywood system and Wall Street, where cocaine was a daily part of life.

It’s not a surprise that this picture was incredibly divisive. The main character is a man who is a danger not because he is a physical threat, but because he is frustratingly stubborn. The power of his personality was bound to turn off audiences expecting their title figure in a mainstream film to be a protagonist to root for. Not once did I find myself wanting Tony to succeed. Instead, I found a character to root for in Manny and Tony’s sister, Gina. For De Palma, this film changed everything. The days of Hitchcock-ian pastiche were coming to a close, and now he was a golden boy amongst the Hollywood studios. However, he has one last major nod to his beloved influence in the form of Body Double.

Director in Focus will be back in two week with Body Double. Next week, get ready for a birthday surprise!

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