Director in Focus: John Cassavetes – The Killing of a Chinese Bookie

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976)
Starring Ben Gazzara, Seymour Cassel, Timothy Carey

Cassavetes was doing for cinematography and story pacing what Mamet attempts to do with language: try to make it so real it can be almost unbearable some times. Stories are not told in beats and there are no real “plots”. Cassavetes is interested in character studies, without any real arcs. Just a slice of this characters life, and in his later works the slice included a definitive moment. Here Cassavetes is reunited with Ben Gazzara whom he last worked with on Husbands. Gazzara is giving an understated performance to match the understated filmmaking of Cassavetes. When I watched this film I went with the Director’s Cut, released in 1978 and preferred by Cassavetes himself. The original cut was 134 minutes compared to the DC’s 108 minutes. When it comes to Cassavetes more is not necessarily better because he is always allowing his camera and scenes to meander until they figure out where they want to go.

Cosmo Vitelli (Gazzara) is a strip club owner and chronic gambler who is in the midst of paying back his debts to the mob in L.A. He’s so excited to have this debt gone that he spends an expensive night out gambling and ends up $23,000 in the hole. His debtors come up with a creative way for him to pay it off, they tell Cosmo to kill a bookie in Chinatown that has been giving them trouble. The mob refrains from telling Cosmo the whole truth about this man and sends the sad sack in to do their dirty work. Of course some things go wrong and we follow Cosmo for the rest of the night as his life is altered forever. There’s no moments of suspense or climax, but just the camera following this man. Where the film ends is abrupt and we can assume what becomes of Cosmo, but still open to interpretation.

Bookie is very much the American cousin of French gangster films, and I was constantly reminded of Le Samourai with Cosmo’s stoic calm during his assassination of the Chinaman and the resulting fallout. There’s the same slapdash style Cassavetes employs in all his work. Along with Cosmo, there is are some very interesting characters decorating the fringes of the picture. The dancers in Cosmo’s clubs are briefly glimpsed and a few feel like they have histories well beyond the walls of the club. The most fascinating figure in the club is Mr. Sophistication, the master of ceremonies who is a pathetic sort of showman. His nightly shows are themed around exotic locales and he sings pitifully as the women emerge from behind the curtain and undress. Mr. Sophistication is at times angry at his circumstances and others broken by them. A common theme with every character in the film, wanting to get out but eventually giving in to what they see as fate.

While Bookie is far removed from the suburban ennui Cassavetes typically followed, Cosmo is really no different than those characters. Everyone is a person fighting against an overwhelming tide. It might be their failing marriage, mental stability or a bullet, but every person is face to face with inevitability. But Cassavetes forces us to question whether these people are out of control of their lives or the ones completely responsible for their circumstances.

Director in Focus: Brian De Palma – The Black Dahlia

The Black Dahlia (2006)
Starring Josh Harnett, Aaron Eckhart, Scarlett Johansson, Hilary Swank, Mia Kirshner, Mike Starr, Fiona Shaw, Rachel Miner

Coming off of the Euro Noir Femme Fatale, De Palma steps right into classic L.A. Noir, where the entire bleak genre really began. The film is based on the James Ellroy novel, which is in turn based on the real life murder of a young wanna be actress named Elizabeth Short, nicknamed “The Black Dahlia” by the newspapers. For the picture, we find De Palma restrained much more than in Femme Fatale. I didn’t notice too many visual flourishes, instead a lot of post-production gauziness added to the film in an attempt to make the film resemble its counterparts in the 1940s. He manages to directly reference old movies, a trademark of De Palma’s love of cinema. It’s a long picture, over two hours and there are many sub plots and third act twists. So how does it all come together?

Bleichert (Hartnett) and Blanchard (Eckhart) are L.A. beat cops who meet during the 1947 Zoot Suit Riots (sailors versus hep cats). The two men are promoted to being bond agents and fate finds them a block away from the discover of Elizabeth Short’s body. Blanchard becomes obsessed, while Bleichert becomes enamored with Blanchard’s girl (Johansson). Feeling the pressure to keep his partner from going over the edge due to the case, Bleichert does some footwork and meets a young woman, Madeline Linscott who traveled in the same lesbian circles as Short. Through a series of “what a coinky-dink” sub plots, all of these characters become entangled, ending just like all good noir should end, most every dies. The only part that really diverges is the very final scene which felt very tacked on by the studio in an attempt to not let the film end on a “sad” note. Pshaw.

This is a real mess of a film. If we were judging it on style and production design it gets an A+. That’s one thing you can never fault De Palma, the man knows how to make a film ooze style. The cinematography is pitch perfect, thinking in particular of a crane shot where as part of the background we witness the discovery of Short’s body by a mother out pushing her baby carriage. It’s done as this little thing in passing, that you could easily miss if you weren’t paying attention. That sort of clever detail is hard to not love. The entire set and costume design is solid, no one looks out of place. As always, there are some interesting set pieces that had to involve thousands of shots and takes. So from a technical stand point, its an excellent film.

Plot wise this film is trying to do way to much and tie to many things together that don’t make much sense. Characters who have no connection through the majority of the film are suddenly revealed through clunky exposition to have been sleeping with each other the entire time or connected to the murder of Short. By the time you get to the end its all so ludicrous and over the top it becomes absurd. While coincidence is a big part of noir, it at least as to make some sort of sense with the story told so far. I did however enjoy an incredibly macabre and creepy old Hollywood family that plays a crucial role in the film. While we only get a glimpse of their utter insanity, I found myself wanting to see more about them. There’s also some references to The Man Who Laughs, a Lon Chaney, Sr horror picture that served as the inspiration for The Joker. All in all, a rather middle of the road with too much plot to cram into two hours.

Next: we wrap things up with a shockingly different film, revisting Casualties of War territory, this time in Iraq, Redacted

Director in Focus: Brian De Palma – Femme Fatale

Femme Fatale (2002)
Starring Rebecca Romijn, Antonio Banderas, Peter Coyote, Eriq Ebouaney

De Palma came off of Snake Eyes and went in a total 180 to make Mission to Mars. I don’t think any one could have really predicted that film from him: A science fiction film set in the future involving a rescue mission to Mars with aliens and special effects and so on. It was definitely a risky move on his part, and ultimately it failed. There were moments that worked, in particular a planetfall sequence involving risky maneuvers using a deep knowledge of gravity and physics. It had a lot of tension in and drew me in, but overall the film was a mess. So for his second film of the 21st century, De Palma revisited some Hitchcock elements, but more he dipped fulling into the Noir genre, something he had skirted his entire career but never gone full bore into.

The film opens on a heist being taken by a trio of anonymous figures. The main element in the heist is a tall, attractive blonde posing as a photographer. She lures the arm candy of a director at a film premiere in Cannes to the bathroom, and the two women begin having a tryst. The photog undresses her from the flimsy gold and diamond encrusted chest ornament (its not really a shirt or bustier, its like gold snake that doesn’t cover all the bits and such). A second person takes the pieces of the ornament at it drops to the floor. Things go wrong and the photog double crosses the man running things and heads off with the diamonds. Through a case of mistaken identity she ends up in the place of a French woman whose husband and daughter have just been killed. Her life diverges onto a very strange path that culminates seven years later in a series of double crosses and cons.

This film is one where De Palma’s camerawork completely meshes with the plot. The opening heist sequence, taking place in a lavish theater in Cannes is so much fun. Its obvious that Mission: Impossible was the practice, and this heist is its culmination to perfection. Seeing all the devices and methods employed to get the ornament is lots of fun. Its also full of that nervous tension that makes those types of scenes enjoyable to watch. We root for the thieves and wriggling in our seats as security inches closer and the chance that every will fall apart goes higher. The entire sequence is near wordless and, like many of De Palma’s top film moments, could be presented as short film unto itself.

Rebecca Romijn is not a great actress, I know I shocked you with that statement. But, when you think about it, neither was Grace Kelly, but she made a hell of a Hitchcock female lead. Romijn does what she needs to do here, the classic film noir femme fatale is not really a three dimensional figure. And I have to say she fooled me during many of her double crossing, well both she and De Palma together fooled me. Like any great noir female she creates stories that make her sympathetic and earn the trust of those around her. She is duplicitous and evil, yet we root for her. Antonio Banderas’ tabloid photog on the other hand is not quite as charismatic or interesting, even though he makes for a more plausible protagonist.

The third act twist seemed a bit out of left field and reminded me of the much better Mulholland Drive (if we’re talking metaphysical identity mysteries, its is better). There are clues sprinkled in the first half of the film that hint at two interpretations of what happens in the rest of it. This could be a Dorothy Gale instance of imposing faces onto figures in one’s psyche or it could all be literal. De Palma never says for sure but he leaves the door open so that either makes sense within the universe of the film. There are set pieces galore here and a real admittance that this is not about substance, its about style. The fact that the director pulls this off in such a technically clever way makes it heaps more enjoyable than whatever a style focused director like Michael Bay offers up. The film was a colossal financial failure for De Palma, however, something he hasn’t recovered from in the eight years since.

Next Up: The Black Dahlia and De Palma bombs again

Director in Focus: Brian De Palma – Snake Eyes

Snake Eyes (1998)
Starring Nicolas Cage, Gary Sinise, Carla Gugino, Stan Shaw, John Heard, Luis Guzman

In the wake of Carlito’s Way, De Palma was back on top and directed the very commercial Mission: Impossible. It was definitely a big break both for the director and in establishing Tom Cruise as an action star. It was also not very De Palma-esque, especially due to its globe trotting nature. Most De Palma films work because of their very small and local nature, so having character moving from Europe to Langley, Virginia between scenes was a bit jarring for those expecting a film more true to the director’s aesthetic. It was an enjoyable movie though, but it was Snake Eyes that was set to stand as a return to the paranoid thrillers De Palma made in the 1980s (Body Double, Blow Out).

Rick Santoro (Cage) is an Atlantic City cop who has embraced the corruption of his city. It’s fight night at the casino he frequents most and his old pal, Kevin Dunne (Sinise) is in attendance as the head of security for the attending Secretary of Defense. Rick gets a seat right next to Kevin’s, but the latter is pulled away due to a security issue leaving Rick front and center when a Palestinian terrorist assassinates the secretary. Rick is immediately thrown into the midst of a conspiracy involving a strange young woman who was talking to the secretary moments before he was killed. The investigation leads Rick into retracing the steps of all the major players presenting in the arena at the time of the conspiracy.

Snake Eyes is a colossal failure, due in part to an unrewarding second half, when all the big reveals are made. However, the first half the film is basically a masterclass in cinematography. No matter how terrible the plots and acting are in a De Palma film you can always rely on the camera to be a star (Bonfire of the Vanities being the exception). The first scene of the film is a series of about eight Steadicam shots spliced together to make one long introductory scene leading up to the moment of the assassination. From there, as Rick interviews suspects and witnesses, we are taken back in time where we see the events play out from their POV, the classic first person camera shot De Palma so often employs. There is also an elaborate shot where characters are hiding and pursuing each other on a floor of the casino’s hotel. The camera raises itself up to look down and begins panning over roofless rooms, allowing us to peek inside.

The conspiracy is incredibly predictable based on certain characters’ actions and comments, so when we learn the truth its a big of a yawn. There’s also a lot of plot points that stretch the film’s credibility beyond anything acceptable. The motivation for the conspiracy is also fairly weak. I was reminded of Three Days of the Condor and how, despite its low points in the middle, it delivers a believable reason for conspiracy that makes sense within both our world and the universe of the film. The conspiracy in Snake Eyes is rather too elaborate for what is trying to be covered up. This over the top turn of events causes the film to become a bore and by the end its hard to really care about where any of these bland characters end up.

Next: De Palma goes back to some deep Hitchcock roots with Femme Fatale.

Director in Focus: Brian De Palma – Carlito’s Way

Carlito’s Way (1993)
Starring Al Pacino, Sean Penn, Penelope Ann Miller, Luis Guzman, John Leguizamo, Viggo Mortensen

In the wake of Bonfire of the Vanities, De Palma returned to Hitchcock-land with Raising Cain, an odd film about twins and multiple personalities that in many ways hearkened back to Sisters. It was another failure for the director, albeit not as quite a large scale one as Bonfire. With a sense of humility about him, De Palma embarked on adapting a novel by a federal judge called After Hours. The film would be renamed Carlito’s Way (to distinguish it from Scorsese’s After Hours) and would return De Palma to some themes and ideas from Scarface. However, instead of the rise and fall of a crimelord who is brash and aggressive, Carlito’s would tell the story of a man once neck deep in crime, now trying to work his way out and go legit.

Carlito Brigante (Pacino) has just finished five years of a thirty year sentence. He has successfully been released when an appeal is issued proving the D.A. illegally made the recordings that sent him up the river. Now, with a re-evaluation of his life, Carlito has his sights set on raising enough cash to join a former inmate’s car rental business in the Bahamas. He buys into a nightclub set up by Kleinfeld (Penn), his attorney and reconnects with his lost love (Miller). Along the way, he draws the ire of Benny Blanco (Leguizamo) an up and coming street tough and must question his loyalty to the ever more frenetic Kleinfeld, whose life in danger of being taken by angry mobsters. The entire time Carlito is trying to make the right choices, stay on the path of good, so that he and his girl can escape.

The first thing that struck me about this film is how phenomenally better and more modern it was than Bonfire. One thing that kept getting to me as I was watch Bonfire was how it felt very dated. Typically if a film is set in the 1980s you’re supposed to feel that through the set design, tone, etc. Bonfire pulled it off in a way that made the picture feel too out of touch with any sort of universal truth. Carlito, on the other hand,despite being set in the 1970s, feels like an incredibly modern film. I think a lot of this is due in part to it being subject matter that De Palma is much more capable of handling. The director himself admitted he was planning on turning it down because on first glance he saw it as a Scarface retread. When he finally sat down to read it, he saw the film was going to be the antithesis of Scarface.

The acting here is a mixed bag, though. Sean Penn as Kleinfeld is spot on. He never exaggerates his character but is able to get across the transition from cool, calm and collected to on the verge of a nervous breakdown without breaking a sweat. It’s interesting to note, that at this point in his career, Penn had all but retired from acting to pursue directing (He was working on The Crossing Guard with Jack Nicholson at the time). His return to the screen was a big deal at the time and his performance definitely caused some people to encourage him to keep acting. It’s a strange thing for people of my generation to think about, as I was not aware of Carlito at all on its original release and have grown up with a viewpoint that you can count on Penn to be in all sorts of Oscar bait type pictures. On the other hand, Pacino nails the character of Carlito but has a persistently annoying accent problem. In his attempt to conjure up a Puerto Rican flair to his voice he ends up sounding at times like a Southerner, and then at others a bizarre interpretation of a stereotypical New Yorker. Accent aside, this a is a complete 180 from Scarface. Carlito is incredibly likable and charming, and it is impossible for you not to root for him to escape.

All the typical De Palma tricks are on display, and while they felt forced in Bonfire, here they feel exciting and fresh. There’s some great looking deep focus shots, just a little POV, and some wonderful Steadicam work, particularly in the final scene in Grand Central. The editing in the film is also some of the best of any De Palma movie. I found myself literally clutching my fists in anxiousness during the final tense moments of the film, which could not have been possible if it was wasn’t for some stellar camerawork and editing. While plots and actors may fail the director at times, his camera is his most loyal friend and you can always count on him to know exactly how to shoot a scene that gets the most out of it.

Next: De Palma does Mission: Impossible and closes out the 90s with Snake Eyes

Wild Card Tuesdays – The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call: New Orleans

The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call: New Orleans (2009, dir. Werner Herzog)
Starring Nicolas Cage, Val Kilmer, Eva Mendes, Fairuza Balk, Xzibit, Jennifer Coolidge, Brad Dourif, Michael Shannon

At one point in this film, I swear Nicolas Cage was attempting to channel Tony Clifton, the obnoxious lounge singer persona adopted by Andy Kaufman on occasion. This unofficial sequel to the 1992 Bad Lieutenant film is such a bizarre piece of cinema that lives somewhere between classic film noir and surrealist Lynch land. And there really is no other actor who could bring the right level of insanity to this role other than Cage. Even when its impossible for the audience not to react with laughter, Cage is going to keep pushing the boundaries of what we will tolerate.

The film begins in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Terence McDonagh and his partner, Stevie Pruit find a prisoner in the jail with water up to his neck. Instead of rushing to help they place bets on how long it will take the man to drown. Eventually, McDonagh decides to jump in and help, however the water is to shallow and he injures his back. McDonagh is a scumbag. He has the officer running the evidence room sneaking a cocktail of drugs out for him, he stalks college aged kids leaving nightclubs to confiscate their drugs, he has a prostitute girlfriend he seems in no rush to help get out of the business, and he’s just an all around asshole. A crime scene is discovered where an entire family has been killed execution style. McDonagh begins to uncover that the father was dealing drugs on another man’s territory and attempts to solve the case using methods that pretty much violate every law on the books.

Director Herzog employs some awfully strange choices in making this film. McDonagh’s drug use causes him to have hallucinations that the audience gets to see. During surveillance on a suspect’s house he swears there are two iguanas on the table while the other officers simply give each other confused looks. Later, after a mobster is killed Cage tells the killer to shoot again because “his soul is still dancing”, reflected by a break dancer spinning in the middle of the room. There are other pieces of scenery that keep that wacked out feeling continuing through the film. Actors like Brad Dourif, Michael Shannon, and Fairuza Balk add that twisted atmosphere to every scene they are in.

McDonagh is constantly on the go. There isn’t a single scene where we see him in his home, ready to fall asleep for the night. Instead he is always wheeling and dealing, playing one party against the other in incredibly flimsy ways that you know are going to catch up to him sooner or later. He owes thousands to bookie Dourif and tries dealing drugs out of the evidence room to pay it off, while trying to avoid the suspicion of his superiors. There really isn’t a film comparable to the insanity of this one and if you are a film lover like me, whom finds a sick enjoyment in Nicolas Cage’s frantic nature then  you desperately need to pick this up.

Director in Focus: Brian De Palma – The Untouchables

The Untouchables (1987, dir. Brian de Palma)
Starring Kevin Costner, Sean Connery, Robert DeNiro, Andy Garcia, Charles Martin Smith, Patricia Clarkson, Billy Drago

If someone told me Sisters and Carrie were made by the same director, it would sound plausible. If someone told me Carrie and The Untouchables were made by the same director I would definitely question the validity of that statement. At this point in his career, this was de Palma’s most “Hollywood” film. Its based on actual events, though highly dramatized for the screen and has the sort of “sweeping” nature you expect from movies vying for an Oscar nod. The story is an interesting one and de Palma is allowed to use some of his cinematographic trademarks along the way.

It’s the height of Prohibition in Chicago and one man runs the bootlegging industry, Al Capone (DeNiro). His men use violence and murder to enforce their control, with many innocents caught in the middle. Special Agent Elliot Ness (Costner) is sent in to work against the flow of police corruption and find that piece of evidence needed to bring Capone down. Along the way he recruits an accountant, a police academy rookie, and veteran beat cop Malone (Connery). These men are untouchable, free from the briberies and intimidation tactics of the mob. As they get closer and closer to finding the witness and evidence they need the violence rises and many of them won’t make it to see the end.

All the names associated with this film make you think it would be a dynamic and interesting look at the fall of Capone. You have de Palma directing, David Mamet on the script, and a cast of talented actors. However, the film is utterly dull. In particular, the acting of Kevin Costner is like cardboard here. He makes Ness into one of the flattest, uncharismatic crime fighters I’ve seen in a movie. Not once did I feel energized or inspired by anything he had to say to his men. I half expected a shot of the officers gathered to work under him half asleep as he droned on. On the other hand, I feel like there’s very little direction being given to the actors and there is obviously not much good in the screenplay.

Where the film is interesting is when de Palma is allowed to play with how the camera tells the story. There is his typical first person shot, used during a very crucial scene involving Malone. There’s also the use of deep focus during an opera scene and some moderately interesting tracking shots. For the most part though, the movie seems devoid of life, which is a shock when it employs such a dynamic director like de Palma. The majority of the work seems to have been put into production design. 1930s Chicago is reproduced with pristine accuracy and costume design was overseen by Armani. The film’s score is also handled by the always amazing Ennio Morricone. It just would have been nice to see a film where everyone was allowed to bring their A game.

Asian Cinema Month – Hard Boiled

Hard Boiled (1992, dir. John Woo)
Starring Chow Yun Fat, Tony Leung

A man leaps through the air in slow motion, wielding twin semi-automatic pistols. Carnage ensues. This is the trademark of Hong Kong action director John Woo, who managed to pretty much invent his own sub-genre of action movies. These are stories where black and white are clearly defined, heroes are wise-cracking bad asses, and the villains are most definitely villainous. This was my first foray into the world of Woo, I skipped his Mission: Impossible sequel and shied away from Face/Off. So, after twenty years of hype, how did I find the master actioneer?

Hard Boiled is the tale of two men. Officer “Tequila” Yuen is a cop dedicated to bringing down the Triad gun running ring plaguing Hong Kong. Tony is a cop deep undercover who is the apple of crimeboss Hoi’s eye. Tony is recruited by upstart gangster Johnny Wong to take out Hoi and control crime in the city. Tequila and Tony end up reluctant partners in a crusade to bring Wong to justice. Along the way they form a rivalry over the same woman and end up indebted to each other. Also thrown into the mix is Mad Dog, Johnny Wong’s super hitman with a clear sense of honor in his profession.

Hard Boiled has an interesting problem. Barry Wong, the screenwriter died halfway through film, while he was still writing the screenplay. So Woo and his production staff had to cobble together some place for the film to go. Knowing this, it makes up somewhat for the rather random directions the picture goes in its latter half. There’s also the fact that the character of Tony started out as an incredibly sociopathic character, going so far as to poison baby’s milk. The actor wasn’t too comfortable with playing a character like that and convinced Woo to make him more likable. Alongside this is a very uneven love story between Tequila and fellow officer.

What the film does well is the way it tells its story. Woo is amazing when it comes to framing shots and setting up elaborate sequences that turn normally dull shoot outs into ballet performances. Several times Woo chooses to drop the typical camera shots and go into first person or into some unexpected tracking shot that slowly reveals information to us. He’s also influenced greatly by some unexpected sources, in particular Francois Truffat. If you’ve seen The 400 Blows, than you will recognize that same ending zoom in, freeze frame technique used here a handful of times. It surprisingly works and its impressive that Woo was thinking about such “arty” fare when composing a Hong Kong crime movie. Like I said before, Woo was inventing his own genre at this point in his career.

It’s nothing spectacular. The weak story definitely hurt the film, but there are a number of interesting set pieces, in particular a mob-owned hospital the last half of the film takes place in. The film make use of practical special effects via explosions in way CG just can’t ever mimic. A fun film that hearkens back to an era of uber violent and gaudy over the top crime movies.

Director in Focus: Brian DePalma – Body Double

Body Double (1984)
Starring Craig Wasson, Melanie Griffith, Gregg Henry, Deborah Shelton

This film wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for Vertigo and Rear Window. Once again, de Palma returns to his filmmaking mentor, Alfred Hitchcock to inform his own work. However, coming off of the stylistically redefining Scarface, Body Double feels like a Cinemax softcore porn with a creative cinematographer’s flourish lain over the top. For all the moviemaking love put into this film there’s just something off about it the whole time that taints it from living up to de Palma’s previous Hitchcock homages.

Jake is an actor working on a B-horror film, Vampire’s Kiss. He experiences a moment of claustrophobia during a scene in a coffin and the director tells him to take the week off. Jake arrives home to find his girlfriend in bed with another man and ends up homeless. Things are not going so well. He meets a fellow actor, Sam who needs a replacement for a house sitting gig in the Hollywood Hills. Jake happily takes the job and Sam lets him know about the woman across the street who nightly stands naked right in front of the large windows. Jake begins watching her obsessively and begins to realize she is in danger as a menacing figure stalks her. There are lots of twists and turns, but if you are an observant film goer you will probably figure out the picture’s twist early on.

What hurts the film about as equally as the lackluster script are the uncharismatic actors. Craig Wasson is so incredibly bland his performance comes across as comically bad. His interactions with Gregg Henry, who plays Sam, feel incredibly odd and unnatural, and this never comes across as intentional. Beyond Jake, there isn’t much acting going on in the film. All of the other characters, particularly female characters are flat props used simply to create peril and have violence rained down upon them.

The picture definitely feels like a film only the 1980s could have produced. It is full of excess and gratuitous sex that is put in the film merely to satisfy de Palma’s proclivities as well as to make Hollywood execs happy. Jake is eventually pulled into the harsh world of pornography to track down a woman that has a connection to the mystery he has become involved in. This gives de Palma the opportunity to shows lots of naked ladies (something he enjoys doing a little too much). At the end this will feel like de Palma’s cheapest film, a sidetrack back to Hitchcock country and a strange work to bridge the gap between Scarface and his later entrance into Hollywood big budget movies.

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!