THE WORLD IS YOURS… proclaims a marquee atop the Goodyear Blimp. The phrase clearly strikes a chord with Tony Montana since he has it inscribed on a giant, Atlas-like globe and sets it as the centerpiece of the foyer in his Miami mansion. The world is all he wants, and for a time, all he gets, as later in the movie it reads less as a proud mission statement and more as an ironic epitaph. Actually, both uses are a sly homage to Howard Hawks’ 1932 gangster classic, of which this is ostensibly a “remake”. While the structure of the Hawks film is vaguely evident, director Brian De Palma and writer Oliver Stone craft their own cinematic world and brand it with their own unique personalities. And, of course, the third person in that trinitarian alliance is Al Pacino, who as Tony Montana creates perhaps the most scenery-chewing performance of his career, which probably puts it on the short list for most scenery-chewing performance in film history. This is not a criticism.
De Palma is no stranger to controversy, particularly when it comes to the ratings board, but in the case of Scarface, not only did he engage a ratings battle (it got an “X” rating three times, before he had a narcotics officer testify to the authenticity of the film in order to reduce it to an “R”), but also ongoing accusations that the film actually glorifies drug use, the narcotics industry, and glamorizes violence. Nothing could be more absurd. Part of the controversy, no doubt, stems from its misunderstood reputation within the hip hop community, the appeal being Montana’s ambition, flamboyance, and braggadocio (“All I got in this world is my balls and my word, and I don’t break them for nobody!”) Subtlety has never been De Palma’s strong suit, and with Tony Montana, he finds a character which he can fully exploit with operatic grandeur. The story is not simply one of sex, drugs, and violence, but the tragedy of a bad man and the corruption of the American Dream.
Few filmmakers can claim to understand the mechanics and pleasures of the cinema as well as Brian De Palma, who in his own way, is one of the most “pure” filmmakers this country has ever produced. In Scarface, like many of his other films, this is made evident in his manipulation of artifice, whether it be the painted billboard of a serene Miami sunset which fills the frame at the beginning of the film, or Robert Loggia’s office walls painted like the phony paradise of a tourism brochure. To De Palma, cinema is not reality, but the illusion of reality, and he is constantly playing with that illusion. But this works on more than simply a visual level, because the entire empire Montana builds–all of the money, the fame, the VIP treatment, even his trophy wife–all of this too is an artifice. He has balls, but no courage; money, but no charity; a beautiful wife, but no love; an army, but no friends. It is in the latter scenes where Montana begins to recognize this fact that a genuine pathos is developed, both transforming the film from merely an exercise in personality to an exploration of character as well as answering those who would reduce the film to a monument of excess. I doubt he is ruminating on the words of Matthew 16:26 while staring besottedly at the molehill of cocaine piled atop his desk, but he might as well be.
Much has been made of the film’s extreme violence, as much was made in 1932 when Howard Hawks was equally castigated for appearing to endorse gangsterism and reckless violence. Though the violence of Hawks’ film may seem tame by today’s standards, De Palma’s still has the capacity to shock. Yet for all of their stylistic differences, few filmmakers can boast a superior handling of violence than either of the two directors. Tarantino tries to, but quickly devolves into cartoonishness. The climax of Scarface owes as much to Shakespeare as to M-16’s. That Pacino’s howl “Say hello to my little friend!” has become something of a pop culture mantra, clearly misses the fact that the exclamation is less a declaration of fortitude and resilience than it is a genital euphemism. And the climactic outpouring of bullets and blood adequately represents what one critic referred to as a “cinegasm”, something that De Palma might well have invented with the finalé to his 1976 film, Carrie, or perhaps even more overtly in his 1978 film, The Fury. It is catharsis in its purist form, but whatever term you wish to use, one thing is undeniable: it is cinematic.