Friday, 9 March 2012

Scarface (1983)

Dir. Brian De Palma
Starring: Al Pacino, Steven Bauer, Michelle Pfeiffer, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio

Say hello to my leetle review…

I’m sure you probably expect me to dislike 1983’s Scarface. Its most devoted fans seem to be rappers and those who worship rappers, two groups to neither of which I could possibly be said to belong. But I actually rate it pretty highly. I enjoyed watching this movie.

Scarface tells the story of Tony Montana (Al Pacino), a Cuban criminal who seeks his chance to search for his dreams in America. He is one of the thousands who cross to Florida in 1980’s Mariel Boatlift. He and his friends soon make contact with representatives of Frank Lopez (Robert Loggia)’s criminal gang; Tony works his way up through the ranks. After surviving a failed assassination attempt Tony kills Lopez and takes over his men, his organisation, and his trophy girlfriend, Elvira (Michelle Pfeiffer). With a steady stream of yeyo (cocaine) coming in from his Bolivian contact Sosa (Paul Shenar) Tony rises to the very top of the criminal underworld in Miami, before crashing back down to earth.

The storyline (written by Oliver Stone) has an arc worthy of a Shakespeare tragedy. Tony drags himself up from a penniless refugee (“a fucking peasant” as F. Murray Abraham’s Omar puts it) to a multimillionaire. He lives the American dream of getting everything he ever wanted: wealth, power, his fantasy wife. As he memorably says, “In this country, you got to make the money first. Then when you get the money, you get the power. Then when you get the power, then you get the women.” But he crashes hard and suddenly. What surprised me is the cause of his crash. I assumed it would be because in his greed he overextends himself. Lopez gives Tony countless cautionary tales – don’t underestimate the other guy’s greed, don’t get high on your own supply, the guys who want it all, chicas, champagne, flash, they don’t last. Tony breaks all these rules, to a greater or lesser degree. But he does not fall because he tries to carve out too big a chunk of the market or take down a rival he should have left alone. Greed and arrogance are weaknesses of his, but they are not his fatal weakness. That weakness is sentimentality.

Sosa asks Tony to help kill a Bolivian journalist intent on exposing drug-related governmental and military corruption, and Sosa’s links to it. Tony has no problem with helping Sosa’s hitman rig an explosive to the journalist’s car – until the man’s wife and children get in with him. Tony might be a murdering thug, but his sentimentality prohibits him from killing an innocent woman and her two kids. Instead he kills the assassin. The journalist exposes Sosa at the United Nations and the Bolivian sends his men to wipe out Montana. Linked to this is Tony’s sentimental over-protectiveness towards his younger sister Gina (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio). To his eyes, no one is good enough for her. When he discovers that she has run off with a man he storms around to her house and shoots her lover dead. This lover is actually Tony’s best friend and right-hand-man Manny (Steven Bauer), and he had just married Gina. Guilt-ridden over his murder of his best friend Tony goes into a cocaine-fuelled meltdown, leaving him at his most vulnerable when Sosa’s men attack. It is this sentimentality and over-protectiveness that brings about his downfall rather than his greed and ambition.

Pacino gives a powerhouse of a performance. His Tony Montana may be a short fireplug of a man but he radiates enough tension and drive to keep all eyes focused on him for the entire length of the movie (and at almost three hours, it is a long movie). He dominates those who are bigger than him through sheer willpower. ”The only thing in this world that gives orders is balls!” he says, and he has the biggest balls on the block. While keeping the man’s swagger Pacino marries it to an instantly recognisable thick Cuban accent. Tony is gauche and ill-mannered with appalling taste (not something gangsters are ever notable for possessing really). His bunny-hopping dancing at the Babylon club, his fake leopard-skin car seat covers, his purchase of a tiger for his mansion, his neon ‘The World is Yours’ statue in his hall, all are garish and classless. He wants things bigger and flashier than the next man – useful when the next man has a submachine gun but you have an M16 with underslung grenade launcher.

Things go better with Coke...
Tony gets high on his own supply

So: bad taste and a sticky end. Hardly someone I would count as an icon. And yet the character of Tony Montana seems to have a magnetic quality about it. Rappers – such as Jay-Z, P Diddy, Future, Cuban Link and the Geto Boys - venerate him. He is also, or so I have noticed, particularly popular amongst young Asians in Britain. Is it the dream of coming to a nation as an immigrant, owing it nothing, and seizing whatever you want to make yourself rich that appeals? As Tony says, “All I have in this world are my balls and my word and I don’t break them for no one!”. He does not have family or wealth or power or connections or any of the other advantages people might have when he starts out. Everything he gets he makes for himself. Is this the appeal? Courage and willpower and the willingness to do what it takes to make it can make a million. And then of course, there is his explosion of other people’s hypocrisy. Tony’s restaurant rant is an absolute classic:
“You all a bunch of fuckin’ assholes. You know why? You don’t have the guts to be what you want to be. You need people like me. You need people like me so you can point your fuckin’ fingers and say ‘That’s the bad guy’. So, what that make you? Good? You’re not good. You just know how to hide, how to lie. Me, I don’t have that problem. Me, I always tell the truth.”
Despite everything he has, as we have seen, a moral code of his own, and the people who affect to despise him are just as repugnant to his eyes.

Despite this, those rappers must be very upset with the soundtrack. There is no gangster rap in Scarface (nor was there any gangster rap in 1983 at all). Nor is there any more traditional Latino music. Instead the soundtrack is by the Italian producer Giorgio “Together in Electric Dreams” Moroder. As a result it is heavy on the '80s electro synths. I honestly never thought I would see Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer dancing in a neon-lit discotheque to what sounds like the Human League (“Flash, flash, to the yeyo!”). It is a bit of a glaring disconnect – I did find myself focusing on the music more than I probably should have.

Bizarrely, I didn’t notice the swearing so much. “Can’t you stop saying fuck all the time?” Elvira asks him at one point. A good question: the f-bomb gets dropped a whopping 226 times in the film (an average of 1.32 fucks per minute). And I did not particularly register this fact. The swearing was in keeping for the characters. I had also been warned that the film was gory, particularly the initial drug-deal-gone-wrong with Hector the Toad (Al Israel) and his chainsaw. Again, I didn’t think it was that bad. What was quite possibly shocking in 1983 I now regard as rather run of the mill, a sign of the times and how inured I have become to this sort of behaviour, either on screen or in real life. Scarface is foul-tempered, foul-mouthed and violent, and I enjoyed watching it. To paraphrase the film, nothing succeeds like excess!

What have I learnt about Florida?
It is full of Cubans, the Cubans are criminals, the cops are on the take, the place is swimming with drugs, and the big mansions are stuffed with tack and bad taste.

Okay, so the above is an overstatement – and is precisely the sort of thing the Miami authorities and Cuban communities were worried about when they opposed filming of Scarface. But it does show that there is a very strong Cuban community in Miami. The Mariel Boatlift genuinely occurred, and Castro did use it as an opportunity to empty his gaols of ‘undesirables’. The Cuban community have had this reputation for being involved with crime and drugs ever since. I cannot say whether Scarface reflects this reputation or helped to cause it in the first place.

Can we go there?
Scarface  was not filmed in Miami, or even Florida. The Miami city authorities were concerned that it would make the city look dangerous and full of Cuban criminals, and the Cuban community were concerned that it would make them look dangerous and full of criminals. Neither wanted to be associated with the movie and were scared of attracting a bad reputation. And so the film was mostly shot in Los Angeles. ‘Freedom City’ was recreated beneath the intersection of the I-10 Santa Monica freeway and I-110 Harbor Freeway in Downtown LA. The fast-food stand was actually shot in LA’s Little Japan rather than Miami’s Little Havana. Tony’s estate was filmed in Montecito, on the Californian coast; Sosa’s Bolivian estancia was filmed in the same town. The set-up shot of tree-covered hills may actually have been filmed in the vicinity of Cochabamba, Bolivia however; I stopped off there on a flight once, and the landscape over which we flew was indeed a rumples bedspread of steep-sided dark-green valleys. Mrs Montana’s house is in Wilmington, California.

Some scenes could not have been filmed anywhere other than Miami, however. The  art deco historic district of Miami Beach was constructed between 1923 and 1943, is instantly recognisable, and looks well worth exploring. The Sun Ray Apartments, where we meet Hector the Toad, was created at 728 Ocean Drive (I have it on good authority that the Lighthouse Family song ‘Ocean Drive’ was not a reference to this scene) between the Colony and Beacon hotels. It is now the ‘familt friendly’ Johnny Rocket’s Restaurant. Lopez’s house is also in Florida. The Atlantis Condominium at 2025 Brickell Avenue was used for the exterior. The interior scenes were filmed at 485 West Matheson Drive, Key Biscayne; it is currently for sale – a snip at $38.5m. The Babylon Club was filmed at the Kapok Tree Inn in Davie; the building has since been pulled down however, and replaced by the Long Key Natural Area. The interior was a studio set back in Hollywood. Tony and Manny found ‘paradise’ (“this world is one big pussy, waiting to be fucked”) at the Fontainebleau Hotel on Collins Avenue. This was also where a gold-dipped Jill Masterson was discovered by James Bond in Goldfinger.

The New York assassination attempt was also shot on location in NYC. The United Nations Headquarters and Queensboro Bridge are recognisable. 

Overall Rating: 4/5

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