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Monday
Sep102012

Scarface

I always tell the truth, even when I lie.

                                                                                                      Tony Montana

It is April 1980.  After twenty-odd years of bitter enmity the United States and a small, troublesome island nation, whose choice of allies almost brought the world to war, quietly agree to carry out one of those one-way exchanges that authoritarian regimes like to caption with a smug "good riddance."  In this case, however, there may have been something more to such a sentiment.  The result was the ingression of around 125,000 Cuban immigrants to Florida and, eventually, to other parts of the United States.  I say "ingression" because we are informed that a large percentage of these political refugees were very recent inmates at a range of correctional facilities, some for the insane, others for the lawless.  Reason suggests that every government dreams of foisting its prisoners on another state, especially one it happens to loathe, but reason and the Castro regime do not seem to have been on speaking terms.  So when we glimpse grittily uplifting footage of the Mariel boatlift and snide rhetoric from Castro in full barbalia, we assume what follows will be political in tenor.  Instead we get nothing less than the greatest organized crime film ever produced.

Our title character, with a wide slash over his left cheek and eyebrow, is Antonio "Tony" Montana (Al Pacino in a role of a lifetime).  Montana's personality may remind the viewer of a medieval mace: spike-laden, rock hard, and destined to leave bloody mayhem in its wake.  His facial expressions and manner of speech, however, were as new to cinema in 1983 as the latest computer-generated imagery seems today.  We meet him, not by accident, in a Miami police interrogation room where he has persuaded no one there, including himself, that he is merely another political refugee ("there's nothing you can do to me [that] Castro didn't do").  Yet unlike many other prisoners, he is able to conduct the interview in English because, he claims without a dab of conviction, his allegedly American father allegedly took him to see American movies with "Cagney and Bogart."  To no one's surprise, we later learn that Montana's father was never around and "never a father" to him.  An important point, not only because broken homes tend to beget broken children, but also because attributing Montana's demeanor and style to the gangster films of yore unwittingly foreshadows the film's influence on a generation of young minds.  Like all career criminals, Montana is a pathological liar; like many such underworld types, he has an inflated sense of his own honor ("All I have in this life is my balls and my word, and I don't break them for no one").  Although Montana would kill a man (he purportedly detests harming women and children, as showcased in a late scene) for five dollars if he felt like it, he expects us to believe he is trustworthy and imbued with a strict code of proper conduct.  Watching the film for the third or fourth time I noticed how Montana exudes an undeniable charm even when it is clear – painfully clear – that every word out of his mouth is a fabrication.  This quality can be attributed to Pacino's superhuman performance, but it is very much in keeping with Montana's character, as evidenced in the quote beginning this review.  That is to say, he openly and loudly proclaims his rise in this cutthroat world and cuts enough throats to be a man of his word.  A Goodyear blimp will furnish him with a motto and a mission, but the rest will be in his own bloody hands.

Montana is shipped to the ironically yclept Freedomtown, which uncannily resembles a prison camp with a basketball court and a lack of internal policing.  There he joins forces with a former army buddy, the somewhat younger Manuelo "Manny" Ribera (Steven Bauer).  Manny has sidekick written all over him, a bastion of calm and reason while Montana grows progressively more paranoid and deranged, and in keeping with the usual fate of sidekicks, Manny is destined to do many things that the big boss man will not like.  In Freedomtown, Manny and Montana get their first stateside assignment: the murder of a Cuban refugee who, they are told, was responsible for the torture and murder of the brother of a Cuban-American crime lord called Frank Lopez (Robert Loggia).  Montana stabs his target with nary a thought towards the veracity of the accusations, a feat which impresses Lopez but which does not get the two promoted within his organization.  Getting passed over especially irks Montana, perhaps because he cannot admire other people's affluence with Manny's more typical remove and lackey-like envy.  So as the duo slaves away at a greasy spoon, another, much more dangerous offer is proposed, one involving Colombians, cocaine, a suitcase full of greenbacks, and a hotel room with remarkably soundproof walls.  This scene, one of the most spontaneously violent you will ever see, tells us all we need to know about Tony Montana except one thing which is answered much later on.  He watches a friend get butchered, stares down his own imminent death with fatigue and disdain, then kills a man in front of about a hundred witnesses.  Shortly thereafter he informs Lopez's lieutenant Omar (F. Murray Abraham) that he, Montana, will be delivering the dope and the money to Mr. Lopez instead of the lieutenant, emphasizing that he was able to retain both.  Lopez invites Montana and Manny to his mansion, introduces them to his cokehead mistress Elvira (Michelle Pfeiffer), and takes them to his favorite club.  Elvira and Montana exchange an unmistakable look and we suddenly understand that the breadth of his ambition could never be hampered by common sense or self-preservation.  Regarding the club of (nightly) choice, Elvira quips: "Frank, if anyone wanted to assassinate you, you wouldn't be hard to find."  So when Frank resorts to the half-nervous chuckling riposte, "Who would want to kill me?", it is Montana whom Elvira beholds not the speaker of the rhetorical question.  For which, of course, we now have an answer.

The anti-capitalist slant to Stone's script – obvious even if one didn't know of his avowed leftist tendencies – portrays, somewhat simplistically but with devastating effect, the mirror image of the American dream.  Instead we see the inherent peril of unchecked avarice, Mafia oneupmanship being a prime example, here and elsewhere, of social Darwinism, with Tony Montana being in such a realm an alpha predator of the first disorder, which brings us to another point.  There are, Lopez informs Montana, whose pupil-like avidity and energy suggest the immediacy of a 'crash course,' two rules to the drug trade: don't get high on your supply and don't underestimate the greed of others.  Critics have made far too much of the first rule (which Lopez, sneering at Elvira, actually lists second) to explain Montana's downfall, as if his frequent and often grotesque abuse of cocaine as the movie progresses could really account for his actions prior to such luxuries.  Montana's real drug is money; the fact that he cannot viably snort dollars and get the same kick as a line of blow leads him to the depressing if inevitable capitalist conclusion that someone else is getting more bang, literally and figuratively, for his yeyo.  About fifty minutes into the film, another complication arises: Montana's Mom, who clearly fears and despises him, and his younger sister Gina (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) turn out to be residents of the Miami area (when questioned by the police in the opening scene, Montana stated that he had no known relatives alive).  Montana's unabashed sexual attraction to his sister has been underscored time and again as a symbol of his insanity – Montana is not quite insane, although terming him sane does not do justice to his temperament – yet it dovetails perfectly with what we already know of him.  Had he been respectful or conventionally and platonically loving towards Gina (who on earth gives his sister a pendant engraved, "To Gina, from Tony always"?), this would have diminished the invulnerability of his personality.  As it were, Gina's worship of her brother will manifest itself in her attraction to underworld types, which Montana correctly interprets as a compliment to himself, but which displeases him to no end.

Should imitation indeed be the sincerest form of flattery, Scarface can genuinely claim to be the most imitated film in the history of cinema.  It has spawned literally thousands of knock-offs, its uncouth, uber-capitalist protagonist much more marketable than a bunch of respect-hungry hitmen from the Italian old country, its underworld reality much harsher and truer, one imagines, than Coppola's paunchy family novel generously sprinkled with evil.  It is believed that Scarface taught countless rappers how to act and talk; what it most surely conveyed was bravado and testicular fortitude of the kind rarely seen on screen and completely original at the time (the very bang-bang ending was also not common in 1983 apart from in some westerns, although those films would have organized their bodycounts according to some antiquated pecking order).  Pacino's Montana is not only cinema's most unforgettable gangster, he represents one of the greatest and most enthralling performances of all time.  The movie is hypnotic until Montana achieves his goal of money and power; once he's there, it necessarily loses its momentum and like a roller coaster car pausing at the top, careers downward into a spectacular demise.  But the first two-thirds of the film can be watched again and again with unstinting pleasure.  Strange as it may sound, it feels more dramatically correct that Tony Montana and Manny Ribera only really excel at killing people and spending money.  Even for Manny, a strikingly handsome fellow, picking up women does not come quite as naturally as one would think.  After one failure in particular, Montana tells his "junior partner" (a label Manny will come to resent) that women are the third integer, following money and power, of an equation in which all parts are joined by equals signs.  So when Montana slaps down a thousand dollars on his mother's kitchen table and tells her and his sister that he's "made it," his mother quickly refutes his claim to being a legitimate businessman.  She knows her son Antonio all too well, which must have made what she then tells him all the more painful.  As if Tony Montana cared about anything or anyone apart from Tony Montana.

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