Since 1998, I have been maintaining a list of movies that I wanted to see. Sometimes these are all-time classics that passed me by, sometimes they’re genre classics that interest me. The list grows regularly and is currently more than 1800 movies long. Fogs has gone through and hand-picked several classic films for me to “fast-track” and review here. This is one of those films.
It’s hard to be certain when I first heard about Scarface. High school seems likely. Its excess of violence and its sense of style would have appealed to a lot of my fellow students. It took me a while to catch it, not for any particular reason, but simply difficulty in tracking down a cheap copy — you can be assured I knew even from early on that this was not a film to trust to TBS’s editors. Also, at nearly three hours in length, it’s a film that requires a significant time commitment, so there was that factor as well. But it was one I had to get my hands on eventually, if only to see how a film can garner Golden Globe nominations and, at the same time, a Razzie nomination.
I will assume most readers are at least partially aware of the plot of Scarface (for those who aren’t: guy becomes drug kingpin), and so I won’t dwell on it overmuch except to say that perhaps it does run just a tad too long. But it flows reasonably naturally, showing the progression of Tony Montana from small time thug to kingpin of the Miami cocaine scene. Montana is a virtually amoral character, willing to cross anybody in the pursuit of his ambition, which as he says is “the world, and everything in it”.
If you aren’t going to have a likeable protagonist, it is vitally important that you have an interesting one. With Al Pacino in the role, Tony Montana is exactly that. He sometimes seems a bit of a dullard, not quite grasping that his actions have consequences, but he is full of witticisms. He is alternately funny and repulsive as his relationships with those around him become warped by drugs — both from his business and from his own addiction. It’s difficult to ever feel sympathy for him, as he is an abusive jackass who brings everything on himself, but he is nevertheless darkly charismatic as he rages against the world. The supporting characters are a few echelons down in charisma (dark or otherwise), but they serve the film well by giving the character of Tony Montana realistic foils to play off of.
The film’s reception has been mixed since its release, and this has always been something of a puzzlement to me. Having watched the film, I can finally understand why. I don’t put a lot of stock in the Razzies, but I can see their point in nominating Brian de Palma for worst director. Most of the film is done quite well; in fact, I would say there are no out-and-out flaws with the film, and many scenes are terrific from a directing standpoint. But when there’s a scene that fails, it fails hard. Of particular note are the scenes where Tony is angered by guys hitting on his kid sister, of which there are a few and which all play out the same way. The camera shows the sister, then it does a close-up on Pacino’s eyes while a “dramatic” chord plays. It doesn’t feel like the decision of a director on a major theatrical feature; it feels like something out of a Lifetime Movie of the Week. It could only be cheesier if the specific sound snippet were DUN DUN DUN!
Fortunately, moments like that are relatively rare. Most of the film is high quality, and Pacino’s performance is magnetic. It’s not a perfect film, and one has to roll with the cheesiness in places, but it’s certainly a film worthy of remaining in the public eye for the last thirty years.
Morgan R. Lewis writes about other classic (and just plain old) films at his own blog Morgan on Media.