One of the most influential and poignant films I have seen is the incredible Oliver Stone re-creation of “Scarface,” in 1983, which was directed by Brian De Palma. Ben Hecht and Howard Hawks wrote the original screenplay, in 1932, based on the novel by Armitage Trail. The 1932 version, of “Scarface,” at the time described as almost insanely violent, starred Paul Muni and Ann Dvorak.
There is something so familiar in the flow of the Stone and De Palma version of “Scarface.” From the opening to the inevitable ending, for me, the film could have taken place close by. It might have included a few people I know or knew.
My formidable years were the 1980s, full of life, love and, of course, cocaine. People in the 1980s were bigger than life, just as the film, “Scarface.” The way Al Pacino deals with Michelle Pfeiffer is classic Miami in 1980s and, sadly, the way the film concludes was too often the case. Living high and fast had its benefits, but it also came with plenty of baggage and marks to be paid.
Tony Montana, portrayed by Pacino, came to Miami, a Cuban immigrant, who rose to wealth and power rather, quickly and illicitly. It was the Technicolor American dream, condensed into a couple of years. “Scarface” is about the same American dream that fueled many hit movies.
In fact, the play around the American dream, the desire for it and the pain the drive for it can bring, are evident in many or most films by Oliver Stone. In “The Doors,” Jim Morrison finds and rejects the dream. In “Wall Street,” Bud Fox discovers a sordid side of the American dream when he works for Gordon Gekko.
The use of color in “Scarface” is over-the-top, yet apt. Two sets that stand out are first the office of Frank Lopez, played by Robert Loggia. There’s a full wall mural of a Miami sunset. This office sets the stage for everything that is fake and unreal in the world to which Montana slowly attaches himself.
The other set is the home of Montana, late in the film. It is a monstrosity of a Miami castle, but the setting of the all black office, where Tony sits in to snort the pure white cocaine, and the blood red carpeting in the rest of the set intensifies the bloody battle ends the film.
The interplay between Tony and his sister, Gina, portrayed by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantoio, is uncomfortable, especially with the addition of a louder than normal score that accompanies the crazy eyes of Tony. In the end, the uncomfortable feeling gets to Gina; he begins the shattering of the world Tony had created around himself.
“Scarface,” in 1983, presaged the rampant greed of the early 2000s. The drug-dealing gang, which Montana oversees, is parallel, in many ways, to Wall Street financiers, out of control, in 2008. Montana succumbs to greed, as did the financiers.
The struggle, success and fall of the main character epitomize the themes of great movies and, too often, great people. There is more to “Scarface,” than just a few glib recitations of, "Say hello to my little friend," or "I'll bury those cockroaches." There is a deep understanding of the crisis of coming into your own, shocked at what you see. Montana sought the American dream and found it, but the dream, in the end, took him.
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