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Rants and Raves: ‘Scarface’

Say Hello to My Little Friend”

Above: Al Pacino as Tony Montana in "Scarface."

Who could have predicted that Brian DePalma's 1983 "Scarface" (screening tonight as a Fathom event and coming out for the first time on BluRay September 6) would become such a cultural icon?

Brian DePalma's "Scarface" is a remake of the gritty 1932 gangster pic of the same name and originally directed by Howard Hawks. In some ways, Hawks' film had almost as powerful an impact on audiences of his time as DePalma's film has proven to have on contemporary pop culture. The power of both films is the central character -- one an Italian immigrant, the other Cuban -- who start with nothing and through perverse pursuit of the American Dream, climb to the top and fall tragically. Both films delivered an in-your-face and unapologetic gangster, and each in its own way, came to audiences as fresh and excessive. In 1932 it was Paul Muni as Antonio 'Tony' Camonte, and in 1983 it was Al Pacino as Tony Montana. Pacino's gangster has so far proven more durable as a pop icon, but both made a brutal assault on audiences.

Tonight you can catch "Scarface" on the big screen for a one night only Fathom special event and on Tuesday the film comes out on BluRay for the first time. The special edition is nicely packaged with a copy of Hawks' original "Scarface" for comparison. I highly recommend watching both, each has its own charms.

DePalma's "Scarface" -- with a script by Oliver Stone -- was an excessive, operatic epic that seemed to coincide perfectly with the rise of hip hop and gangster culture. There was even a 2003 Def Jam Recordings compilation of songs inspired by the movie. You can even find teenagers today sporting Tony Montana t-shirts or with life-size cardboard cutouts of Montana and his little friend standing watch over their bedrooms. It's an amazing phenomenon and something that no one in Hollywood could have purposely engineered.

The film has stirred controversy too, getting blasted for racial stereotypes and fostering negative images of Cuban Americans. But DePalma's "Scarface" is not of the real world. It lives in a land of excess where the sheer audacity of its extremism is what makes it so iconic. Plus it taps into something very primal in its portrait of a man who resents the huge gulf between the have's and have not's, and is willing to do whatever it takes to prove -- mostly to himself -- that the American Dream is not a lie. You can criticize "Scarface" for many things but one thing you cannot deny is its fevered energy. Pacino has done far more subtle work but nothing with this level of ferocity. He has never been more riveting or seemed to be having so much fun.

One of Blitzway's collectible toys for "Scarface."


Above: One of Blitzway's collectible toys for "Scarface."

The film's popularity is also reflected in all the collectibles fans can find like this upcoming toy (I use the word loosely) from Blitzway.

So here's to "Scarface," a seemingly indelible pop culture icon. I even named my son after Tony Montana. I'm not quite sure what that says about the film or about me, but if my son grows up to be a gangster, I guess I have to take full responsibility. But maybe he'll just embrace Tony Montana's idea that "The world is yours," and go after it with gusto. But no matter what you think of the films and its ardent fans, "Scarface" has made its violent mark.

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Avatar for user 'Missionaccomplished'

Missionaccomplished | August 31, 2011 at 12:41 p.m. ― 5 years, 7 months ago

Over-the-top, much, Beth?

That said, it it interesting to note that an Italian immigrant would be portrayed as a villain, set against the social background of Prohiition as well as the general sentiment toward immigration and Italians in particular, as the Quota Laws of 1917, 1921, & 1924 placed severe restrictions on southern Europeans as opposed to Northern Europeans - English, Irish, Germans. The original SARFACE, cannot be divorced from its historical context and I certainly do not know that the legendary Hawks was a progressive--even for his time.

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Avatar for user 'Missionaccomplished'

Missionaccomplished | August 31, 2011 at 12:45 p.m. ― 5 years, 7 months ago

It is also hard to believe, and a testament to human betterment and artisitic maturity, that the man who directed 1983's SCARFACE would only a few years later direct the heart-breaking CASUALTIES OF WAR.

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Avatar for user 'Beth Accomando'

Beth Accomando, KPBS Staff | August 31, 2011 at 6:16 p.m. ― 5 years, 7 months ago

Are you recycling comments? ;) Saw your comment on my other posts and it started almost the same.

Why is it interesting to have an Italian immigrant as a villain? Especially against a Prohibition backdrop. Many of the most notorious gangsters of that time were Italian and film, while finding such characters charismatic, had a moral code it was asked to follow so such characters would be villains. Is your point that there were fewer Italians? Not sure what you're trying to say.

And I am not trying to divorce the film from it's social context at all. It reflected the times but presented a character that would be familiar from headlines but in the context of a film that jolted and surprised audiences with what they felt at the time was an excessive level of violence. DePalma, in a new and more contemporary context, did the same thing and made the excess even more exaggerated. But he too was pulling from headlines. As for Hawks being progressive, what context are you referring to? As a filmmaker? As a social commentator?

As for DePalma, I would argue that Scarface will be the more enduring film than Casualties of War. Scarface in it's over the top way remains more relevant and engaging than Casualties of War, which feels very dated, message-driven and self-conscious.

Thanks as always for the comments.

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Avatar for user 'Missionaccomplished'

Missionaccomplished | September 1, 2011 at 11:42 a.m. ― 5 years, 7 months ago

i don't recall my last post starting off with "over the top much, Beth?" but my comment was not directed at your review which is not "over the top" but at the film which most certainly is. I apologize for the misunderstanding.

Maybe "taking the film out of its historical context" was the wrong expression. What I am saying is that you are giving this film a pass and ignoring the socio-political ramifications of the time. As I mentioned in my previous post, the original SCARFACE, came at the heels of popular anti-immigrant and anti-Italian sentiment which led to the Quota Laws of 1917, 1921 & 1924 (directed mostly at Southern Europeans). You are also forgetting the the infamous Sacco & Vanzetti case (wrongly accused) and its social impact, ending in their 1929 execution (catch the 1972 film of the same name by Guiliano Montaldo). If I wasn't clear before, I will be clearer now for the sake of a history lesson, Italian immigrants and southern European were demonzied at this point in our country's history. Hawks's SCARFACE served only to further that demonization. I doubt that the filmmakers were living in a vacuum at the time. (Think today of having a Hollywood production with an Afghan or Arab villain, maybe.)

Yes, I don't deny De Palma's remake has cult status. But if it is more "enduring " than CASUALTIES, it is NOT because of any inherent genius, but rather because a whole generation of Americans, most of whom were not even born in 1983, That in itself doesn't mean the moviet has greater merit. After all, it was the punk rock generation audience that helped make CLOCKWORK what it is today, not the hippies of the time when it was origianlly released.

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Avatar for user 'DeLaRick'

DeLaRick | September 1, 2011 at 11:51 a.m. ― 5 years, 7 months ago

I think your comments regarding context are on the mark, Beth. No one will argue that the characters and dialogue were exaggerated, but the proliferation of the cocaine trade and its impact on Miami and American culture were very real. I'm sure every dealer and user saw a little Tony and Manolo in themselves, regardless of race. When Sheriff Ed Bell was wondering aloud why drug-running had taken such a dishonorable turn in "No Country for Old Men" (set around the same time, early 80s), he only needed to look to Miami for answers. I strongly recommend "Cocaine Cowboys" as companion viewing. After seeing the characters in that DOCUMENTARY, the exaggerations in Scarface don't seem like a stretch.

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Avatar for user 'Beth Accomando'

Beth Accomando, KPBS Staff | September 1, 2011 at 1:27 p.m. ― 5 years, 7 months ago

Thanks DeLaRick for the recommendation and mention of No Country for Old Men. That's a connection I wouldn't have thought of but it's apt.

Missionaccomplished- I'm not saying that DePalma's film is great but that it is proving to have more staying power as a pop culture icon. Such things do not necessarily reflect merit but do say something about the themes and ideas that DePalma tapped into. But I do think Clockwork Orange is a great film.

As for Hawks' film I am not giving it a pass but I also think that each film has to be looked at on its own. I didn't "forget" Sacco and Vanzetti but I think it's a stretch to bring it up in the context of this film. People complained about The Godfather decades later claiming that it presented a negative portrait of Italians but you know what -- and I can say this as an Italian-- a lot of people in the Mafia were Italian and a lot of people involved in crime during Prohibition (the setting of first Scarface) were Italian too. And the film is based on the real gangster Al Capone (who reportedly loved the film). I think both films have artistic merit that make them worthy of attention and praise even if they rely on certain stereotypes. My main point about Hawks' film was that the grittiness of the violence was considered excessive and jolting to audiences. And BTW, The Hays Code repeatedly tried to change and censor the film.

Thanks for the comments.

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Avatar for user 'Missionaccomplished'

Missionaccomplished | September 2, 2011 at 10:35 a.m. ― 5 years, 6 months ago

Good info, Beth. But the anti-immigrant sentiment toward Southern Europeans in the teens, 20s and 30s (1890s if you include days of rioting in New Orelans) had shifted to other ethnic groups by 1972. I can understand some of the criticism leveled at THE GODFATHER, but I think it is just a complex film that that was one of the first to show even people involved in criminal activies also have a routine side to them like your everyday Joe Blow. What some of these critics failed to see, AS DID some of the film's fans, is the subtle political statements it made which were over the heads if many,

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