Scarface: Al Pacino’s electrifying performance powers this brutal and uncompromising Gangster epic from Oliver Stone and Brian De Palma

On Al Pacino’s birthday, here is looking back at his grandest and most popular performance from the 1983 gangster epic, Scarface, written by Oliver Stone and directed by Brian De Palma.

Al Pacino’s performance in the 1983 gangster classic, Scarface, is an instance where the lead star\actor takes over a film completely with his bravura performance- and specifically in a film that requires it- that he becomes the main author of the film. Though Pacino did not write or direct the film, this was a passion project for him. He originated this project- a loose remake of the 1932 Paul Muni starrer of the same name- through his former manager and Producer Martin Bregman, and was involved in every stage of the conception and execution of the film. Above all, he would deliver a performance that would captivate audiences beyond generations and become a pop cultural phenomenon. The pleasure I get from watching Pacino’s performance in Scarface is akin to the pleasure i get from watching Orson Welles’ film making in “Citizen Kane”. I find Pacino’s exploration of the craft of acting as path breaking and influential as Welles’ experimentation with film making techniques, though Welles’ is undeniable the greater achievement of the two.. We see two artists, who are masters of their art, just reveling in an opportunity in taking their art into uncharted territories. They are as giddy as little kids who have been handed over the new toy train set to play around with. In the case of Welles, he was exploring a new art form, as he was moving from theater to cinema. For Pacino, it was taking on a role that requires the kind of performance aesthetics that he hadn’t been involved with before. This performance will irrevocably change his ‘DNA’ as an actor – perhaps not for the better if we judge his future career choices, but in the case of this film it works spectacularly. This was a courageous move from Pacino’s part; as is the case with these extravagant performances – Brando in “Last Tango in Paris” or De Niro in “Raging Bull”, the actor has to do a tight rope walk. One false move and the actor would fall flat on his face and would be laughed off the screen; and this performance (and the film) did take its time to find the recognition; Pacino and the film was mostly  ridiculed when it first came out., but then with time, it went on to acquire mythic status .

Scarface was a major turning point in Pacino’s career;  it came almost a decade after his career-making turn as Michael Corleone in “The Godfather”. Up until that time, Pacino was a brooding, intense, character-actor who performed in the service of the film. Even in flashier parts like “Dog Day Afternoon” or “And Justice for All” , he was still playing a real character who existed within the ambit of the movie. But Scarface was a grand, baroque, out-sized star-vehicle that was specifically designed for him and fully reliant on his performance for its existence. Now Pacino is not a conventional star like Steve McQueen or Clint Eastwood for whom you can design characters like “Bullit” or “Dirty Harry”. He is a star who is basically a character actor. he is not somebody who gets through a film just by his persona and charisma alone. He needs a well defined character. And to that end, writer Oliver stone and director Brian De Palma has designed the most grandiose role for Pacino. A role that will require him to be less of a pure actor and more of a spectacular showman that would put the showier aspects of his acting persona- that Operatic voice, that balletic body language and that beautiful expressive face and fiery eyes- to full effect. Both Brian De Palma and Oliver Stone are  themselves born showmen. De Palma’s films revel in the  showy artifice of cinema. His films like Dressed to Kill and Blow Out are basically  movies about movies (or movie making), with their elaborate, wizardry camera work, editing ,sound design and no holds barred display of sex and violence; and Stone, either as a writer or as a director, from his greatest JFK to the atrocious Alexander, is an exponent of “taking it to the limit” school of bravura artistry. Oliver Stone has written a brutal, unflinching, endlessly quotable, ultra-violent rumination of a gangster’s rise and fall in the Miami drug underworld. Both De Palma and Pacino are so much in synch with each other, and also with Stone’s  writing, that It is hard to tell whether Pacino’s performance is inspired by the  ultra-stylish nature of De Palma’s film making or vice versa. Throughout the film, they match each other punch for punch in upping the ante as far as how grand and baroque their individual artistry can be.

Right from the opening scene, Pacino & De Palma grabs you by the collar and never lets you go: in the famous introduction scene, De Palma’s camera is constantly circling Pacino, much like the authorities who are interrogating him, and Stone’s words proves to be potent weapons for bringing out Pacino’s character. “Anthonioo Monthaaaana”, as he introduces himself, is a mixture of a wicked kid, an unbridled liar, an unapologetic go-getter and a low-life thug. And as he grandly declares “i am a political prisoner from Cuba and i want my fkkking human rights”, You hear Pacino’s altered voice, his approximation of a Cuban accent(very popular and much-imitated) ,We see his extroverted body language, swaggering arrogance, his bad ass attitude, the ingratiating  grin, those fiery eyes and that scar on his face that runs through one eyebrow and down across the cheekbone as if his face (and his soul) is divided into two parts. In his previous roles, Pacino always traverses an arc, where there is significant shift in both, moral, emotional and physical state of the character. Both Michael Corleone and Serpico are characters who ends up very far away from the people they started out. In scarface, the character hardly changes color. The Pacino that we see in the first scene is exactly the same Pacino (may be a little too drugged out and paranoid) who plunges upside down to his death in that final scene of the film. His previous roles had deep psychological undercurrents, especially Michael Corleone, who was a tightly coiled person, but Tony Montana has no deep psychology or even much depth. It’s all surface-what you see is what you get. As an actor, Pacino externalizes his every emotion and every thought through a series of physical tics and his outrageous costumes.  He spells out his philosophy loudly and clearly at the very beginning- “All I have in this world is my balls and my word and I don’t break them for no one”- and follows it to his end. The character is more of a two-dimensional cipher that exist at a certain  distance from the audience. Dressed up in those gaudy costumes amidst garish sets, and spitting out those highly quotable one-liners, the character stops just short of being a living, breathing cartoon.

Another thing that is well established from the first scene is that Tony is a guy in a hurry to get to the top and the film reflects his mindset. Within the film’s first half-hour, Tony has killed a Cuban political leader for a green card, he has become a dish washer in a roadside restaurant, and not satisfied with that, he has taken to running coke for drug lord named Frank Lopez. The drug deal goes terribly wrong, but Tony manages to survive with his life, money and cocaine intact. Tony’s courage and loyalty impresses Lopez  and he takes him into his circle. But then enters Elvira, Lopez’s moll; like an angel flying down from the heavens, she comes down the elevator, and Tony is instantly smitten. De Palma’s framing indicates that soon enough, she is going to be the prize that  these two would be fighting over. The bored Elvira spells out her philosophy of surviving in this drug crazed world: “Nothing exceeds like excess” and “Never get high on your own supplies”; Rules that she herself does not follow.  Tony makes his moves on Elvira and she seems to be reciprocating, but he knows he need to become powerful before he can get Elvira. As he tells his sidekick Manny;  “In this country, you gotta 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”. And as it happens, things start going terribly wrong between the hotheaded Tony and his older, pragmatic boss, Lopez. Fed up with Tony, Lopez tries to kill him for his transgressions, Tony escapes the assassination attempt  and kills Lopez instead.  Now Lopez dead, Elvira and the drug empire belongs to Tony. He has finally achieved  everything he wanted to achieve. But no sooner has he reached the top, his descent begins. He loads himself with so much cocaine every other minute that he becomes increasingly paranoid. His marriage to Elvira sours and he loses faith in Manny, whom he ends up killing. Finally, he reneges on a deal he made with a powerful Colombian Drug lord, Soza, who retaliates by sending a hit squad to his palace. In an ultra violent climax, Tony is assassinated. He plunges face down into his luxurious fountain, like an Antichrist.

From its storyline, it appears to be a very simple film, but visually, it’s very dense and intoxicating- like those drugs that Tony voraciously consume. Tony has a  simple plan in life: He didn’t come over on the boat to be a dishwasher all his life; he wants everything right now, and if that leads to a quick end to his life, then so be it. He relishes being a bad guy that other people points their fingers at. The beauty of Pacino’s performance is that he never makes the character likable, nor does the film gets sentimental at any point. The film is completely devoid of any  attempts at creating sympathy for Tony.  Tony’s wooing of Elvira(Michael Pfeiffer) is tough. There are no cute glances or kisses exchanged. Elvira herself is shown as a troubled soul and beset by her own addictions. Tony isn’t so much in love with her as much as he wants to posses her, but once he’s got her and reached the top, it’s the end of his fascination with her and he treats her even more roughly. He withdraws more and more into himself and starts distrusting everybody including Elvira and Manny. He remains as greedy and dissatisfied with life as he was before. That’s one thing that’s constant with Tony throughout the movie, whether he is on his way to the top, at the top, or on his way down, he just wants more and more ,like a cocaine addiction, the more money he has, the more luxuries he posses, the more greedier and dissatisfied he gets. And Pacino goes all the way with Tony’s drunken and drugged-out aggression. The two very famous scenes from the film: one  in the bathtub and the scene in the restaurant has Pacino at his irascible, but it is not all one note. Take the scene in the giant bathtub. he looks like a shark swimming in the ocean of wealth (and cocaine .the bubbles gives off that impression). He is angrily complaining about losing money and mocking Elvira for not having a life. But then the tone of his performance (and the scene) shift suddenly, when he switches channels and see shots of pelicans flying. “See the pelicans fly” is a famously funny line from the film. This sudden shift from anger to humor , humor to tragedy and tragedy back to comedy or may be all three running in parallel , even as he maintains the pitch of his performance – he is still playing everything at an operatic pitch –  is the greatness of this performance. Similarly, in the restaurant scene, it begins with Pacino physically disintegrated- all drunken and drugged out, he can hardly put the glass back on table .He conveys an overwhelming sense of fatigue and fatality, that he is going to go down any minute. And his way of pumping himself up  is picking on Pfeiffer, whom he calls a drug junkie with a polluted womb. But when Pfeiffer pours a drink on him and walks out. His face (and his body) just springs to life with a variety of expressions . After her exit, he slumps back into his chair with the sarcastic jibe  ‘One more Quaalude and she will be back to loving me‘. The scene finishes with his best moments in the film, as he makes the ‘Say goodnight to the bad guy speech‘, ranting against the  hypocrisy of the  ‘White bread’ Wasp Bourgeois class. His drunken body language is like a dance performance with his voice hitting the high notes. The theatricality of the performance is gritty and electrifying.

Like all other De Palma movies, this one too is a lot about the film industry and the film making process, not only for the large amounts of cocaine that is shown consumed here, which was a direct reference to the drug consumption in  Hollywood in 70’s  and 80’s, but also from the thematic point of view. The Maverick showman Tony Montana coming to town and overhauling the status quo of business with his blood and guts style was very similar to the invasion of the new sex-drugs and Rock’N’Roll generation -of which De Palma was also part of- taking over the Hollywood system. Tony could be someone like Pacino’s friend and genius-director Francis Ford Coppola, riding into a town run by old, jaded studio bosses like Frank Lopez- who runs their business safely and risk free. And just like Tony, these brash young guys very quickly reached the top of the business in a span of two or three films; and again like Tony, they would soon self-destruct. Coppola was famous in his time for his theatricality and showmanship that took him through the spectacular successes of the first two “Godfathers” and then “Apocalypse Now”, which was the height of his excess. By the time  Pacino was making Scarface, Coppola had self-destructed spectacularly through a series of expensive flop films. No wonder this film was hated in Hollywood. Scarface could also be considered De Palma’s critique of Coppola’s classy Godfather films. You get a feeling that this is an intentionally crude, B movie version of The Godfather films (and with the same actor as well)- with Tony’s decline being similar to Michael’s. There is a huge amount of swearing and graphic violence in the film, and as opposed to Coppola’s dark Mafia world, De Palma creates a bright, vibrant world with the sunlit streets and disco nightclubs dotted with Roman art deco, reinforcing the decadent artificiality of the film’s world.

As is the case with a lot of De Palma characters, even the decadent Tony has a code of honor, which comes out at a most inappropriate moment for him; the moment when he refuses to blow up a car with children inside. And again as in De Palma movies, if a character suddenly acquires a conscience, they’re going to be punished for it. The punishment – an all out hit on Tony’s palace by at least a hundred gun toting  goons – is staged as an apocalyptic production number with Tony, completely going over the edge by the end, blasting away with guns and rocket launchers. Right from the moment he shoots Soza’s man in the car for trying to blow up the children, to the point he goes down in a fusillade of bullets, Pacino exhibits an immersion into the paranoia and megalomania of the character that is both scary and hypnotic. As he  goes out, all screaming, punching and kicking ‘I am still standing‘, when he is showered with bullets from all sides, he comes across as a demonic force  who can only be  annihilated by putting a stake through his heart. And Pacino gives one demonic performance to the extend that his acting in those final moments makes us fear for his mental and physical health. Its on a completely different level as far as movie acting is concerned, something that i have yet to come across in any performance. This also represents the most anti-godfather aspect of the film. It’s as if De Palma is saying that the classical , romantic, sepia toned nostalgia of the Godfather films may appear real to you, but that is actually a fantasy and this gaudy, over the top, ultra violent grittiness may appear to be crass fantasy to you , but this is the reality. This is how gangsters go down, not while serenely playing with grand children in their garden but all kicking and screaming, in a hail of blood and bullets.

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