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On Dec. 1, 1983, Universal premiered Brian De Palma’s 170-minute, R-rated gangster remake Scarface in New York. The Hollywood Reporter’s original review is below.
The great gangster films of the 1930s were taken directly from the headlines, and this remake of Howard Hawks’ 1932 classic Scarface spills off today’s front pages. The seemingly out-of-control drug trade in Southern Florida, coupled and inflamed by Fidel Castro’s cynical export of some of Cuba’s most hardened criminals to this country in 1981, are the plot coordinates for this endeavor.
Ultimately winning an R rating in its controversy with the MPAA, this excruciatingly violent film, punctured by rapid-fire expletives, may rack up initial impressive numbers at the box office in its first weeks of release, attracting those aroused by the ratings controversy as well as the implications of sheer malevolence. But other than an unflinching, intense and extraordinary performance from Al Pacino as the Cuban-born gangster Tony Montana, this gruesome offering has little to recommend. A significant drop-off may be anticipated and, as well, a possible moral backlash against the ratings system for changing its initial X rating.
To make an unredeemably odious gangster fascinating for the entire length of a feature film is a monumental task. A filmmaker must abdicate his cinematic license to give the audience someone to root for, and such a dispensation (though brave) usually results in financial suicide. To their credit, director Brian De Palma and screenwriter Oliver Stone have not copped out by making their bantam, macho hood lovable — his integrity reaches its most beneficent level when, coked out of his mind, he point-blank blows away a hit-man to save the wife and children of an investigator they’re trying to blow up. In line with the consistent brutality of his overall behavior, such charity can only be attributed to “diminished capacity.”
The 1932 Scarface, which Universal owns via a purchase from Howard Hughes Summa Corp. (and has kept largely under wraps ever since), is renowned for the breezy, blunt dialogue of Ben Hecht and the technically assured style of Howard Hawks. Unfortunately, Stone’s dialogue in this remake contains more lead than the film’s considerable expenditure of ammo, and DePalma’s direction brings the film in at a plodding, if noisy, 170 minutes, hardly resembling the 1932 film which was applauded for its economy of movement and rapid cutting.
The filmmakers have adhered to Hawks’ original notions (putting the Borgias in Chicago) and have patterned their characters after the now archetypal ’32 originals: the amoral, ruthless gangster (Pacino), the feisty, WASP mistress (Michelle Pfeiffer), the cowardly, flabby boss (Robert Loggia), the impetuous fiery sister (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) and the attractive, murderous partner (Steven Bauer). Screenwriter Stone has superimposed these characters upon today’s sordid Miami milieu. Unfortunately, this meshing does not jibe. Except for Pacino and Mastrantonio, whose passion and caring often bring the film to life, this film is peopled by caricatures, predictably moved around the plotboard. Further, even those interested in catching a glimpse of the insides of the Miami drug trade are likely to be disappointed — a casual reading of a Time or Newsweek-type feature on the subject could be just as edifying and probably more colorful than this presentation.
Colors in apposition, the seaside pastels and the tasteless bright hues of the mobster playgrounds emphasize more subtly and powerfully the moral turpitude of these characters and their world than does the considerable, predictable bestial behavior of the characters. If Scarface misfires on a narrative level, it is very often on the mark on a visual level, no small credit due to director of photography John Alonzo and art director Ed Richardson. Flash, dazzle and gloss, all scoped by the bright, muted neon hues of visual consultant Ferdinando Scarfiotti, portend the decadence and doom of this amoral world. Pacino, relaxing in an ornate gold-fixtured tub and gazing malevolently at his Byzantine-columned TV cabinet, rails against his wife and partner while at the very pinnacle of his “success.” They leave the room, and the camera pulls back to reveal a small man in suds with a cigar in his mouth.
A low, electric organ chord permeates the film, yet the musical score of Giorgio Moroder largely leaves little impact. An evocative and telling musical leitmotif — no matter how brief — is a necessary buttress to this type of narrative, but the stolid score is unfortunately only a transitional undercurrent to Scarface. Moroder’s compositions — principally “She’s on Fire” — charge this presentation, which is otherwise solely fueled by the talents of Al Pacino.
Scarface is dedicated to Howard Hawks and Ben Hecht. It is a generous and obviously heartfelt dedication. — Duane Byrge, originally published on Nov. 30, 1983
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