Based on the way movies are lately, revisiting old properties is in very high supply; filmmakers like to prioritize money when it comes to deciding what to greenlight, which is why there are so many franchises and attempts at starting or continuing franchises. So let’s take a break from all that and look back at the early 1980s, shall we? This was back when that mentality of utilizing sequels as easy money-making tools was just warming up in Hollywood, and there was still a fair amount of original films that were popular within the general public. Some of those even had something important or meaningful to say about the society that people have destroyed, one of the more direct ones being Scarface. Most know it for Al Pacino’s iconic catchphrase (“Say hello to my little friend!”) but watching the film all the way through should in fact humble you with just how twisted one’s vision of success can become when they compare their own achievements to another.
That doesn’t mean this movie’s timeless, as it does show its age plenty; there are the obvious technical errors such as the bad greenscreen effects, the fuzzy lack of focus, and the bright-red fake blood, but the age shows more through mere fact that Al Pacino, an Italian, is playing a Cuban, and attempts to put on a horrid accent that could easily shut off many viewers. The other actors playing Cubans, even those whom of which are Cuban themselves, rarely speak their proper language, and instead always speak English, even when the setup is a Cuban family in their house. This miscasting and collection of obvious production problems cause one scene to suffer from the cheesiness that one would find in particularly old movies; when one person is killed, the acting is over the top and the camera gets nauseous in its closeup shots. It just looks bad.
There’s an even deeper issue though: the main protagonist, Antonio, is exactly the same in the end as he is in the beginning. The same goes to every other character who gets in his way—the love interest is nothing more than just that, and the antagonistic forces never get their much-needed comeuppance to round them out better. Also, as a small critique based off personal preference, Antonio’s characterization would have been much stronger with a bit of religious pressure thrown onto him, if there was a clearer background of Catholicism in his family, it could have given him more uncertainty about the right thing to do in his high-stakes predicament.
The clear issues with the script prove why having such a skilled director can really make or break your movie, and Brian De Palma certainly made a true smorgasbord of terror, which is really expected from the director of Carrie. He directs one of the murder scenes so that it genuinely devastates you, with the combination of music and the looks in the actors’ eyes, you’re somehow more shocked by that than the infamous chainsaw scene. He sets up the interactions of the major characters so that you remain engaged even where there isn’t an actual tiger seen on screen; when Antonio and his love interest are dancing on the dance floor, it’s not necessarily what they say to each other that makes it so compelling, but how the mere dancing setup builds upon what they’re saying and thinking. Even in scenes when people are just sitting and talking, De Palma finds genius ways to stage them so you are left guessing, such as placing in mirrors to surround Antonio to make it look like he’s being ganged up on by one man.
There are plenty of other visual cues that stir up the heat of the tension and forces you to play along with their game whether you want to or not. A riot runs through Miami with all these flame lights and chaos, a wall of a giant sunset mural with palm trees glows a fiery hue, it’s all of 1980s macho flare, with that one cool dude in sunglasses like the T-800 just for kicks. As you’re made to feel furious without even knowing it, you see how Antonio gives other Cuban-Americans a bad name, and you understand the damage he’s doing to his mother and sister just from hearing the details of his criminal past immediately upon his introductory scene. The timelessness of this crime drama comes from its use of colors to capture the vibrance of Miami, particularly in how the criminal underbelly of that culture saw the city, giving this a vintage postcard look that sets this apart from films of a similar genre.
There’s certainly nothing pleasant whatsoever about this movie, nor should there be, but there’s still a great element of fun to be had with the ways De Palma establishes the Miami setting. He sets it off appropriately and respectfully with documentary footage narrated by a prologue that details Fidel Castro’s actions in 1980s. Once the prioritized order of business is squared away, in come the gorgeous women in bikinis and Cadillacs with hideous tiger stripe interiors. The sets are packed with contrasting colors, such as a lobby of red fabric and white marble, all of which are designed carefully to help draw your attention to the center focus of each room, such as Antonio’s hot tub room where he sits in his throne of gold and beige. These are all effective modes to worldbuilding that can’t even be achieved by the entirety of the Harry Potter series because this time, it’s done with purpose.
One final note, a bit of a game is also thrown about the script by essentially challenging you to take a shot every time somebody says, “okay.” Believe me, if you participated, you’d be long dead before the credits rolled. It’s not just for the heck of it, the use of that word shows just how passive these assassins really are.
You may consider it a crime to remake old classics or give them unnecessary sequels for the sake of money, and if you fall into that camp, I greatly recommend Scarface to you. It may make you feel yucky by the end, but will give you a clearer picture about what really happens when greed gets competitive, and why the American dream is a clear gateway to that corruption.
If there is a specific movie you’d like to see graded, or if you are interested in guest blogging for my site, please email me at Trevor@TrevorsViewOnHollywood.com for your recommendations.
Have a great weekend, and happy watching!