Scarface (1983, Brian De Palma)

Scarface is a film with a lot of problems. Most consequentially, there’s no character development for Al Pacino; any time there’s ostensibly character development, the film cuts ahead a month or three, or there’s a montage sequence. But the film is incredibly hands-off with Pacino’s character and arc. It leaves Pacino to vamp throughout to keep the energy up. He’s always doing something in the performance, which is simultaneously transfixing and tedious. He’s just making up for director De Palma and screenwriter Oliver Stone’s shortcomings.

It also means he never builds character relationships with the costars, like literal trophy wife, Michelle Pfeiffer (Pacino gets her as a reward for leveling up as a Miami drug kingpin), sister Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, or “best friend” Steve Bauer. Quotation marks because Pacino and Bauer have something like two scenes where Bauer’s not just an accessory. The film tries to bring it all together at the end when Pacino’s being performative about his relationship with Pfeiffer and then later feels regret for not supporting Bauer and Mastrantonio’s star-crossed romance. It’s already too little, too late, but De Palma ignores it so he can do a lackluster action finale. However, ignoring it means ignoring Pacino, whose performance is the only thing keeping Scarface afloat by the finale, so it dings the finish even more than the bad action does on its own.

But the other big problem with the film is De Palma runs out of ideas during the first act. He and cinematographer John A. Alonzo shoot some great crane shots. And then they repeat the same shots. They come up with a transition device. Then they use it over and over again. Except the first time they use the transition device and the crane shots, it’s during Scarface’s infamous chainsaw sequence and nothing else ever as intense. Though the chainsaw sequence isn’t particularly intense either, De Palma gets distracted by a girl in a bikini. Actually, wait, during the first act–when Bauer’s cruising for every girl in a bikini–De Palma’s far more interested in the film (albeit the girls in bikinis). Once the women are more or less dressed, De Palma checks out.

Though some of the problem is lousy cutting from Gerald B. Greenberg and David Ray. Outside the careful and through establishing shots—and De Palma and Alonzo do several great, long tracking shots—the editing is middling at best and sometimes much worse. Pacino’s got a scene where he’s bullshitting his way up the ladder with Bolivian cocaine playboy Paul Shenar and none of the cuts match. Pacino’s shoulders, hands, and body jump between every shot in a single conversation. It’s distractingly inept.

The film’s got three sections: Pacino and Bauer arriving from Cuba and getting established, Pacino working his way up the ladder (at boss Robert Loggia’s expense), then Pacino screwing everything up once he’s made it. The one time Pacino does something good, that single moment sets off his immediate downfall. There are three moments he shows any humanity, and one of them is something they kept in after De Palma called cut, and Pacino and Pfeiffer just had fun for a moment. Otherwise, they never have any fun.

No one has any fun, which the film might be able to do something with if it were willing to close that narrative distance on Pacino, but it never will. De Palma and Stone are incredibly noncommittal and superficial.

Something needs to be said about the soundtrack, particularly the terrible disco songs playing during the club sequences. Giorgio Moroder does the score and produced the songs. The score’s thin, but it’s got its moments, and it’s often at least adequate. If a single one of the disco songs isn’t the dregs of white disco… I must’ve missed it. The songs are really, really bad. So bad they seem like a judgment against the Miami club scene, which—like no one having fun—is definitely something the film could’ve done something with had there been a better screenplay.

Pacino’s acting’s technically superb. It’s all for naught, but he works his ass off. Ditto Bauer. Pfeiffer, Mastrantonio, and Miriam Colon are all fine in the lousy women’s roles. Mastrantonio gets the worst one. Loggia’s a little much but not bad. Shenar’s solid, but it’s a nothing part. Similarly, Harris Yulin and F. Murray Abraham have decent exaggerated cameos.

Excellent art direction and set design, Edward Richardson and Bruce Weintraub, respectively, though it never once seems like anything Pacino’s character would buy, covet, or install. By the final part of the film, when Pacino’s got his mansion—we don’t see his living situation when he’s on the way up because it’d be way too much insight into the character—De Palma’s just showcasing the interior decorating anyway (and showing off how well crane shots can work in mansions). Scarface at least embraces its excesses, for better and worse; it does commit. Just not as much or enough for Pacino’s performance to make the movie succeed.

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