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Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The Untouchables isn't the only Brian De Palma film feeling the love from critics amidst the heat of Michael Mann's Public Enemies. Pauline Kael stated that Scarface was "a De Palma movie for people who don't like De Palma movies." David Thomson fits that bill perfectly, as he hates most De Palma films, but loves De Palma's Scarface. Thomson, generally unimpressed with Mann's Public Enemies, offers his list of ten great gangster films, courtesy of the Irish Times. Listed chronologically, De Palma's film is number nine, right before Martin Scorsese's GoodFellas. Here's what Thomson wrote about Scarface:

Howard Hawks’s Scarface (1932), in which Paul Muni played a version of Al Capone, is a deserved classic, but the 1983 remake, written by Oliver Stone and directed by Brian De Palma, is even better. For a start, shifting the action to Miami and making Tony Montana an outlaw from Castro’s Cuba is very clever, and it allows Al Pacino to play with a Cuban accent the way a cat teases a dying bird. It was as if all the restraints Pacino had respected to play Michael Corleone were tossed aside. Beyond that, this Scarface is a modern opera (with music by Giorgio Moroder) that builds from the first bloody job on Miami Beach to the assault on Tony’s cocaine palace by Colombian thugs. Along the way, we get deliciously sleazy performances from F Murray Abraham, Harris Yulin and Robert Loggia as low-lifes for whom Tony finds appropriate executions. Then there is the young Michelle Pfeiffer as the bad-tempered prize Tony craves, and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as the sister he can share with no one.

Meanwhile, sparked by Mann's latest, Entertainment Weekly's Ken Tucker (author of Scarface Nation) is offering an "EW University" gangster movie class all week long. In today's lesson, Tucker discusses the role of women in gangster movies, with a focus on Pfeiffer's Elvira:

Who’s the most famous, most recognizable female character in the gangster-film genre? I’d have to say Elvira Hancock, wife of Tony Montana in the 1983 Scarface. Since a lot of gangster movies are period pieces set during the Prohibition Era, it’s not surprising that women have been largely relegated to being gold digger girlfriends – “molls” -- or innocent companions or mothers of the male protagonists. It wasn't until the World War II era, when there were more women sitting in movie-theater audiences, that the female roles were made more substantial. There are enough exceptions to this rule, however, to make women in gangster films an intriguing area of EW University study. Most immediately, Marion Cotillard, as John Dillinger’s famous real-life moll Billie Frechette, is more of a presence than your average gangster accompaniment in the new Public Enemies; director Michael Mann didn’t cast this excellent actress (La Vie en Rose) to have her stand around and simper.

But let’s go back to Elvira in Scarface. This was Michelle Pfeiffer’s star-making role. Director Brian De Palma gave her one of the most spectacular entrances in movie history: dressed in a slinky dress that hugged every curve, Elvira descends slowly from a glass elevator, with Pacino’s Tony momentarily speechless, in awe. Wearing a blonde pageboy hairdo and talking tough, Elvira ends up matching Tony curse for curse and, as their cocaine consumption increases, toot for toot. This is a far cry from the original 1932 Scarface’s femme fatale, Poppy, played by Karen Morley. She’s little more than a pretty trinket Paul Muni’s Scarface Tony Camonte wears on his arm; the real woman in this movie is Scarface’s sister, Cesca, portrayed by Ann Dvorak. She’s so loyal, she grabs a gun and stays by her brother’s side for the film’s final shoot-out. The clear implication throughout the film, although this could never be stated outright, of course, is that Scarface’s sister loves him more — is more like a faithful lover or wife — than his girlfriend is.

Warren J. Cantrell's top ten list of movie montages, posted at Scene Stealers, is not specifically related to gangster films, but it does feature Scarface up there in the top five. Here is what Cantrell says about the montage:

Money. That’s not only a description of this montage, but the image that kicks it off and sweet-Christ, is there a lot of it! After solidifying his position as the go-to man for cocaine imports and distribution in Miami, Tony Montana (Al Pacino) goes to work maximizing his power base in the vacuum left in Frank’s absence. Wisely moving through what looks to be as many as six months of expansion and growth, director Brian De Palma gives the audience not-so-subtle hints regarding the extent of Tony’s ascension. We watch the spread of the protagonist’s influence through multiple business ventures, a chic wedding (that showcases a fucking domesticated tiger), lines of men marching into a bank with duffel bags full of money, and a good-for-nothing junkie wife that is in it for the gravy. The montage has been parodied before, and for good reason, as it is absolutely dripping with cheese (the background track rivals Bloodsport’s in sheer awesome-per-square inch), yet isn’t that the point? The film is a salute to the possibilities of life in the United States for any person with balls solid enough to take what is there. In Tony Montana, America found a willing taker, a victim of this country’s lop-sided promise who, while tough as nails and quite willing, did not understand the basic necessity of freedom: restraint. A microcosm of the thematic elements of the film at large, the montage represents both Tony at the peak of his power, yet in the midst of what will ultimately ruin him. It is Tony’s blind embrace of the American dream (and the idea that one must keep reaching for more) that will doom him, for he doesn’t understand (nor will he ever) that balls might be what it takes to get to the top, but that brains are needed to stay there. The song here is “Take It To the Limit,” and for good reason, as the montage demonstrates Tony doing what he does best, mainly chewing through everything and everyone to get higher up the social ladder (the tragic inevitability, of course, is that once to the top, to keep trying to climb will mean a terrible fall).

Posted by Geoff at 1:29 PM CDT
Updated: Saturday, July 11, 2009 1:42 PM CDT
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