THE TELEGRAPH'S FILM CRITIC TIM ROBEY ON HOW SCARFACE PREDICTED THE 1980s
At The Telegraph, film critic Tim Robey looks at "how the blood-soaked Scarface predicted the 1980s" --
Even De Palma’s usual ally, Pauline Kael, had a host of issues with it. Singling out the “rash brilliance” of the chainsaw sequence as a highlight, she faulted the film’s dramatic arc – “the middle is missing” – and called it “manic yet exhausted”, with Pacino’s efforts expended on a character so consistently pig-like that the audience got no kick out of him. She compared him – rightly – to De Niro’s Jake La Motta in Raging Bull (1980), another film Kael disliked for reasons that seem a little facile now. It’s as if she’s asking these loathsome men, with their “macho primitivism”, to satiate an audience’s craving to be won over, somehow. Charmed.
In retrospect, all the unpleasantness Kael describes in Scarface is right there – but it adds up to a go-for-broke vision, not a litany of flaws. Fast-tracking Tony to obscene wealth, bypassing the steps he takes, is the most swaggery way to comment on his ugly rapaciousness. It differentiates De Palma’s film from The Godfather – or the likes of Casino after it – and makes it pop as a prescient, coke-taker’s satire on Reaganite consumption. “Nothing exceeds like excess,” as Pfeiffer drawls, acidly.
With its glacial Giorgio Moroder score and mirror-filled nightclub scenes, Scarface flaunts an archetypal early-1980s aesthetic, but also manages to feel like the last word on the selfish glamour of a decade that had barely begun. When Tony berates all the rich, appalled habitués of a swanky restaurant as hypocrites, worse than he is, the scene would hardly benefit from more social realism – it’s a one-sided slapdown, a screed. Tony is no one’s listener, of course: he just shouts, expecting the world’s attention.
It took a while to get it. Scarface barely broke even in 1983 – hurt by the reviews and backstage squabbles, netting a so-so $65m worldwide. But it soon became a runaway hit on VHS, selling more than 100,000 copies (priced at an eye-watering $79.95 per cassette, in the medium’s early days). In 2003, the 20th anniversary DVD re-issue was the fastest-selling disc on record, even beating ET. Saddam Hussein was such a fan, he named his family trust fund Montana Management in Tony’s honour.
Along the way, it became an enormous touchstone in hip-hop culture, referenced and sampled by everyone from Public Enemy to Jay-Z. Rapper Sean Combs claims to have seen it 63 times; it’s been an incalculable influence on rap videos ever since it was made.
The electronic artist and composer E.M.M.A., whose main instruments are synths, has had the film on her “creative mood board” from the moment she first heard “Tony’s Theme”. “The mood is unsettlingly complex,” she explains. “Every sound has a purpose and space is used wisely. It helps cement in my mind the gold standard of the emotion you’d want to draw out of a story with your music, and what can be achieved with a meeting of minds.”
The blimp that floats past Tony’s mansion saying “The World is Yours” – nodding back to the billboard under which Muni dies in Hawks’s original – gives the film a reckless allure that transcends bling and firepower. E.M.M.A sees this as the reason so many artists have drawn inspiration from Scarface: “Wanting something just out of grasp is an ideal creative canvas.”