The World is Tony's: A Scarface Essay & 4K UHD Blu-ray Review of Scarface (1983) - "The World is Yours" Limited Edition Set

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The World is Tony's: A Scarface Essay
By Jen Johans

(Note: Mild Spoilers Ahead)

Al Pacino wanted to be Paul Muni. Seeing the actor play a prohibition era mobster in what Robert Osborne dubbed "the granddaddy of all gangster films," director Howard Hawks' acclaimed 1932 movie Scarface, Pacino was as exhilarated as he was determined. Leaving L.A.'s historic Tiffany Theater to call his agent, the producer Martin Bregman, Al Pacino knew two things: that it was the right time to remake Scarface and that in it, he wanted to be Paul Muni.

Rather than try to repeat history by making a period film about Italian gangsters post-Godfather, Pacino's Dog Day Afternoon director Sidney Lumet made the wise decision to shift the action from the past to the present. No longer interested in chronicling the rise and downfall of an Italian thug, in the new film, Tony would be a Cuban criminal ready to climb the ladder in the drug trade after emigrating to Miami. And with that in mind, Lumet hoped to make Scarface a timely wake-up call about the policies of the Reagan administration in the same way that Hawks' picture begins with a warning that the film was "an indictment of gang rule in America and the callous indifference of the government to this constantly increasing menace to our safety and our liberty."

Yet while Lumet's political aspirations didn't jive with Bregman and Pacino's desire to just make it more of a contemporary crime saga full stop, thankfully they adhered to his idea to set the film in Miami at a time when 125,000 Cuban immigrants (including an estimated 25,000 with criminal records) flooded southern Florida after Castro opened Mariel Habor in 1980.

With Brian De Palma taking up the reins as director, he tapped Midnight Express screenwriter Oliver Stone to pen the script, which he did only after talking to Lumet about his reservations to the film. Moving to Paris in order to write (and kick his own cocaine habit), Stone's script for Scarface was based upon not only the Ben Hecht original but also his in-depth research about the rise of drug violence and organized crime in Miami. Managing to capture the outrageousness of it all, Stone's final draft filtered the political and criminal realism of its subject matter into the entertaining structure of an action thriller. And leaning into the mindset of a power mad gangster, the end result feels operatic, with musical highs and lows ideally suited to De Palma (as well as Pacino).

Stepping into the role of Cuban immigrant, Antonio "Tony" Montana, as opposed to Paul Muni's Italian immigrant, Antonio "Tony" Camonte in the Hawks film, Pacino's off-the-charts charisma is on display in his very first scene in the film as he answers questions from tough, badgering authorities. The only one in the room commanding our attention, even as the immigration officers voiced by an uncredited Dennis Franz and Charles Durning grow more belligerent, Chinatown cinematographer John A. Alonzo's camera stays on Tony for minutes before finally opening up the shot to include the entire office.

To misquote the ad slogan "The World is Yours," which inspired both Camonte in the original and Montana in the remake, in Scarface, the world is Tony's and he wants everything in it. As De Palma's film kicks off, we know even before Tony leaves the room that he'll do whatever he has to in order to ensure that his rise in America will be both meteoric and straight to the top.

Introducing us to the characters in his world, we meet Tony's loyal and handsome right hand man, Manny (played by the main cast's only Cuban actor, Steven Bauer), who joins him on his quest, and eventually, Tony's lovely nineteen-year-old sister, Gina (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), whom he hasn't seen since she arrived in the states with his disapproving mother years earlier.

When Manny makes the mistake of saying aloud that Tony's sister is beautiful, we learn that the Achilles' heel of 1983's Tony is the same as it was back in 1932. Taking the conversation from a two to a ten in seconds, Pacino's Tony shouts, "you stay away!" before warning Manny that "she is not for you."

Needless to say, that definitely telegraphs the future for would-be forbidden lovers, Manny and Gina. Yet it also reveals that, although paternalistic, in place of their American father who ran out on them years earlier, Tony's need to protect the chastity of his sister borders on an obsession that De Palma frames in a creepily romantic light from their very first scene together.

From the knock on the door to Gina running after him into the night, the moment plays less like the return of a black sheep son and more like a boyfriend who's been banned from the house since he's not the kind you take home to mama. And although this incestuous undercurrent ran through the original as well, between Tony and his sister in both versions of Scarface and James Cagney's character's obsession with his mom in White Heat, you get the impression that Freud would've had a field day with these gangsters and their Madonna-whore hang-ups.

Still, while his love for Gina is covert, Tony's most overt object of romantic obsession in Scarface is undoubtedly Elvira, the blonde, leggy goddess played by then-newcomer Michelle Pfeiffer. The girlfriend of Robert Loggia's character Frank who, incidentally, is his boss, when Tony first sees Elvira, she wears a backless teal gown that, depending on the light, flashes green like money or as blue as the ocean he crossed on his way from Cuba. Pacing with her back to him inside a glass elevator like a caged tiger, even before he sees her face, Tony knows he has to have her.

A thing to be acquired that's much too wild for him, like the chainsaw used in a bathroom in an early drug buy scene that's straight out of a horror movie or an actual tiger that he brings home as a pet, Elvira is something he feels that needs to be tamed. And sure enough, when Tony makes an early play for her, Elvira asserts her dominance like a predator by telling him not to call her "baby" before swatting him away with her paw.

Finally, "freeing" her from her gilded cage of life with Frank by (of course) taking him out because this is the law of the jungle after all and only the strong survive, Tony pulls back the sheet on her bed in the middle of the night with her deceased boyfriend's blood still on his hand to tell her she's coming with him. Having never even kissed her (consensually), unlike the scenes where Tony gives his sister an engraved heart shaped locket or watches Gina try on clothes, throughout Scarface, there's nothing romantic about his interactions with Elvira.

Not sure what to do with her once he's gotten her, since it was most likely the thrill of the chase that was his strongest aphrodisiac, we realize even before Tony does just how incompatible the two are as lovers. In their first dance together, Tony insults her while trying to size up her sex life with Frank, which is intriguing because we're not exactly sure she's better off with him since, despite the fact that Tony talks a good game in front of Manny, for all we know, the two seldom make love as it's never shown.

For a film that's known for its excess, the lack of a love scene in Scarface is significant. In fact, the only time sex is even mentioned is when Tony and Elvira fight, which doesn't bode well for their satisfaction in that department. Tony wants her to have his children but there's a reason why animals don't mate in captivity (and that's before an avalanche of cocaine is added to the mix). Proposing marriage by tying it into his rise to the top only confirms this isn't a courtship, it's a business deal, after all. Tony takes her out of one cage and puts her right into another.

By then, however, he's as addicted to power and status as she is to cocaine. But as the film continues, he matches her enthusiasm in that as well, at one point snorting so much from a mountain of coke on his desk that the drug sits on his nose like a dollop of whipped cream, making him feel even more paranoid and invincible than before. Right on cue, of course, that's when the bullets really start flying.

Famous for its excess in both its ultraviolence and F-words totaling 226 mentions in 170 minutes, Scarface received a dreaded "X" rating the first three times it went to the MPAA regardless of the cuts (and before De Palma and company appealed the rating, complete with Roger Ebert championing on the film's behalf). Yet much like the 1932 film's producer Howard Hughes didn't bow to the censors and released it on his own in all of the states without them, when his appeal for an "R" rating came through, Brian De Palma went back and released the film's original cut exactly how he'd wanted it in the first place.

While understandably, both the Cuban community scoffed at what they believed was the film's conceit that all Cuban immigrants were as bloodthirsty as Tony Montana was and other filmgoers were appalled by its content, Scarface became a monster hit regardless, influencing an entire generation of gangster films and hip hop music in the process.

Overwhelmed not by the film's violence but by its "bombast," as Pacino described it in a 35th Anniversary Reunion Q&A at Tribeca, the first time I saw Scarface twenty plus years ago, I thought De Palma's approach was ridiculously over-the-top. But funnily enough, try as I might, I found that I could not get the film out of my head. Long after I hit eject, it rattled around in my brain like gunfire. Cinema is my addiction, after all, and because the right movie can get my adrenaline going, Scarface fired my synapses as if it were a drug to the point that I felt like I had seen the film multiple times before I actually sat down to watch it again.

By now, far more well-versed in De Palma's filmography (beyond, of course, my personal favorite, The Untouchables), this time around, I found myself far more easily caught up in the Montana family circus than before. The satiric epitome of the Me Decade as well as just a terrific gangster picture that comes (as they all do) with a warning against flying too close to the sun because you crave the feeling of warmth that you get from its rays, Scarface works extraordinarily well on a number of levels.

Matching Pacino's verbosity with a more understated turn, Steven Bauer's Manny is one of the film's most compelling characters. Conveying paragraphs of meaning with his eyes, first when he sees Gina and then later when he has to stop himself from intervening as Tony manhandles Gina to scold her for her behavior with a man, Manny grows more fascinating with each viewing, thanks to Bauer's lived in performance.

Yet, similar to the way that in that opening sequence we hardly leave Tony's gaze, the same can be said of the film overall. In Scarface, most of the action happens with Tony onscreen, and even in the rare moments that Tony isn't present in the frame (where he's frequently alone and/or centered in the shot), he's never too far from our mind. Inevitably, this nearly subjective approach makes it difficult to understand some of the film's periphery characters, especially the women who are often shortchanged in the genre. Yet, despite the fact that it's Tony's world, the rest of the actors do their level best to bring everyone in it to three dimensional life.

With the teals, oranges, purples, and reds of Alonzo's gorgeous cinematography more lushly vibrant than ever before, thanks to this luxurious new 4K restoration, it's hard not to watch Scarface without wondering how much of it might have inspired the look of the TV series that was set to bow a year later in the form of Miami Vice.

Of course, the film is most famous for its final sequence, which finds a defiant Tony determined to mow down every mercenary sent to kill him with his machine gun "little friend" after his fortress is penetrated. And while it remains thrilling, you can't discount the visual wizardry of earlier action scenes. Standouts include the aforementioned chainsaw hotel sequence which feels like it belongs in a John Carpenter or Wes Craven movie (but came directly from Stone's research) as well as a bravura sequence that paints Tony as the target of an attempted assassination in a nightclub before he barely escapes with his life.

Packaged together with a crisp Blu-ray release of the 1932 original by Howard Hawks —  to whom De Palma dedicates the 1983 film along with screenwriter Ben Hecht —  the 4K gift set of Scarface contains the new film on 4K, Blu-ray, and digital as well as a film geek worthy plastic recreation of Tony's gaudy "The World is Yours" statue.

Easily transported by the sound of Italian composer Giorgio Moroder's instantly recognizable score as well as the sight of Al Pacino's wolfishly hungry, ambitious eyes in his very first scene, this new release of Scarface reminds us that although the gift set might be ours, this world belongs only to Tony. Ultimately bringing Pacino's movie dream to life, in the end, what the new film lacks in Paul Muni, it definitely makes up for with Al.

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