That Scarface enjoys a position in the pop culture lexicon that only strengthens with each passing year serves as a validation of its deliberate excesses and its transparently critical view of upper-class decadence in the '80s and the yuppie love for this outrageous lifestyle. Scarface updates Howard Hawks' 1932 original in a way few remakes do: it truly guts the original and places the update firmly within its own time period not only in its references but its aesthetics. In the process, it continues the mounting sociopolitical dissatisfaction creeping its way back into Brian De Palma's work, peeling back the veneer glossed over the whole decade and marking the start of the director's open hostility to the changing social landscape of the 1980s.
What De Palma does best with Scarface is demonstrate that those old gangster films (which his protagonist openly acknowledges as an influence on his young mind) were as much glamorizations of violence and decadence as anything being shunned by contemporaneous critics. Those pre-Code pictures came out during the Great Depression, times of hardship and desolation; yet the films showed well-dressed criminals living the high, fast life. When the film came out in 1983, America was just starting to recover from its worst economy since the depression, and De Palma films inside ritzy clubs and absurdly lavish mansions. And like the mainstream culture looking to flashy pop culture touchstones like Miami Vice for comfort, so too did the masses in the '30s enjoy those gangsters up on the screen (hell, they liked real-life gangsters like Dillinger). Scarface was De Palma's way of showing the public face of the '80s, and it's no wonder so many viewers hated being shown their cultural "values" in such harsh terms.
By making the protagonist of the film not an American crime lord but a Cuban immigrant working his way up through violence and smuggling, De Palma gets to pull back and view his social targets with a clearer view. Montana arrives as seemingly the ideal anti-Communist, a man who viciously decries Castro's takeover and the rise of a society where the individual is told what to do. Yet Tony's entire life is a story of taking and giving orders; if he hates the Communist system, it is because he never gets to be the one telling others what to do. In America, if he pays his dues, he can call the shots someday.
De Palma portrays this irony as a condensation of anti-Communist hypocrisy, the idea that the rule of the rich is acceptable because of lingering belief in the exaggerated American Dream, in which the poor and ignored put up with abuse in the hopes of attaining that one-in-a-million Alger Hiss story that puts them on top. Tony, a ruthless criminal before he gets off the island, comes to Miami with this perverse goal of making it at all costs, and he soon rises to the top by sinking to the bottom of the underworld.
Though not nearly as fine-tuned as Scorsese's later take on similar material with GoodFellas, De Palma updates the operatic web of intrigue propelling the Godfather films from Shakespearean deceit and Machiavellian schemes to the brutal back-and-forth between coke-addled, paranoid psychopaths who can order deaths without batting an eye but turn into quivering blobs of jelly when the tables turn. Well, not all of them do, but is that any better? Is it better to get in one last attack like a caged animal or to try to play on human empathy in one's final moments?
Coming out of that recession, De Palma views wealth and lauded social status with even more distrust than usual, practically equating extreme wealth with crime. When Tony, now a major player in dealer Frank's (Robert Loggia) operation, tracks down his mother and sister, Gina (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), his mother knows instantly that the money Tony can so casually hand over from the pockets of his ostentatious suit came from criminal activity. Even taking her son's past into account, she leaps to the right conclusion so quickly that the film makes its point about Tony's richness being vile long before he explodes at the buttoned-down old money at a restaurant late in the film when he points out that the only difference between them and him is that he doesn't hide his face behind lazy plays at false modesty. Perhaps, however, De Palma is commenting on the setbacks put into place against immigrants and the poor, that the only way to advance out of the slums is through hollow acts like crime (or fame, which ties into the film's second life as a pop-culture icon for the hip-hop community).
According to actor Steven Bauer, during the premiere of Scarface, Martin Scorsese leaned over to him and whispered, “Be prepared, because they’re going to hate it in Hollywood. Because it’s about them.” He was right; already stumbling from the disappointing returns from Blow Out, De Palma suffered a harsh critical blow, though the commercial impact has been largely overstated. Considering that the director nearly found himself shoved into directing Flashdance before he manages to attach himself to this project, one need not reach far to come to the conclusion that De Palma had an axe to grind with some people signing the checks in town. Thinking of Scorsese's interpretation, we can see Tony Montana as a studio head, a coked-out madman caterwauling and passing final judgment on others to maintain his ludicrous sense of power.
Not nearly as savage an attack on the studio system as his following feature, Scarface nevertheless eats at the studios from the inside. Compared to his union of metacinematic satire and tragically Romantic thriller with Blow Out, Scarface plays it straight, straighter than De Palma ever had. He uses mostly crane shots to float around the area, no longer mired with his characters but coolly observing. Apart from the acknowledgment of old gangster movies and the general tenor of Pacino's performance -- outlandish in homage to the flamboyant styles of those classic gangster actors a good decade before Pacino started overacting as his stock-in-trade -- De Palma does not involve his usual trickery as much, his most "directorly" moments still working within the narrative and not examining the extra diegetic space around it.* The commentary is clear, but he hides it in plain sight.
Note the racial makeup of the cast, not just in the leads but -- and this is vital -- the supporting cast. For the big roles, De Palma casts Caucasians, from the Italians Pacino, Loggia and Mastrantonio to the half-white Abraham and Shenar. But he uses actors of Latino descent for the backup characters, like Manny*. If Pacino's entire performance hearkens back to Paul Mini's melodramatic work in Hawks' original or the ever-fiery playing to the rafters that typified Cagney's singular approach, his and the other major castings show an old Hollywood mentality. Could De Palma have gotten major distribution with a recognizable face in the lead, one that audiences could be reassured was really white under than tan and accent?
De Palma's direction shows a mild aesthetic satire not on the level of his experimental features, but he takes his advantage of the dwindling clout he'd barely built up with studios in the previous decades. In fact, I wonder if the film's budget and size is as much attributable to the rising star of its Oscar-winning writer, Oliver Stone, than its director -- as a sidenote, much of Scarface seems a dry run for Stone's own aesthetically and morally provocative social filmmaking stretching from the second half of the decade through the mid-'90s. De Palma has the most fun with a nightclub set he returns to throughout the film, a hall of mirrors constantly reflecting faces and bodies around these paranoid cocaine addicts as their mental breakdowns get visualized behind them. The best of these sequences, featuring an attempting hit on Tony, show off De Palma's mastery of suspense technique, using slow track pans on cranes and zoom-ins to keep narrowing the frame until Richard Belzer's bad jokes are as tense as the electronic music.
"Nothing exceeds like excess," Elvira remarks dryly to her husband's loud rants about her habits, and that's as much a maxim for the film as its ironic use of "The World Is Yours" in flashing lights in the sky and as the grim closing shot. Tony lines his mansion with red carpet, as if he's always showing up to his premiere. It presents a world where, as with the case of the real Scarface, a criminal can kill, smuggle and intimidate all he wants, but he can lose it all if he doesn't give the government its cut in taxes. Furthermore, for all Tony's hideousness, his one act of humanity seals his fate, not his countless acts of evil. This is a film where no one can be trusted, where Cubans fight each other over political allegiances, different Latino nationalities war for supremacy and the underlings plot against their bosses and vice-versa. As with The Godfather, the most sinister acts occur in the boardroom, where horrifying and detached decisions are made for a few dollars more. Man, how couldn't this be about the studios in the '80s?
*The one exception I spotted came when Tony's bored, coke-crazed wife Elvira (Michelle Pfeiffer), exasperatedly shouts at her husband, "Can't you stop saying 'fuck' all the time? Can't you stop talking about money? It's boring, Tony." It's not overt enough to be winking, but there's just enough suggestion in Oliver Stone's lines to imply the director and writer understand the absurdity of it all.
**A more in-depth look at the supporting cast and their roots in Latino TV and film can be found in Tony Dayoub's excellent and personal double-post on the film and Carlito's Way.