In 1983, I moved from southern Illinois to New York City.  That was a big switch, you betcha.

Universal’s Christmas present to the world in 1983 was Brian De Palma’s Scarface.  For those of you too young to remember, the movie was greeted with horror and revulsion, considered profane, obscene, depraved and utterly lacking in any sense of morality, a bad, bad influence on the youth of the day.

Of course now we can look back on it and say, your point?

Scarface was the first movie I saw in New York City, and I wanted to make it a special occasion, so I went uptown (uptown!) to the RKO National in Times Square.  Times Square, of course, is now the home of The Lion King and TRL.  The RKO National is now the ESPN-Zone.

It was different back then.  Before the show, ushers walked up and down the aisles with little megaphones reminding the audience that anyone caught smoking marijuana would be asked to leave.

Plus ca change.

Anyway.  My thoughts, in the order they occurred to me as I watched this rather long movie over a period of three days:

1. Am I crazy, or are the two cops who interrogate Tony at the beginning of the movie looped?  They sound to me an awful lot like Charles Durning and De Palma regular Dennis Franz, but neither of them are credited.

2. That chainsaw scene is still masterful.  As soon as those crane shots come in, you know something really ugly is going to happen.  And guess what?  It does.

3. Robert Loggia, as Frank, the “sensible” gangster, has an impressive collection of modern art.  My favorite is his Giacometti, which he has in his wet bar, and which he has sensibly painted red, I guess to emphasize the aching poverty of spirit that the artist was trying to convey.  Good move, Frank!  That’ll help with its resale value in the go-go ’80s art market!

4. In spite, or because of, Pacino’s full-blown wacko performance, Scarface is De Palma’s warmest, most human movie.  By the time Pacino puts on Michelle Pfeiffer’s hat in the parking lot, you’re totally won over.

5.  Speaking of which, what happens to Michelle Pfeiffer at the end of the movie?  Does she wind up dead in the hallway of an SRO hotel, like Sharon Stone in Casino?

6. This movie is a treasure trove for observers of gangsters, but it’s a washout for ornithologists.  As Tony reclines in his bathtub watching TV, he mistakenly cheers on a flock of flamingos, saying “Come on, pelicans!”

7. Speaking of that bathroom scene, when thatscene came  on back at the RKO National in Times Square, I was stunned, as is everyone who sees the movie, by the design of that place.  The difference was, I thought “Wow, what a stunning critique of American consumerism” and all the people around me gasped and said “Mmmmm, that’s niiiiiccccce.”  Even then, the movie was imprinting on a generation of young gangsters.

8. I love how the “fun” parts of the gangster life, the shootings, power-grabs and posturing, give way to financial headaches and personnel hassles.  Poor, sad gangsters.

9. In a way, it’s the story of a quest for purity.  Tony is happiest when he kills and when he acquires things, the rest of it doesn’t really interest him.  He acquires a wife, but we never see them have sex.  She’s just one more thing that he owns, and now, like his mansion and his staff, he has to maintain her.  Tony killing is Tony pure.  He slouches, gets grumpy and depressed when he has to deal with bankers, haggle over money or fulfill business obligations.

So in a way, once he sheds his business contacts, dumps his wife, kills his best friend and sees his sister shot before his very eyes, it’s like he’s finally happy again.  He wanted the world, but the world, he finds out, is full of compromises and responsibilities.  Now his responsibilities have been taken away and he can have a moment of pure joy and purity before he dies.  In a way, it’s a happy ending.

10. Pacino’s performance has become so legendary that it kind of shifts the whole paradigm.  The first time I watched the movie, I thought “he’s not going to do that through the whole movie, is he?”  But now, after 23 years, the performance has become a classic.  And you could say it’s weird, but you can’t say it’s ill-considered.  Never less than fascinating, it’s a really seamless piece of work, and Pacino disappears here just as thoroughly as he does in, say, The Godfather Part II.
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7 Responses to “Scarface”
  1. greyaenigma says:

    Note to self: watch movie before reading this.

  2. urbaniak says:

    That’s definitely Durning’s voice in the beginning. I noticed that a few years ago. Guess the original guy didn’t deliver. I don’t remember the other voice but I take your word for it. I just bought the DVD; maybe I’ll watch it again this weekend with my infant children.

    • Todd says:

      I can’t believe I didn’t notice it before, I’ve seen the movie 4 or 5 times. I wonder if the original guy showed up with laryngitis, or a hangover, or had a lisp or cleft palate, or blew off the looping session, or was killed by a vengeful Cuban gangster.

  3. popebuck1 says:

    Along the same lines, I always thought that the voice of the “Have You Heard the German Band?” Nazi guy during the Hitler auditions scene in “The Producers” was looped by Mel Brooks regular Harvey Korman. Any idea how I could verify or refute this?

  4. Anonymous says:


    “[W]hat happens to Michelle Pfeiffer at the end of the movie? Does she wind up dead in the hallway of an SRO hotel, like Sharon Stone in Casino?”

    Interestingly enough, I believe Pfeiffer was originally cast in Stone’s role in Casino.