Disc examines heavy influence of `Scarface'

New on DVD

Movies: on screen, DVD/Video

October 09, 2003|By Bernard Weinraub | Bernard Weinraub,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Twenty-five years ago Al Pacino was walking down Sunset Boulevard with some friends when he passed a revival theater showing Scarface, the 1932 classic directed by Howard Hawks and written by Ben Hecht about the rise and fall of a Chicago gangster, played by Paul Muni. Pacino promptly purchased a ticket.

"I had been wanting to see it since '74, when I had done a workshop production of Arturo Ui," said Pacino, referring to Bertolt Brecht's Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, a thinly veiled fable about Hitler's rise to power set in the world of Chicago gangsters. Pacino said Brecht had been fascinated with American gangster films, especially Scarface.

"The film just stopped me in my tracks," Pacino recalled in an interview. "All I wanted to do was imitate Paul Muni. His acting went beyond the boundaries of naturalism into another kind of expression. It was almost abstract what he did. It was almost uplifting."

At the same time the producer Martin Bregman, a friend who had produced Pacino films like Dog Day Afternoon and Serpico, saw Scarface on television and decided to make a contemporary version.

Out of this collaboration - with Oliver Stone writing the screenplay and Brian De Palma as director - the film was released in 1983 to mostly terrible reviews, lackluster business and studio indifference. By any measure the film, a sprawling 170 minutes with almost operatic violence and over-the-top acting, should have disappeared.

It didn't.

Scarface developed a cult following among younger audiences, notably hip-hop stars and college students, and it is already an underground classic. On Sept. 30, Universal Studios Home Video released the film on DVD with a documentary that includes interviews with Sean Combs, Snoop Dogg, Eve and the rapper Scarface. They talk about the relevance of the film to their lives.

Combs says in the documentary that he has seen the film 63 times. "You watch it for the lessons," he says.

Snoop Dogg says, "It's one of the most important movies of all time." The rapper Scarface, who took his name from the film, says of the Pacino character, "This cat is just like me."

In the film - one reviewer called it "a wretched, fascinating car wreck of a movie" - Pacino plays Tony Montana, a Cuban refugee and small-time punk whose ferocious climb to the top of Miami's cocaine-laden underworld ends in his own deadly addiction and paranoia. Supporting roles include Michelle Pfeiffer as his silky mistress, Steven Bauer as his best friend and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as the sister for whom he has an incestuous fixation.

At times, the film's violence and spectacle - as well as acting - seem so overstated that they verge on parody. "I'm sort of out there," Pacino acknowledged with a laugh. But he also said he knew the movie was special.

"You make a lot of pictures, and you realize some don't have it," he said. "I knew there was a pulse to this picture; I knew it was beating."

"It is an operatic movie," Pacino said. "That was the idea of Brian De Palma. He wanted to go that way."

De Palma took over the direction of the film after Sidney Lumet dropped out over script disagreements. (It was Lumet's idea to make the Pacino character a Cuban refugee.)

De Palma said he believed that the movie stirred younger audiences, especially those in the hip-hop world, because many of them had grown up in poor neighborhoods and had become rich almost overnight. "Ultimately, you divorce yourself from the people you knew in the past. You ultimately explode; you perish because of your own excess."

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