Scarface, the greatest of all modern gangster films is re-released this week. But why now? Paul Dale thinks he knows why
It’s been twenty six long years since Tony Montana (Al Pacino) invited us to ‘say hello to my little friend’ in director Brian De Palma and then screenwriter Oliver Stone’s Reagan era update of Howard Hawks and Ben Hecht’s gangster polemic of the same name. Scarface is the most recent of a series of great old movies from Universal Pictures’ back catalogue to be given an extended theatrical life in digital form following Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus and the original cut of John Landis’ The Blues Brothers. On the face of it, this re-release seems little more than an act of shrewd business acumen in these troubling times.
The thing is, Scarface is different. Long cherished by fans in whatever format it emerges (which to date includes Beta, VHS, DVD, Blu-ray and in various computer game formats) it is the UXB – or the Unexploded Bomb – of the modern American gangster movies whose bloody, foul mouthed, cocaine snorting recklessness in addressing America’s immigration issue, and more broadly its relationship with Cuba, is something that still has the potential of influence.
To understand this assertion we need to go back to the scene of the crime. Though both later known for their curmudgeonly diatribes against Republican Party values, the genesis of De Palma and Stone’s film came from a remarkably reactionary place. Formulated in response to the Mariel Boatlift, a mass exodus of Cubans to America between 15 April and 31 October 1980, it’s not hard to see why Scarface was so beloved by burgeoning neo-cons and gangster rappers alike. Having had his hand forced by a downturn in the Cuban economy and a bid by 10,000 disgruntled Cubans to gain asylum in the Peruvian embassy, Fidel Castro came to an agreement with incumbent US president Carter to allow anyone who wanted to leave Cuba to do so. 125,000 Cubans took the trip. Among them were exiles from Cuba’s jails and mental health facilities.
It was in this latter category that troubled Vietnam vet, Stone located an amalgam of his ‘shame of a nation’. The petty hoodlum who made good (and bad) in the free market economy of America. The ones that got through the immigration checks and internment camps (legally or illegally) went on to change the Florida and Miami crimescape for good and depending on which statistics you chose to believe, they arguably helped make cocaine the epidemic it is today.
All of which makes this brilliant, cold-blooded masterpiece rather a strange proposition at a time when President Obama is opening up relations with the seemingly progressive sibling Raúl Castro. Myth has it that during his time as 46th Vice President of the United States in the Bush era, Dick Cheney liked to spend his downtime staring at a corporately revised map of Cuba which showed which US conglomerate would go where come the day that the US colonise the Caribbean island again. Could it be that Universal has been promised a spec there? A little place in the sun to wait out another Depression? Where multimillion-dollar mergers can be brokered by Skype and movies can be made for a tenth of the price? Could the re-release of Scarface be the beginning of their chainsaw wielding march on Cuba? Either way it’s great to see you again Tony.
Scarface is on selected release from Sun 23 Aug.