The American Society of Cinematographers

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Return to Table of Contents November 2011 Return to Table of Contents
In Time
Presidents Desk
DVD Playback
Blood Simple
Scarface
Jean Vigo
ASC Close-Up
Scarface (1983)

Blu-ray Edition

2.35:1 (High Definition 1080p)

DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1

Universal Studios Home Entertainment, $34.98




“Nothing exceeds like excess” is a sentiment expressed by female lead Michelle Pfeiffer about halfway through Brian De Palma’s 1983 remake of the gangster classic Scarface, but it is more than just a line of dialogue. It is the organizing principle of the film itself. A 170-minute explosion of profanity, violence and materialist consumption, Scarface is one of the most stylistically and thematically aggressive movies ever released by a Hollywood studio. At the time of its release, the movie was largely excoriated by critics who saw it as a crass, offensive exploitation film; in years since, it has been reappraised and embraced as a classic by audiences (particularly in the world of gangsta rap) who revel in its excesses and protagonist Tony Montana’s entrepreneurial spirit.

The irony is both the critics and the disciples of Scarface have tended to oversimplify and misinterpret the film in exactly the same manner. They either hate it or love it for what they assume is a celebratory stance toward its main character and his life style, when, in fact, De Palma buries a trenchant social and political satire (thanks to a brilliant screenplay by Oliver Stone) underneath the explosive shoot-outs and over-the-top performances. De Palma uses Montana, who rises from poor Cuban immigrant to millionaire cocaine mogul, as a metaphor for the American dream — a dream he savagely exposes as a fraud in a series of scenes portraying Montana’s excesses as natural extensions of consumer culture and capitalist institutions. (The gangster’s often repeated desire to own “the world and everything in it” is a mantra that would feel at home in later De Palma and Stone satires of corporate philosophy such as The Bonfire of the Vanities and Wall Street.)

While there is undeniable vicarious pleasure to be had from observing Montana’s uncontrollable id in action (especially as expressed by Al Pacino in one of his greatest roles), there is no question Stone and De Palma see him as a monster, The movie’s ultimate joke is he is sympathetic only because he is so brazen in his greed and violence, whereas the bankers and politicians he often deals with willfully deny the impact of their actions on society. (“I always tell the truth, even when I lie,” is one of the many great lines Stone gives Pacino.) The complexities and contradictions at the heart of the character and, by extension, at the heart of America in the 1980s are further explored in the cinematography of John A. Alonzo, ASC. Eschewing the shadows of film noir and the muted palette of classic gangster films like The Godfather, Alonzo treats color as boldly as Tony Montana runs his business: the film is a bright, ecstatic explosion of vivid pastels and blinding whites, which are all the more striking when they are invaded by splashes of deep red blood.

The high-definition transfer on Universal’s new Blu-ray of the film showcases the breadth of Alonzo’s imagery nicely, especially in comparison with the heavily compressed standard DVD releases of Scarface. There are minor imperfections in terms of contrast (which seems to have been amplified a bit when compared to theatrical-release prints of the film), but the overall color fidelity and sharpness are impressive. The uncompressed 7.1 soundtrack is a real stunner, with spectacular use of the surround channels for effects and ambience, a vigorous presentation of Giorgio Moroder’s pulsating score and crisp, clear dialogue. The disc contains several fine bonus features, most of which are carried over from prior DVD and Laserdisc releases. “The Scarface Phenomenon” is the one new supplement, and it is a good one: a 38-minute look at the film’s legacy and influence peppered with production anecdotes from De Palma and some of his collaborators. A more in-depth production history can be found in a trio of previously released featurettes totaling 55 minutes: “The Rebirth,” which traces the origins of the project; “The Acting,” which examines the casting and rehearsal process, and “The Creating,” in which De Palma and Alonzo provide instructive insights into their methods.

The interviews from these featurettes can also be viewed in an expanded form during the movie as a picture-in-picture feature that operates as a kind of visual commentary track. Additional extras include a 12-minute look at the making of the Scarface video game and “The World of Tony Montana,” an 11-minute collection of interviews with law-enforcement agents who comment on the real-life drug cartels in Miami. The disc also includes 22 minutes of deleted scenes and a comparison between the theatrical release cut and the hilariously altered network television version. The best bonus of all is a second standard-definition DVD that comes with the package: Howard Hawks’s original Scarface, photographed by Lee Garmes, ASC, and L.W. O’Connell, ASC. Watching the two films back to back is a fascinating experience: they are both masterpieces that use the underworld industries of their respective eras (alcohol in one, cocaine in the other) as metaphors for larger concerns and issues, and they are both as wildly entertaining as they are stylish and profound. To borrow a quote from another great gangster movie, to have these two films in one package is an offer few cinephiles can justifiably refuse.


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