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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

11 September

Brian De Palma born, 1940

On this day in 1940, Brian De Palma was born. De Palma is one of the key figures in the New Hollywood group that stormed the citadel in the 1970s. If 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde marked the beginning, 1977’s Star Wars saw the beginning of the end for the golden ten-year run of the New Hollywood gang, after which 1940s Hollywood certainties seemed to re-establish themselves and the selling of spin-off action figures became too lucrative to ignore. In that short sweet flowering, the careers of Scorsese, Coppola, Bogdanovich, Spielberg, Lucas, Rafelson and Schrader were made – to pick just a few from the hat. And during that time De Palma gave Robert De Niro a career break with Greetings (1968), started on his run of Hitchcock homages with Rear Window-esque Sisters (1973), came up with the rock parody Phantom of the Paradise (1974) a year before the Rocky Horror Picture Show, before anticipating the end of the New Hollywood era with his monstrous melodrama Obsession. All this before he hit his winning streak which kicked off with 1976’s Carrie (Kimberly Peirce’s remake, starring Chloë Grace Moretz, should be interesting).

Scarface (1983, dir: Brian De Palma)

Scarface is the film that turned Al Pacino from an actor into a caricature, a development Pacino has struggled with for decades, like an addict who loves the hit but isn’t quite so in love with what it’s doing to him. He plays Tony Montana, the Cuban punk who rises to the top of the heap by sheer force of will. Like the Howard Hawks Scarface, on which De Palma’s film isn’t based, it follows the rise and fall of the most violent gangster in town – in 1932 it was Al Capone, who supplied alcohol to a willing but illegal market; in the early 1980s Tony is doing the same thing with cocaine. Oliver Stone’s screenplay demands bombast, it demands eye-rolling, it demands shouting. And it gets them. The now infamous scene in which Tony sticks his entire face in a mountain of cocaine is still, 30 years later, referenced in films that wish they had the swagger and volume of what is probably De Palma’s best film. Is it Pacino’s though? No, unless we’re ignoring The Godfather, Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon, all of which were made before Scarface. Since then… Revolution? Heat? Donnie Brasco? Naaah.

Why Watch?

  • Al Pacino in his pomp
  • The cocaine era laid bare as it kicked off
  • Michelle Pfeiffer stands out in a cast of believable characters
  • De Palma’s best film

Scarface – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2013

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