13 A CASTRO CAST-OFF
It took Brian de Palma 28 weeks to film the second version of Scarface. An episode of Breaking Bad had to be completed within an eight day shooting schedule. Compare the movie to the more ambitious episodes of Breaking Bad, and it is Scarface that looks like something from budget conscious American television. The second version of Scarface was made 51 years after the black and white original by director Howard Hawks and screenwriter Ben Hecht. The revamp by Brian de Palma received a hostile critical response. Many of its critics disapproved of the excessive violence and expletive laden language. There is an almost direct route from the original Scarface to the more modern Breaking Bad that appeared 85 years later. It is defined by the work of the exceptionally talented, the progress that is made through superior cinematic technology and the changes in the expectations of an audience.
At various points Breaking Bad pays homage to the remake of Scarface. Actors are used that were present in the second version, including old favourite Mark Margolis as the reduced but still sinister Hector Salamanca. Gilligan also borrows the odd image. The two silent and remote assassins in Breaking Bad that search for Heisenberg resemble the pensive killers in the scene in the Babylon nightclub where the first serious attempt is made to assassinate gangster Tony Montana.
Oliver Stone wrote the not always subtle script of the 1983 version of Scarface, note the name of the nightclub above. His script retains the key plot elements created by Ben Hecht, and at the end of the de Palma film there is a dedication to both Howard Hawks and Ben Hecht. This respect for the cinematic past is a feature of the work of Brian de Palma. He is an Alfred Hitchcock devotee. Oliver Stone may have needed to be persuaded to honour the original ambitions of Hawks and Hecht. Stone, though, left his polemical mark. The left wing politics of Brian de Palma had informed his masterpiece Blow Out. Together the two of them ensured we understood their lack of sympathy for modern America. Neither were they bashful about their misanthropy. Gangster and mentor Frank Lopez tells Tony Montana, ‘Don‘t underestimate the other guys greed’. Human appetites distort the work ethic of capitalism and undermine the socialist alternatives. Gangsters have always prevailed in human history, and in Scarface neither de Palma nor Stone promise relief.
The film begins in 1980 when 125,000 Cubans left the socialist alternative of the Castro government to seek the promises of American capitalism. Castro opened his jails and, in the words of the opening titles, added ‘the dregs of Cuban society’ to the emigrants welcomed by the USA. Tony Montana is one of the dregs and he knows it. But like Walter White, he has an exaggerated sense of entitlement. Walt in season five of Breaking Bad admits that he wants more than money. ‘I want to build an empire’ he says to a baffled Jesse who had previously assumed that the intention was to use any extra cash to facilitate a less stressful existence. Tony Montana is different to Walt. Money is there to be spent. He is not a miser interested in the symbolism of wealth. ‘I want what‘s coming to me, the world and everything that is in it.’ As he acquires money, Montana becomes addicted to excess but also scornful of how he is living. Montana does not reject consumption. What he realises is that money alone will never give him ‘the world’ that he craves. That belongs to established wealth, people who are no better than him but have no worries about being burdened by criminal status and uncouth manners. These people learn to network and can buy an education that, despite greed which is no better than that possessed by Tony Montana, enables them to feel and even be superior. After causing an affray in a restaurant Montana shouts out at the rich diners. ‘Take a look. This is a bad boy.’ The rich look askance but they are, of course, looking at a reflection of themselves.
Walter White is different from Tony Montana. He is a homegrown American and he has the education and perhaps intellect denied the Cuban gangster. The world, or at least the billions and status of Gretchen and Elliot that Walt forfeited, could have been his. Tony Montana does not make political speeches but he is articulate enough to protest against a system that has always been loaded against the people who ‘know the street’. Walt has nothing to hate but himself, which is why more fortunate onlookers should have some sympathy for his plight.
The only woman that Tony Montana loves is his sister. He talks about her in the same way Walt insists upon his love for his family. Tony wants his sister Gina to be virtuous and provide him with moments of moral sanctuary. Gina, though, wants to have fun. Cynical Elvira is anything but an innocent retreat, Montana kills Frank Lopez and takes mistress Elvira away from the dead gangster but it is only because she is a symbol of progress, something else to consume and display. When Elvira and Tony talk about their physical relationship neither mentions romance nor even affection.
The name Elvira is Spanish and means truth. Elvira is no moral exemplar. She is a snob and, like Tony, addicted to consumption. Yet Elvira is capable of speaking truth to power. In an odd way Elvira is like Jesse. They both switch allegiances between gangsters. Elvira and Jesse have youth and beauty but they need to lean on those that they imagine have superior strength and advantages. Elvira is played by Michelle Pfeiffer, an actress that neither lead actor Al Pacino nor director de Palma wanted for the part. Sigourney Weaver was an earlier preference for the role. Either would have been fine. Pfeiffer and Weaver are both capable of looking down the length of their elegant noses. No one, though, played the part of the contemptuous moll better than Gloria Grahame in The Big Heat. In that film Grahame has her face scarred with boiling coffee. In the expensive restaurant where Tony is behaving like an authentic bad boy, Elvira stands up and leaves the dinner table. She walks away from the excess consumption of Tony Montana and any prospects of boiling coffee being thrown into her face.
When they meet, mentor Frank Lopez regards Tony Montana as a peasant. Walt has similar contempt when Jesse and him begin making meth. His feelings towards Jesse become more complicated. There are odd moments of sympathy from Walt but they do not prevent him from failing to accept Jesse as a human being that has the potential to be nurtured and developed. Jesse to Walt is no more than a functional link in the meth making plans and ambitions of Heisenberg. Frank Lopez is equally condescending. He imagines that he will be able to exploit the peasant will and hunger of Montana.
Anyone who listens to the 62 episodes of the Breaking Bad Insider Podcast will not only hear the normal and perhaps forgivable Hollywood gush but will also notice that the word ‘cool’ is used often. Breaking Bad was conceived as an exploration of untypical characters in dramatic, criminal and violent situations. Detail is also important, and Gilligan and his team worked hard to achieve special moments. In the podcast discussions they refer to these instances as ‘cool’. De Palma would have probably used the word poetical. This difference in approach may amount to nothing more than different generations using alternative language but for all the mastery and triumphs of Breaking Bad it lacks the poetic grandeur of Scarface. Montana screaming defiance at his assassins while they pump bullets into his body is an extravagant but unforgettable and poignant moment. Poetic grandeur and excess, though, are easily confused. De Palma adds to Scarface an aesthetic that obliges its audience to distinguish between modern excess and poetry. But, despite the emphasis on style by Stone and de Palma, there is also added realism. Pacino looks and sounds like a real street hardened gangster in a way that other actors do not. Frank Lopez has crooked cop Mel Bernstein on the payroll. A weakness in Breaking Bad is that all the employees of the New Mexico DEA appear to be honest. Crooked millionaire Gus Fring would have had at least one agent on his payroll. Harris Yulin plays Mel Bernstein the cop that reports to Lopez. His taciturnity and contempt anticipate Mike Ehrmantraut the doleful hitman employed by Gus Fring.
De Palma and Stone deny any redemption for Tony Montana. The final scene reveals that it is not just the weak but the strong that a competitive materialist society wastes. But Montana is nowhere near as evil as the cultured Bolivian gangster Alejandro Sosa and his powerful establishment friends. Sosa demands that Montana kills an enemy. When the target is joined by his family in his car, Montana realises that he cannot kill children. This compares to Walt who poisons Brock with the toxic plant Lily of the Valley. The ploy to have Walter White kill an innocent child feels like a deliberate reference by Vince Gilligan to Scarface. At the end of season four the writing team of Breaking Bad had decided that Walt needed to be a monster. There might have been a way home from the moon for American astronauts fifty years ago but after he saw the Lily of the Valley plant near his swimming pool there was no way back for chemistry teacher Walter White. When he needs to, it is amazing what Walt happens to find in his back garden
Howard Jackson has had nine books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism. His latest book Light Work, which is about Jack the Ripper, is available here.