SCARFACE (1983); CARLITO’S WAY (1993); and SERPICO (1973); A TRIPLE REVIEW OF AL PACINO GANGSTER-AND-COP MOVIES BY SANDRA HARRIS. ©
Al Pacino was such a handsome guy in the ’70s, ’80s and even ’90s. In SCARFACE, he plays Tony Montana, one of the ‘Cuban boat people’ whom Fidel Castro let go from Cuba in the early ’80s. They went straight to America and made themselves comfortable there, or at least Tony Montana did, by selling drugs and being a part of what Michelle Pfeiffer as Elvira later on in the film refers to as ‘the Cuban crime wave.’
Tony Montana goes from being a humble dishwasher in Miami, Florida to being a guy who works for a druglord to being the druglord himself, living in a fabulous mansion with a real tiger prowling by the lake in his garden and a beautiful woman- Elvira, poached from Tony’s former boss Frank Lopez- by his side.
Of course, the bigger he becomes in the drug world himself, the bigger his enemies become (Alejandro Sosa and his silent assassin, The Skull, to name but two) and the bigger the downfall waiting for him at the end, by which time he’s ‘so high on his own supply’ that he hardly knows which way is up. Scarface’s downfall is surely one of the most magnificent in the history of cinema, and with the best music also, supplied by the King of Electronics, Giorgio Moroder.
Robert Loggia plays Tony’s first drugs boss, Frank Lopez, and F. Murray Abraham is Frank’s sleazy sidekick Omar Suarez, who enjoys a pleasant helicopter ride courtesy of Bolivian cocaine kingpin Alejandro Sosa halfway through the film. Frank is only small-time compared to what Tony eventually becomes. Frank’s humiliation is completed when Tony steals his glamorous mistress Elvira away from him.
(Here’s a wee snippet you might not know about Paul Shenar, who plays Alejandro Sosa, Tony’s main antagonist in the film. Apparently, he was in a relationship with British actor Jeremy Brett in the ’70s for several years. You’ll know Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes to Edward Hardwicke’s Dr. Watson in the Granada TV series. He made a fantastic Holmes and was second only to Basil Rathbone, in my humble opinion.)
Anyway, it might be some consolation to Frank Lopez to know that Tony’s relationship with Elvira becomes a toxic, poisoned thing almost immediately. Elvira is a desperately unhappy woman. She smokes, drinks and takes drugs, all to excess, she never eats and ‘her womb is so polluted from all the drugs she takes’ that she can’t give Tony a child. Oh dear. No amount of marriage counselling can save this marriage.
Tony has some kind of a sexual longing for his sister Gina (played by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) too, a beautiful young struggling beautician whom, when he first sees her again near the start of the film, he hasn’t seen for several years and he’s deeply struck by the vibrant and vivacious beauty she’s become.
He’s pathologically jealous of the men she associates with and he becomes murderous when he suspects there might be something between Gina and Tony’s oldest friend and right-hand man, the good-looking Manny (Steven Bauer). Manny has an easy charm that Gina obviously finds attractive. Poor Scarface. He wanted to have it all, he thought he had it all coming to him, ‘the world and everything in it,’ but he winds up with surprisingly little in the end…
The chainsaw scene is fantastically nerve-wracking. Even Scarface is getting a little hot and sweaty under the collar. I love the way also that Tony’s Momma sticks to her guns- not a bad metaphor, that!- and won’t take a penny of her son’s drugs-and-blood money.
I also love the way though, quite conversely, that the young and impressionable Gina is more than happy to live the good life courtesy of her big brother. She’s from a different generation to her mother, a generation that wants money and a good time, dancing and drinking and romance and excitement, all under the disco glitterball.
Al Pacino might be ten years older and wiser in CARLITO’S WAY, but Carlito Brigante needs his head testing. Fresh out of prison after a five year stretch (drugs, of course), he should be planning a new crime-free life. And in fact he is.
He wants to go straight, he wants to earn enough money to retire to a sunshine island in the Bahamas and live out the rest of his days in peace. Sounds lovely, doesn’t it? But of course there’s a fly in his ointment. It’s a film, after all. Gotta have flies, lol.
That fly takes the shape of Carlito’s coked-up lawyer, Sean Penn in brilliant form as David Kleinfeld. Carlito feels beholden to Kleinfeld because Kleinfeld gets him out of prison on a technicality after he’s done only five years out of a thirty year sentence.
Now that Carlito’s out of the nick, Kleinfeld gets him a job as the manager of his friend’s nightclub. Carlito’s all set up with a good job and plenty of money. No wonder Carlito feels like he’s under a compliment to Kleinfeld (that’s just an Irish way of saying ‘beholden’).
So, when Kleinfeld asks Carlito to do him one little teensy-weensy ‘favour’ that involves breaking a mob boss out of a prison barge stationed at Riker’s island, Carlito reluctantly agrees.
‘I’ll just do this one last job and then I’ll be outta the life for good,’ he assures his whingy dancer/stripper girlfriend Gail, played by Penelope Ann Miller. Well, we all know what happens to people who say they’re just doing this one last job and that’s it…
There’s a fantastic chase scene at the end where Carlito is being pursued through the train station by the mob, who are trying to prevent him from boarding a train with Gail and choo-choo-ing off into the horizon to realize his dreams of a happy retirement. The bit on the public escalator is the best bit, it’s just brilliant.
You might recognise one of the pursuers (Vincent Taglialucci) as Joseph Siravo who goes on to star as Tony Soprano’s alpha-male father, Johnny Boy Soprano, in HBO hit mob drama THE SOPRANOS.
Viggo Mortensen (THE LORD OF THE RINGS) has a small part as a wheelchair-bound ex-con and John Leguizamo is ‘Benny Blanco from the Bronx.’ ‘Remember me…?’ Remember him? If Carlito didn’t before, he certainly will now…
There’s a funny bit at David Kleinfeld’s garden party when a coked-up Kleinfeld has a go at a party guest for getting a ‘hand-job’ in full view of the guests. Who would have thought that the host of a hookers-and-cocaine party should have turned out to be so all-fired moralistic and judgemental?
I love both SCARFACE and CARLITO’S WAY, each of which was directed by Brian De Palma. I’m not a big fan of Sidney Lumet’s based-on-a-true-story SERPICO, however. It’s still a good film, but I just hate the way that Al Pacino’s stunning good looks are all but obscured by the scruffy beard and awful hats and dreadful baggy clothes he wears as undercover cop Frank Serpico.
Frank Serpico was a real-life cop who all his life coveted the police officer’s gold shield and wanted nothing so much as to be a part of the thin blue line that protects the law-abiding citizen from the criminal fraternity.
As a plainclothes policeman who did undercover work, and quite successfully too, I believe, the thing he mostly seemed to uncover was a staggering amount of corruption in the police force. As an honest cop, he refused to take bribes, kick-backs, blood-money, protection-money, racket-money or any other kind of money that wasn’t his by rights.
The cops who did take unlawful monies were unbelievably pissed off by the big stink that Serpico made about it, to the point where some of his work colleagues hated his guts and his life was threatened. But he persevered with his attempts to take his story of rank corruption within the police force to the highest authorities and he didn’t stop till he got somewhere.
It’s hard to like Al Pacino’s portrayal of Serpico in the film because Serpico is a scruffy, shambling, mumbly-voiced single-minded bore who pisses off everyone he talks to with his abrasive hostility. I get it that he’s doing the right thing, but does he have to be such a total pill about it? Nobody likes a snitch, but a whingy, self-righteous snitch is even harder to stomach.
He adores animals and keeps several pets, which is good, but he treats them better than he treats his girlfriends, which is not so good. The girl from next door who moves in with him is shouted at constantly by Serpico because his mind is always on his work problems, and he only promises a commitment to her when she’s on the verge of leaving him.
Even then, as she quite rightly points out, once he gets her back he’ll never mention kids and marriage again. He’s a commitment-phobe and a big beardy loser. She can do better. And I think Al Pacino makes a nicer gangster than he does a cop…!
AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY OF SANDRA HARRIS.
Sandra Harris is a Dublin-based novelist, film blogger, poet and book-and-movie reviewer. She has studied Creative Writing and Film-Making. She has published a number of e-books on the following topics: horror film reviews, multi-genre film reviews, womens’ fiction, erotic fiction, erotic horror fiction and erotic poetry. Several new books are currently in the pipeline. You can browse or buy any of Sandra’s books by following the link below straight to her Amazon Author Page:
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