The gold standard for movie violence

The passing of the fine American actor Robert Loggia gives this blog an excuse to write about the 1983 Brian de Palma film Scarface, which provided one of Loggia’s most famous roles, that of the Miami drug lord supplanted by the Cuban immigrant played by Al Pacino. Or, should I say, it’s an excuse to write about one particular aspect of the movie. Scarface is a stylised film that appeals on multiple levels –sun-kissed locations, flashy suits, Giorgio Moroder’s electronic score. It might also be argued that it outlines one of the more dubious paths to achieving the American Dream. Decadent surface appeal apart, Scarface is also noted – and condemned in some quarters – for prodigious levels of violence.

Given its unflinchingly gruesome treatment of the ruthless aggression of certain key stakeholders in the drugs trade, I have to ask myself the question: Why do I like it? As a student, I once acted in a play that contained a scene with some dialogue about notable scenes of movie violence, during which one character cites the “chainsaw scene” in Scarface as their favourite. At the time, I hadn’t yet seen the movie, and I was obviously intrigued. Yet, much as I was amused by the chainsaw scene’s overt viciousness when I finally did see it, there are in fact other scenes of mayhem in the film that I enjoyed more.

Scarface doesn’t just feature classic cases of movie overkill, as in when people who are shot dead remain briefly suspended upright by the volley of machine gun fire they are being peppered with. It also contains violence is so carefully conceived, so innovative, that it arguably brought a whole new aesthetic sensitivity to extreme brutality. The film even culminates in a Grand Guignol finale that is operatic in scale. But the genius of Scarface is that it is simultaneously opera seria and opera buffa.

But those moments of farce, such as the final moment of the Babylon club shootout scene (my favourite part), are not, I contend, trivialisations of barbarity. While they are entertainingly humorous on one level, they also succeed in fulfilling a cautionary purpose. The supposed glamour of the profession, even for those who reach the top, frequently comes with undignified endings not of a protagonist’s choosing. I’ll admit that such a reading is necessary to avoid a charge of celebrating mindless violence, but it is clearly one of the film’s messages, which delivers the well-worn message that crime doesn’t pay even as it refrains from perspicuous moralising.

The fate of Loggia’s character Frank Lopez demonstrates one of the perpetual career hazards of the drug trade, and provides an unequivocal note of discouragement for people contemplating that path. Frank didn’t remain ruthless enough to fend off his inevitable challengers. In most walks of life, losing your edge means a reduction in your workload before eventual retirement. In their business, it can mean the ultimate forfeiture. Loggia’s portrayal of a drug dealer on limited time is subtly poignant as you realise Pacino’s Tony Montana wants to eliminate and replace him. Loggia had other significant starring roles in Jagged Edge and Big, but it is this one I’ll remember the most.

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