Critics had mixed reactions to this gangland epic when it was released.
But the early negative reviews did little to keep Scarface from becoming an American pop culture phenomenon.
Three decades later, posters, video games and online quote boards keep the buzz going.
A remake of the 1932 classic of the same name starring Paul Muni, Al Pacino’s Scarface is more often compared to his other underworld epics, The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II. All four movies are about the immigrant experience and a charismatic figure from the underclass using any means possible to realize the American dream.
The dream, of course, becomes a nightmare.
Pacino’s Tony Montana lacks the style and grace of Michael Corleone. But then Michael is a second-generation ethnic who has been educated at an Ivy League school. Montana is literally up from the streets. Director Brian De Palma, with a script by Oliver Stone, made no attempt to sugarcoat what that meant.
Montana is arrogant, bombastic, self-indulgent, ruthless and a cold-blooded killer. His story is about power—how to get it, how to use it and how to hold onto it.
Sprinkled with street-level philosophy that is as much a reflection on the American economic and political systems as it is about the drug subculture, Scarface is a story about the United States in the 1980s. And like Stone’s other morality tale from that decade, Wall Street (1987), it embodies a mantra from those turbulent times that Gordon Gekko made famous—“Greed is good.”
But whereas the greed in Wall Street inspired insider trading and hostile takeovers, Scarface’s greed leads to murder and mayhem. Released from a Cuban prison and sent to America in the controversial Mariel boatlift, Montana and his best friend Manny (Steven Bauer) end up in Miami as struggling sandwich shop workers. But they’ve got big dreams.
They graduate to become low-level enforcers for Frank Lopez (Robert Loggia), a drug kingpin who has clearly made it. Lopez—with his wealth, power, status and beautiful American ice goddess mistress Elvira Hancock (Michelle Pfieffer)—has everything Tony wants.
The first half of the film is Montana maneuvering to get it. Never subtle, Tony makes his plans clear in a discussion with Manny while they’re still struggling.
“Me, I want what’s coming to me,” he says.
“What’s coming to you?” a skeptical Manny asks.
“The world, chico, and everything in it,” Montana replies.
While Pacino’s Cuban accent is sometimes disconcerting (much like his attempt at a Puerto Rican accent in Carlito’s Way), his performance in the first half of the movie is compelling.
We shouldn’t like Tony Montana, but we do. On a certain level we want him to succeed.
His balls-to-the-wall confrontation with a chainsaw-wielding drug dealer in a raunchy motel bathroom showcases Montana as the ultimate tough guy. His nonchalant, let’s-do-business reaction after his associate, Omar Suarez (F. Murray Abraham), is hung by the neck from a helicopter circling a South American cocaine kingpin’s compound is cool and calculating. His wooing of Elvira combines arrogance and sweetness.
All three incidents offer hints at who Tony Montana is and who he might become.
At first, the sultry and aloof Elvira wants nothing to do with him and says as much in one of the classic movie putdowns of all time: “Even if I were blind, desperate, starved and begging for it on a desert island, you’d be the last one I’d ever fuck.”
Tony, of course, ends up in bed with—and eventually married to—Elvira.
He also gets the money, the power and the status that comes with being a cocaine kingpin in 1980s Miami, a world populated by corrupt cops, fast women and hairy-chested wannabe gangsters dressed in open-collared shirts, gold chains and three-inch-heeled boots.
He has figured out the way the game is played.
“In this country, you gotta make the money first,” he tells Manny. “Then when you get the money, you get the power. Then, when you get the power, you get the women.”
Strip away the violence and the bravado, however, and Scarface offers a rather mundane storyline about how power corrupts.
Tony’s fall is telegraphed during one of his first meetings with Lopez and Elvira.
“Rule number one,” Lopez tells his young protégé. “Don’t ever underestimate the other guy’s greed.”
“And don’t get high on your own supply,” Elvira adds.
The second half of the movie deals with the repercussions of Tony’s failure to heed those words of advice.
His relationship with Gina (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), a sister he hasn’t seen in years, adds a bizarre, familial twist to the story with hints of incestuous desire. After she and Manny become lovers, their fates are sealed. This is not a marriage made in heaven, but rather in the violent underworld of Tony Montana. Their separation is bloody and final.
Pacino, as is his wont, begins to chew the scenery as the movie rushes toward its gun-blazing finale. Hopped up on coke, rejected by his Cuban immigrant mother because she sees him for what he is and at war with his South American cocaine supplier, Tony is armed and dangerous in the extreme.
Movie critic Leonard Maltin, who offered a less-than-favorable comparison to the original Scarface, wrote that this version “wallows in excess and unpleasantness for nearly three hours and offers no new insights except that crime doesn’t pay. . . . Even so, this has become a pop culture phenomenon with Pacino’s Tony Montana an underdog hero.”
Another critic referred to Montana as a character “cut from inch-thick cardboard.”
Oliver Stone had a different take on his lead character. Speaking to the American Film Institute at a banquet to mark Pacino’s receipt of an AFI Lifetime Achievement Award, Stone said, “You’ll never see a bad guy like this again.”
HIT: The violence and degradation of the cocaine underworld are captured in both the writing and the acting. While Scarface was clearly a reference to the 1930s classic on which it was based, a more accurate description comes in the Spanish title for the film, El Precio del Poder—“The Price of Power.”
MISS: There are several over-the-top moments, but none compare with the finale. As Tony’s body floats in the pool in front of the statue, we see the words “The World Is Yours.” The irony is lost, as is any attempt at subtlety. This point has already been made about a dozen times.
WHAT THEY WROTE AT THE TIME: “De Palma’s update of the 1932 classic is the most stylish and provocative—and maybe the most vicious—serious film about the American underworld since Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather. In almost every way, though, the two films are memorably different. Scarface contains not an ounce of anything that could pass for sentimentality, which the film ridicules without mercy. The Godfather is a multigenerational epic, full of true sentiment. Scarface has the impact of a single, breathless anecdote, being about one young hood’s rapid rise and fall in the southern Florida cocaine industry.”—Vincent Canby, New York Times
REALITY CHECK: The Mariel boatlift, which sets the movie in motion, was an actual event that lent credence to the film’s story. There were about 125,000 Cubans brought to the United States at the time. Of those, about 12,500 were criminals. Fidel Castro emptied his prisons, increasing the number of “refugees” seeking freedom in America.
REPEATED WATCHING QUOTIENT: This film has taken on cult status. If you’re a fan—and we know there are tens of thousands of you out there—you can’t see it enough. For others, an occasional revisit will do.
DON’T FAIL TO NOTICE: The film is dedicated to Howard Hawks and Ben Hecht, the director and writer of the original Scarface from 1932. A lot had changed in regards to censorship standards in the half-century between the two films. But De Palma still had to fight to keep his Scarface from receiving an X rating. He won that battle despite all the movie’s gory, graphic violence and foul language after experts testified before the Motion Picture Association of America that the film accurately depicted life in the drug underworld. The word “fuck” and its derivatives are used more than 200 times.
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: Writer Oliver Stone picked the name Montana because he was a big fan of San Francisco 49ers quarterback Joe Montana. Tony Montana is called “Scarface” just once during the film—in an early scene when immigration officials refer to him as “Caracicatriz,” which is Spanish for “Scarface.”
BEST LINE: “Say hello to my little friend!” is one of the most frequently quoted lines from any gangster movie. It made the American Film Institute’s list of Top 100 all-time quotes (ranking 61st). The line has come to define the Tony Montana character created by Pacino, a hopped-up kingpin, standing alone against the world, brandishing an assault rifle equipped with a grenade launcher. This, we know, is not going to end well.
We also like Tony’s take on life: “All I have in this world is my balls and my word. And I don’t break ‘em for no one.”
Stone, at the aforementioned AFI ceremony, had this to say about his script: “No matter how many screenplays I write, I think ‘Fuck you’ and ‘Say hello to my little friend’ may well live on as my contribution to the culture.”
CASTING CALL: John Travolta was considered for the role of Manny. Steven Bauer, who got the part, is the only Cuban cast in a major role. Several actresses were considered for or turned down the role of Elvira. Rosanna Arquette, Melanie Griffith and Kim Basinger were among those who passed on the chance, while Geena Davis, Carrie Fisher and Sharon Stone auditioned but didn’t get the part.
VIOLENCE LEVEL: Off the charts, from the chainsaw scene to the final shootout, this is one of the most violent gangster movies of all time.
BODY COUNT: Forty-two.
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[Reprinted from The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies by George Anastasia and Glen Macnow. Available from Running Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011.]
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George Anastasia is a crime reporter for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and author of several books, including “Blood and Honor” which Jimmy Breslin called “the best gangster book ever written.”
Glen Macnow was a writer for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and “Detroit Free Press.” He is currently a talk-radio host on 610-WIP in Philadelphia.
George and Glen have co-authored “The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies.”