The first time I ever watched Scarface was when I was 10 years old in 1984. I had heard about the film and knew of its controversial reputation even back then so I was really curious to see what it was all about. At the time VHS was the home video craze, I still remember the 2 tape mega box the film came in. Looking back, Scarface was probably the first film in which I really recognized what direction was about. I could notice the way the camera moved and many of the scenes stayed in my mind. It has such an amazing style and is about as operatic and gaudy as DePalma has ever gotten next to maybe Phantom of the Paradise.
The film’s aesthetic became an inversion of classic noir stories. Instead of a dark, ominous atmosphere, the setting is soaked in brightly lit spaces with exotic colors and patterns accented by neon showing off the decadent setting of Miami in the early 80s. From Tony’s white suit to the disco nightclubs to the sunny, sandy beaches to his extravagant mansion filled with red and gold. The film completely reflects the “more more more” attitude of the time in both its production design and how the characters live.
“You wanna work eight, ten fucking hours? You own nothing, you got nothing! Do you want a chivato on every corner looking after you? Watching everything you do? Everything you say, man? Do you know I eat octopus three times a day? I got fucking octopus coming out of my fucking ears. I got the fuckin’ Russian shoes my feet’s comin’ through. How you like that? What, you want me to stay there and do nothing? Hey, I’m no fuckin’ criminal, man. I’m no puta or thief. I’m Tony Montana, a political prisoner from Cuba. And I want my fuckin’ human rights, now!”
Tony Montana (Al Pacino) is a Cuban refugee who arrives in Miami, Florida after escaping the wrath of Fidel Castro during the Mariel boat lift in 1980 along with several of his friends. When Montana is interviewed at the beginning of the film (more like interrogated) by the U.S. immigration agents, we get a brief glimpse into his background. He explains how he learned English by watching gangster movies starring Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney, which his father, an American brought him to. We also find out he has a shady past stemming from a strange tattoo on his hand of a pitchfork. One of the agents states he’s seen them before and thinks it’s the mark of an assassin. Tony’s most prominent feature is a large scar that runs down his face which creates even more of an air of mystery about him. These details make us realize right away that his life in Cuba could certainly be another movie in itself.
Montana and his friends, including best pal Manny (Steven Bauer), Angel (Pepe Serna) and Chi Chi (Angel Salazar) are sent to an internment camp in Miami where they await their extradition back to Cuba. Meanwhile, Manny gets lucky and finds a way for them to get green cards so they can stay in America. The hitch: they must murder a former Castro affiliate named Rebenga who is coming into the camp. It is here we learn Tony is not only familiar with crime and killing, he is adept at it. As the Cuban refugees stage a violent riot, the hit on Rebenga goes virtually unnoticed and like clockwork Tony, Manny and friends are set free into Miami legally. While waiting for a chance to make some real money, Tony and Manny begin working at a shabby little Cuban refreshment stand and sweat over the dirty dishes in the night air. One night Manny sets up a meeting with a local drug dealer Omar Suarez (F. Murray Abraham) who, after a tense, emotional introduction to Tony, Omar sees his determination and hires the two to do a cocaine buy from some Colombians. It’s here we learn that Tony despises Colombians with a passion…
When Tony goes to the South Beach hotel to make the buy, he is greeted by Hector “The Toad” (Al Israel), and introduced to his wife Marta (this woman is so unsavory looking). Tony makes it clear he wants to get down to business, but suddenly he is ambushed by Hector’s men and Marta pulls out a machine gun. As with every movie that has this kind of tense scene, it’s what you fear might occur. When Hector opens up a suitcase and reveals a chainsaw, there’s no doubt whats coming next is gonna be something very unpleasant. What I love in this part of the film is how we get to see that Tony is every bit as dangerous and unafraid as the Colombians who are going to kill him. He is in fact, a supreme badass. His bravura is at full blast, even with a gun in his face and a chainsaw ready to cut him to pieces he still wont talk. This sequence also features my favorite tracking shot in the film that extends the suspense even more. Manny who is Tony’s backup finally arrives in the nick of time and saves the day by blasting the drug dealer scum, and Tony kills Hector with a point blank gunshot to the head in the center of a South Beach street for everyone to see. As a matter of fact, these kinds of events actually occurred during the cocaine boom at the time.
After the deadly deal gone bad, Tony decides to go see Frank Lopez (Robert Loggia) in person to deliver the “yayo” along with the money as a show of honor and respect. Frank is very happy to see this, apologizes about the circumstances and quickly invites Tony into his organization. The two form a boss/soldier relationship, but behind the scenes Frank and Omar regard Tony as another dumb thug yet they still recognize he is brave and is willing to get the job done. At Frank’s cushy home Tony meets Frank’s beautiful blonde girlfriend Elvira (Michelle Pfeiffer) who he immediately is smitten with seeing her as an American princess on a pedestal.
Frank next sends Tony to Bolivia, South America with Omar on a business meeting to do a cocaine deal with Alejandro Sosa (Paul Shenar), an elite drug supplier. It’s soon apparent when Mr. Sosa converses with Omar, Tony wants to use this as an opportunity to move up the ladder even without Frank’s approval. On Omar’s departure, he is murdered by Sosa’s hitmen after being recognized as a rat who had informed the police about one of Sosa’s associates. When he returns to Miami alone, Tony is angrily reprimanded by Frank who tells him he needs to stay under the radar and “fly straight”, but Tony, being a rebellious hothead, decides he must do things his way and develop his own organization. Soon he and Frank become become bitter rivals in the drug business something that will have life altering repercussions later on.
Tony also sets his sights on Elvira who he has fallen in love with. She is attractive and desirable but she is damaged goods and a junkie. While there is a classic Hollywood romantic story between Tony and Elvira on the surface it’s revealed that she is essentially just another trophy Tony seeks to acquire to become the master of his drug dealing empire. Michelle Pfeiffer is excellent as Elvira who comes across as a truly cold fish. She shows hardly any real feeling or emotion throughout the entire film.
With his new successful status, Tony decides to go visit his estranged mother Georgina (Miriam Colon) and younger sister Gina (Mary Elisabeth Mastrantonio) who live in a lower middle class part of town. The families’ relationship with Tony is shown to be all but dead. For Mrs. Montana, he is not even a son any longer, just a lousy bum and someone she wants nothing to do with. Yet Gina, a sweet young woman, still loves him and wants to hold on to their bond. Mrs. Montana warns Gina to stay away from Tony, but she defies her. This is of course the start of her own undoing and Tony’s violent paranoia fueled outbursts towards Gina whenever he sees her in any semi-sexual situations causes their relationship to go straight to hell.
Ultimately, Tony’s road of extreme excess in all vices and parts of his life leads to the palace of doom, as opposed to wisdom. As his bank account overflows with cash and the piles of cocaine get bigger and bigger his already soiled soul (whats left of it) just rots even quicker. He literally sets his world aflame as his power and greed grows. Sadly, there is no second chance for him to change as there was for his cinematic cousin in Carlito’s Way, he lives life to the extreme but his vices and self destructive ways just destroy everything and everyone around him. The film is essentially a metaphor for the decadent 80s, even though at the time of its release the party was still in full swing. It would be only a few more years before the expansive war on drugs and the disease of AIDS would slow down the merry go round of extreme living and bring things that really matter into focus.
COCAINE AS GOLD METAPHOR
One scene that was cut out of the film was a sequence where Tony and Manny watch Treasure of The Sierra Madre on TV while in the internment camp. During the film, Humphrey Bogart’s Fred C. Dobbs talks about “rats scorpions and cockroaches”, this is where Tony gets the term “I’ll bury those cockaroaches” which he later uses when talking to Frank about the rival drug dealers. While Scarface is based on the 1932 film it also shares a main thematic link to Sierra Madre, and the Dobbs character who loses his mind from becoming so paranoid and obsessed with the gold he and his partners discover in the mountains.
AL PACINO: A LEGENDARY PERFORMANCE
For me, this is Al Pacino’s greatest work as an artist in cinema. Ive always thought that Tony Montana more than any other character he has played was a truly complete transformation. From his physicality to his voice down to his haircut, he is 100% unique as a fictional film character. It’s something that’s tough to express in words, but I think it’s just brilliant work, showing what an actor can do with a part at their full potential.
THE ORIGINAL SCARFACE
Scarface is a partial remake of the 1932 film which was produced by Howard Hughes. In that movie, the main character Tony Camonte (Paul Muni) was based on mobster legend Al Capone who was still in the news at the time. It is one of the most entertaining gangster pictures ever made and closely mirrored Capone’s life while giving it a more heightened, melodramatic edge especially for the cinema. You’ll also notice both films contain “The World Is Yours” slogan. In the original, it is displayed on a lighted billboard. In the 1983 film it can be seen flashing on a GoodYear blimp and again on a neon statuette in Tony’s home. As a special tribute, DePalma dedicated his version to the filmmaker and screenwriter responsible for the genre classic: Howard Hawks and Ben Hecht.
SCRIPT TO SCREEN
Screenwriter Oliver Stone was not unfamiliar with the world of cocaine as he was writing the screenplay he fought an addiction to the drug. He also personally had meetings with real drug dealers while doing research. Although the film is known for its bigger than life depictions of the underworld, it is still rooted in actual events that took place in Miami in the early 80s during the cocaine drug boom. For more information on that era, you should watch the excellent documentary Cocaine Cowboys. NOTE: Stone would follow up Scarface with another look at the excessive 80s lifestyle with his own 1987 film Wall Street.
SCARFACE IN POP CULTURE
30 years later, Scarface still has a huge impact on cinema and pop culture in general, most notably within the hip hop community. The film gained cult popularity for its rebellious theme and the musicians from the streets completely identified with Tony’s story about rising from the bottom to the top and getting rich quick. Montana has become an legendary icon for them. If you watch episodes of MTV’s Cribs, half the hip hoppers have shrines dedicated to the movie. The film has also been referenced hundreds of times on TV and in other films. One thing is for sure, Scarface may have caused alot of controversy in 1983, but it also broke the mold.
It’s often criticized for the graphic violence and depiction of the Latin community, but it is in fact a very realistic, honest morality tale and a tragic story about how extreme greed and obsessive need for power over everything will destroy your life. Scarface is one of those special period genre pieces that will forever give audiences a view into the specific time it was made while providing entertainment and thrills.
FURIOUS FILM GEEK TRIVIA
- Scarface was given an X rating three times (original, second, and third cuts) for extreme violence, frequent strong language and hard drug usage. Director Brian De Palma pulled in a panel of experts, including real narcotics officers, who stated that the film was an accurate portrayal of the real-life drug underworld and should be widely seen. This convinced the 20 members of the ratings board to give the third cut an “R” rating by a vote of 18 to 2. De Palma later asked the studio if he could release the original director’s cut, but was told that he could not. However, since the studio executives did not know the differences among the three submitted cuts, De Palma released the director’s cut to theaters anyway with an unapproved “R”.
- Steven Spielberg visited the set and helped do a brief shot of the Bolivians in the final shootout at Tony’s mansion.
- In the opening sequence with Tony Montana (Al Pacino) and the immigration officers, Charles Durning’s voice has clearly been used to overdub an actor playing one of the officers. Another of the officers is dubbed by Brian De Palma’s regular Dennis Franz. If you listen carefully, Al Pacino also had to overdub his own voice at three or four different points in the same scene.
- In the final shootout sequence, Al Pacino grabs the gun by the barrel. Although only blanks were used, his hand was badly burned, and production had to be shut down for a few weeks.
- According to the “scorecard” feature on the Platinum Edition DVD, the word “fuck” and its derivatives are used 226 times for an average of 1.32 fucks per minute.
BLU RAY REVIEW
The Limited Edition comes with a Bonus standard DVD of the original 1932 Scarface directed by Howard Hawks and a set of cool collectible postcards.
Picture: The film is presented in (2:35:1) 1080p High-Definition. The latest transfer brings a clarity unmatched by previous home video releases. Colors are even more vibrant while the dark contrasts are rich with minimal artifacts.
Audio: English DTS Master 7.1 Surround Sound/DTS 2.0 Espanol, Francais 2.0 Mono. The multi-channel sound creates another layer of excitement featuring rumbling gun burst, background chatter, disco music that will knock you off your sofa. Turn it up and become enveloped inside the world of Scarface.
Subtitles: English SDH, Espanol, Francais.
U-CONTROL – Scarface Scorecard: Track the number of times the F-word is uttered as you watch the movie.
Picture in Picture: Watch cast and crew interviews as the film plays and view comparisons between the 1932 and 1983 versions. Several of these visual soundbytes are also in the featurettes.
The Scarface Phenomenon: Cast and crew look back at the legacy of the controversial pop culture classic gangster epic. Featuring interviews with: Producer Martin Bregman, Director Brian DePalma, Screenwriter Oliver Stone, Filmmakers/Fans Eli Roth, Antoine Fuqua, Billy Corben. Actors: Al Pacino, Steven Bauer, Robert Loggia, Angel Salazar and Maria Conchita Alonzo and others.
Deleted Scenes: Several sequences of Tony and Manny during their time at the internment camp.
The World of Tony Montana: Editors of Maxim and XXL magazines along with Law Enforcement Officers give their take on the film using humor and actual facts about the criminal lifestyle.
The Rebirth: A informative piece about how the Howard Hawks 1932 gangster classic developed into the Oliver Stone screenplay and later became a modern drug era counterpart to the Prohibition themed tale of the original.
The Acting: Stars Al Pacino, Steven Bauer and Robert Loggia remember the time spent developing their unique film characters.
The Creating: Producer Martin Bregman, Director Brian DePalma and Screenwriter Oliver Stone along with DP John Alonzo discuss the tumultuous production details and controversial reception the film had upon its debut.
Scarface: The TV Version: The swearing and violence is edited giving viewers a more watered down, comical adaption.
The Making of Scarface – The Video Game: See how the iconic film character transformed into…a digital action hero?
FINAL WORD: Scarface Limited Edition Steelbook is a multimedia extravaganza surpassing all previous versions released on home video. Time to take those old DVDs and sell em. This version is sure to provide viewers hours of enjoyment. Its a must own for classic crime genre film fans. Highly recommended.