Screenplay by Oliver Stone, based on a screenplay by Ben Hecht
Directed by Brian DePalma
Produced by Universal Pictures
Running time: 170 minutes
What the *&#! Is This About?
In 1980 – following the expulsion by Fidel Castro of 125,000 Cubans, many less than desirable – U.S. immigration officials question Tony Montana (Al Pacino). His bid for asylum falls short when the scar on his cheek and the prison tattoo on his hand brand him less than desirable. Tony explodes. “What do you want me to do, stay there and do nothing? I’m no fucking criminal, man. I’m no puta or thief. I’m Tony Montana, a political prisoner from Cuba. And I want my fucking human rights, now! Just like the president Jimmy Carter say. Okay?” Tony is interned at Freedomtown with the other Cuban refugees, including his best friend Manny (Steven Bauer), who secures them green cards by agreeing to kill a Castro lackey who arrives at the camp for their new benefactor. A job at a sandwich stand in Miami awaits, but Tony has his sights set on bigger fish.
Tony & Manny’s ragged but effective work as drug couriers gain the respect of their humble boss, Frank Lopez (Robert Loggia). With cash in his pocket, Tony attempts to reconcile with his mother (Miriam Colon) and his adoring kid sister Gina (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) who Tony harbors intense feelings for. He also sets Manny straight about America. “This country, you gotta make the money first. Then when you get the money, you get the power. Then when you get the power, then you get the women.” Coveting Lopez’s glassy eyed girlfriend Elvira (Michelle Pfeiifer), Tony takes the initiative on a business trip to Bolivia and negotiates a $75 million cocaine deal with the powerful Sosa (Paul Shenar). Lopez warns his protégé that the guys who last in their business are the ones who keep a low profile, but Tony has one ambition: “The world, chico. And everything in it.”
Who Should Be Held Responsible?
The genesis of Scarface was with Al Pacino. In 1974, the actor was performing in Bertolt Brecht’s The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui, a satire on fascism that the playwright had modeled on the American gangster movie, particularly the 1932 classic Scarface, starring Paul Muni. Pacino recalled, “So I was one day walking along Sunset Boulevard of all places and there was – I believe it’s the Tiffany Theater now – and it was playing on a double bill with something else, I forget. And it was Scarface, and it was a few of us, so I said, well why don’t we just go and take a look at it. And we went in and it was, you know, an astounding movie, astounding. And the performance of Paul Muni’s was astounding and inspiring. And I thought after that, that I just wanted to, yeah, I wanted to imitate him, I wanted to do something and was inspired by that performance. And I called Marty Bregman, who then put together some people and they started working on developing this as a film.”
Producer Martin Bregman – Pacino’s former manager and producer of Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon – has also claimed credit for the idea. “The reason I did Scarface – or how it came to my attention – was I was watching the old Paul Muni film about three o’clock one morning when I couldn’t sleep … and it occurred to me that a film like that, a film like Scarface – the rise and fall of an American gangster – had not been done, certainly had not been done recently. Hadn’t been done since Scarface.” To direct, Bregman approached Brian DePalma, who in 1981 was in post-production on Blow Out. Collaborating with playwright David Rabe, DePalma attempted to retain the setting of the original Scarface, directed by Howard Hawks and adapted by Ben Hecht. When the results failed to meet with anyone’s satisfaction, DePalma dropped out and Bregman turned to director Sidney Lumet.
Academy Award winning screenwriter Oliver Stone – uninterested in remakes – had already turned down an offer from Bregman to adapt a script. He changed his tune once Sidney Lumet came aboard and Stone heard his take. “It was not until Sidney Lumet came into the picture – I think shortly thereafter – we had another conversation and he told me Sidney Lumet was very anxious to do the movie and wanted to do it Cuban, Miami, 1980, ’81, the Mariel Boat Lift. I started into the research of Miami. I went to Miami extensively and I got to know both sides. I got to know the law enforcement side, the attorney generals, the attorney’s office, the gangster elements through the lawyers, the ex-gangster elements. And then eventually I wanted more. I plunged into the Caribbean. I went down to Bimini. On another trip – a separate trip – I went to Ecuador and to Bolivia.”
Stone’s self-confessed “drug period” – beginning during his adaptation of Conan the Barbarian, which was written on cocaine and downers, and continuing through The Hand, which Stone also directed – was in full swing during his research on the drug cartels. Ultimately, the screenwriter absconded to Paris for six months in December 1981, went cold turkey and wrote Scarface. Sidney Lumet – who had hoped to explore the geopolitical ramifications of the cocaine trade, including what he suspected was the involvement of the CIA – didn’t care for what Stone turned in. He commented, “I didn’t want to do it on just a gangster or cop level. As it stood, it was a comic strip.” Stone maintained, “Sidney did not understand my script, whereas Bregman wanted to continue in that direction with Al.” When Lumet dropped out, the producer went back to his first choice for director.
Brian DePalma recalled, “When I had first started with David Rabe, we had more or less tried to start with the original Scarface. Italian. Chicago. The script that came to me ultimately that Bregman had developed with Stone was completely different. Nothing that I had ever envisioned, and that’s why I liked it so much, ‘cause it was a whole new way of approaching this material. And those elements were in the original script. I liked the material specifically because to me it was sort of like a modern metaphor for The Treasure of Sierra Madre, where cocaine becomes gold and it’s kind of the American dream gone crazy, where you have this product that can turn into millions of dollars but in the process you destroy your life. And it’s sort of like the capitalist dream gone bizarre and berserk and is crazy as you get and completely self-destructive.”
After an ingénue named Michelle Pfeiffer flew to New York on her own dime and gave an intense audition with Pacino, both Bregman and DePalma were unanimous that she would play Elvira. Pacino was holding out for a leading lady with a bit more experience: Glenn Close. Bregman recalled, “I had a long, old relationship with Al, and I told him he didn’t know what the hell he was thinking. I told him he didn’t know his ass from his elbow. I said this character is partly a courtesan, and she has to be half a hooker. Glenn Close is many things, but she is not half a hooker.” In addition to warming up to Pfeiffer, Pacino worked with dialect coach Robert Eastson and co-star Steven Bauer – who was born in Cuba – to nail his character’s accent. Pacino became so immersed, he asked director of photography John Alonzo to speak to him only in Spanish throughout the shoot.
Under a budget of $21.5 million, Scarface was scheduled to roll September 1982 in Miami. The bullet riddled city did not celebrate. Fearing that the movie was set to portray Cuban Americans in a negative light, Commissioner Demetrio Perez Jr. introduced a resolution to City Council to deny permits to the production. The effort failed, but two weeks into filming, threats of demonstrations forced Bregman to shut down and move to Southern California. Costume designer Patricia Norris recalled, “I did think they’d have killed us if we stayed in Miami. There were members of the community who hated us because they thought we were doing a pro-Castro movie, which was absurd, but their anger was very serious. And then there were real drug people around, Colombians who came on the set. The day a fellow sat down in the chair next to me, and crossed his legs, and I saw a gun strapped to his ankle, I knew I wanted to get back to Los Angeles.”
The internment camp sequence was shot underneath the Santa Monica and Harbor Freeways in downtown L.A. The sandwich stand where Tony & Manny work was also shot in Los Angeles, in Little Tokyo. Tony & Elvira’s wedding was filmed at a 35-acre mansion in Montecito, near Santa Barbara, while Sosa’s Bolivian hacienda was also shot in Montecito. Many of the elaborate interiors were staged on the Universal Studios lot. To snag the Miami Beach exteriors, DePalma snuck back into town with a small crew for two weeks in April 1983. The director later stated, “It’s difficult enough to make a movie without adding more complications. Afterward, the governor and the mayor were upset, realizing that the company would have provided a lot of jobs in Florida. When we went back, there were no problems.” The delays added two months and $5 million to the budget.
When Scarface went before the MPAA, it returned with an X rating four times. Efforts by DePalma to trim the violence had no effect on the rating, which would have dissuaded exhibitors in many parts of the U.S. from booking the film. In early November 1983, Bregman called for a hearing, in which the producer joined DePalma, Universal distribution chief Robert Rehme and Broward County law enforcement official Nick Navarro to plead their case to the ratings board. DePalma maintained to Playboy at the time, “I didn’t take anything out except for the arm that was chainsawed off. You don’t really see it, just about twelve frames. I took it out, anyway. I sent the censors four versions and kept taking things out, and finally I said, ‘I’m not doing this anymore,’ and all four versions got an X for ‘cumulative violence,’ whatever that is. So I figured, ‘Hey, if we’re getting an X, let’s go with our first version.’” By a vote of 17-3, Scarface received an R rating and was clear to open December 1983 across the U.S.
Critics didn’t condemn Scarface, not completely. The New York Times (Vincent Canby) and Time Magazine (Richard Corliss) posted rave reviews. But the boo birds came out in equal force. Pauline Kael, the New Yorker: “The whole feeling of the movie is limp. This may be the only action picture that turns into an allegory of impotence.” Walter Goodman, in a New York Times op-ed: “Brian DePalma evidently believed that enough gore and mayhem could save a plate of cold fried bananas fifty years after it has been served up piping hot.” Dave Kehr, the Chicago Reader: “Brian De Palma dedicates this 1983 feature to Howard Hawks and Ben Hecht, authors of the 1932 original, though I doubt they would find much honor in his gory inflation of their crisp, 90-minute comic nightmare into a klumbering, self-important, arrhythmic downer of nearly three hours.”
On At the Movies, Gene Siskel & Roger Ebert flew into debate over Scarface, with Siskel turning thumbs down over what he perceived to be lack of character development. Ebert: “You think there’s some rule that says a guy has to be good at the beginning and bad at the end?” Siskel: “No, I say it’s more interesting.” Ebert: “He’s a criminal when he gets off the boat …” Siskel: “That’s exactly right, an uninteresting criminal.” Ebert: “He has a criminal’s version of the American dream, which is get a lot of money, build a big house and marry this blonde. And then he falls into drugs and because of his own fatal flaws it all comes crashing down, so it’s the story of a guy who’s bad at the beginning and bad in the middle and worse at the end. What’s wrong with that?” Siskel: “Who cares? I didn’t care about him in the slightest. His life meant nothing to me.” Ebert: “There are a lot of people like this guy, I think.” Siskel: “All of the famous gangster films are not about louses who got lousier. Some of them are about interesting characters who got lousier.”
Scarface grossed a subpar $45.4 million in the U.S. and $20.4 million overseas. But instead of going away, audiences remained fixated on Tony Montana. Al Pacino mused, “You make a lot of pictures, and you realize some don’t have it. I knew there was a pulse to this picture; I knew it was beating. And then I kept getting residuals from the movie, kept getting checks. And wherever I was filming, in Europe, people would come up to me and say, ‘Hey, Tony Montana.’ In Israel the Israelis came up to me and wanted to talk about Scarface. The Palestinians wanted to talk about Scarface.” Due to popular demand, Universal has granted more than forty licenses for merchandisers in the U.S. to crank out Tony Montana T-shirts, action figures, belt buckles or money clips. When Universal announced the Scarface Two-Disc Anniversary Edition DVD in 2003, advance orders swelled to 2 million, the highest of any title in the studio’s library.
Tony Montana has even been resurrected as a video game – Scarface: The World Is Yours – allowing xBox and Wii users to rampage through Miami. Oliver Stone summed up the enduring appeal of the film by stating, “A lot of young businessmen quote me the dialogue and when I ask them why they remember it, they say, ‘It’s exactly like my business.’ Apparently, the gangster ethic hit on some of the business ethics going on in this country. Scarface has probably got me more free champagne than any film I’ve ever worked on. I’ve bumped into Spanish and Jamaican gangsters throughout the Caribbean and South America and gay gangsters in Paris, who bought me champagne all night long. I’ve even read reports in newspapers where gangsters have modeled themselves on Tony Montana.”
For the film’s 20th anniversary, Def Jam met with Brian DePalma to propose Scarface be re-released, updating the Giorgio Moroder score with a hip-hop soundtrack. Bregman and Pacino had given a blessing to the idea of a rap music reboot. DePalma scotched it. The director stated, “If this is the ‘masterpiece’ you say, leave it alone. I fought them tooth and nail and was the odd man out, not an unusual place for me. I have final cut, so that stopped them dead.” Def Jam pressed a tribute CD instead, compiling tracks by Jay-Z, The Notorious B.I.G. and others, loosely connected to the gangster classic. DePalma noted, “The hip-hop community was seeing all around them what was happening in the film: that cocaine makes you feel all powerful, and you surround yourself with entourages and palaces and outrageous clothes and women, and you lose all touch with reality; you become numb. Ultimately you divorce yourself from the people you knew in the past. You ultimately explode, you perish because of your own excess.”
Why Should I Care?
With characters exiting the movie almost as tissue paper thin as they were when they came in, only someone with a Tony Montana hoodie would say this picture is perfect. But one of the reasons it’s become enormously popular all over the world is how well it plays regardless of its audience. Arthouse, grindhouse, bootleg VHS, mall crowd or country club set, no matter what your setting, there is something to marvel over in Scarface, undeniably one of the greatest shoot ‘em ups of all time, as well as one of the most hilarious satires of that same excess. The visual palette of the picture is unmatched, with the finest possible recreations of early ‘80s Miami high life, courtesy production designer Ferdinando Scarfiotti. When it comes to Technicolor violence, the film is gruesome in a way that few Hollywood action movies are, with the possible exception of The Untouchables, also directed by DePalma.
What makes Scarface so potent isn’t its carnage or how well it was photographed, but the penetrating script by Oliver Stone. Bursting with lively one-liners – “Me, I always tell the truth. Even when I lie. So say goodnight to the bad guy!” – and street corner sagacity about the nature of power, the film is full of color and excitement at the beginning before slowly taking a turn toward darker territory. Written as a swan song to cocaine, Scarface is the personal best screenplay Stone has ever cranked out of his own typewriter. Second best might be Wall Street, another warning about the blind alleys of capitalism that instead of being taken as a cautionary tale has become a training video for would-be entrepreneurs who completely miss the point. If Al Pacino’s lunatic raving about banking, trust and pelicans while immersed in a giant bubble bath isn’t the centerpiece of a great black comedy, I don’t know what is.
Where Are You Getting This *&#!?
Al Pacino: A Life on the Wire. By Andrew Yule. Dutton Adult (1991)
Stone. By James Riordian. Hyperion (1995)
“The Healing of Scarface” By Elaine Dutka, Los Angeles Times, 17 September 2003
“A Foul Mouth With a Following; 20 Years Later, Pacino’s Scarface Resonates With a Young Audience” By Bernard Weinraub. New York Times, 23 September 2003
Scarface (Platinum Edition). Universal Home Video (2006)
Scarface Nation: The Ultimate Gangster Movie and How It Changed America. By Ken Tucker. St. Martin’s Griffin (2008)