Scarface (1983): De Palma’s Remake of Hawks 1932 Classic–from Mild Response to Cult Status (Cinema of Excess)

Brian De Palma directed Scarface, an ultra-violent, ultra-pulpish crime drama, starring Al Pacino, written by Oliver Stone, and produced by Martin Bregman.

Grade: B+ (**** out of *****)

Scarface - 1983 film.jpg

Theatrical release poster

A remake of the seminal 1932 film, it tells the story of Cuban refugee Tony Montana, who arrives in 1980s Miami poor and insecure and rises to become a powerful drug lord.

Some of Al Pacino’s fans consider it to be his ultimate (read: excessive and over the top) performance.

The cast also features Steven Bauer, Michelle Pfeiffer, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and Robert Loggia.

Pacino became interested in a remake of the 1932 Hawks’ version after seeing it, and he encouraged producer Martin Bregman began to develop it.

Sidney Lumet was initially hired to direct the film but he was later replaced by De Palma, who hired Stone to write the script.

Shooting took place from November 1982 to May 1983, mostly in Los Angeles.

The film’s pulp soundtrack was composed by Giorgio Moroder.

De Palma dedicated his version of Scarface to the writers of the original, Howard Hawks and Ben Hecht.

Scarface premiered in New York City on December 1, 1983, and was released on December 9, 1983.

Initially, Scarface was not a huge success, grossing only $45 million at the domestic box office, and $66 million worldwide.  The critical reception was negative due to its excessive violence, profanity, and graphic drug usage.

Some Cuban expatriates in Miami objected to the film’s portrayal of Cubans as criminals and drug traffickers.

In the years that followed, however, critics have reappraised it, and it is now considered by some to be one of the best films in the crime genre, and one of the greatest remakes ever made.

It has been referenced extensively in pop culture, in hip hop music, comic books, TV programs, and video games.

Over the years, as a result of the DVD success and repeated showings on TV,  Scarface has become sort of a cult movie.

Narrative Structure:

O August 11, 1980, Cuban refugee and ex-convict Tony Montana arrives in Miami, Florida, as part of the Mariel boatlift, where he is sent to a refugee camp with friends Manny Ray, Angel, and Chi Chi.

The four are released and given green cards in exchange for murdering a former Cuban general at the request of Miami drug lord Frank Lopez.

They begin working as dishwashers at an eatery, but a dissatisfied Tony proclaims that he is meant for bigger things.

Frank’s right-hand man Omar sends the four to purchase cocaine from Colombian dealers, but the deal goes bad. Angel is dismembered with a chainsaw, while Manny and Chi Chi rescue Tony and kill the Colombians.

Suspecting that Omar set them up, Tony and Manny insist on personally delivering the recovered drugs and money to Frank.

During their meeting, Tony is attracted to Frank’s trophy wife, Elvira. Frank hires Tony and Manny.

Tony reunites with his mother and younger sister Gina, of whom he is overprotective.

Disgusted by his life of crime, his mother throws him out.

Manny is attracted to Gina, but Tony tells him to stay away from her.

Frank sends Tony and Omar to Cochabamba, Bolivia to meet with cocaine kingpin Alejandro Sosa. Tony negotiates a deal without Frank’s approval, angering Omar.

Sosa claims that Omar is a police informant and that Frank has poor judgement; Tony witnesses a beaten Omar hanged from a helicopter.

Tony vouches for Frank’s organization, and Sosa, taking a liking to Tony, agrees to the deal, but not before warning Tony never to betray him.

Back in Miami, Frank is infuriated by Omar’s demise and the unauthorized deal struck by Tony, while Tony starts his own independent cocaine operation.

At a nightclub, Bernstein, a crooked cop on Frank’s payroll, attempts to extort money from Tony in return for police protection.

In the club, Tony spots Gina flirting with a man, who takes her to the men’s room.  Tony beats them both when he sees the man groping Gina.

Hitmen then attempt to assassinate Tony as he sits in the club, but he escapes.

Tony, certain that Bernstein and the hitmen were sent by Frank, confronts him. At gunpoint, Frank confesses to the attempted hit and begs for his life, but he and Bernstein are killed by Manny and Tony.

Tony marries Elvira and becomes the distributor of Sosa’s product.

He builds a multi-million-dollar empire, living in a vast, heavily guarded estate.

By 1983, a sting by federal agents results in charging Tony with tax evasion, with an inevitable prison sentence. Sosa offers to use his government connections to keep Tony out of prison, but only if Tony assassinates a journalist intending to expose Sosa’s drug operations.

During a public dinner, Tony accuses Manny of causing his arrest and complains that Elvira is an infertile junkie, causing her to leave him.

Tony travels to New York City to carry out the assassination with Sosa’s henchman, Shadow, who plants a radio-controlled bomb under the journalist’s car.

However, the journalist is unexpectedly accompanied by his wife and children. This revelation causes Tony to call off the hit, but as Shadow continues, Tony kills him before he can detonate the bomb.

Tony returns to Miami, where an enraged Sosa calls Tony to promise retribution after the journalist exposes his drug operations.

Tony, at his mother’s behest, tracks down Gina and finds her with Manny. In a fit of rage, Tony shoots Manny dead, after which Gina tearfully tells Tony that they were married the day before.

A distraught Tony returns to his estate with Gina, and begins a massive cocaine binge in his office.

While dozens of Sosa’s men begin their infiltration of the estate, Gina, all naked, accuses Tony of lusting after her, while shooting at him,

She is slain by one of Sosa’s men, and Tony finally breaks down, then collecting himself, he kills her murderer.

Tony, all alone, has lost his men, his best friend, his wife, and his sister.

Meanwhile Assassins invade his estate, and Tony turns a grenade launcher-equipped rifle, mowing many of them down, like flies.

Eventually, during gunfire, Tony is repeatedly shot by the remaining attackers, but he continues to taunt them until he is fatally shot from behind by The Skull.

The last, powerful image depicts Tony’s corpse falling from the staircase into a fountain below, positioned with his face down, in front of a statue whose inscription reads, “The World is Yours,

What began as a sage of a poor uneducated, who takes the opportunities of the American Dream and rises to the top, ends on a tragic and ironic note.


Directed by Brian De Palma
Produced by Martin Bregman
Screenplay by Oliver Stone
Music by Giorgio Moroder
Cinematography John A. Alonzo
Edited by Jerry Greenberg, David Ray

Distributed by Universal Pictures

Release date: December 1, 1983 (New York); December 9, 1983 (US)

Running time: 170 minutes
Budget $23.5–37 million
Box office $66 million