Scarface (1983): De Palma’s Updated Remake of Classic Crime-Gangster, Starring Al Pacino

An exquisitely shot, with excessive stylistic touches of sex, drugs, and violence, “Scarface” represents Brian De Palma at his best and most extreme.

Based on the classic 1932 gangster film of the same title, directed by Howard Hawks, the screenplay was written by Oliver Stone, which follows the plot of its Ben Hecht’s source text almost to the letter

Al Pacino plays two-bit Cuban hood Tony Montana, who makes his way into the U.S., where he and his friend Manny Ray (Stephen Bauer) soon enter the world of crime. They murder a political figure for drug dealer Frank Lopez (Robert Loggia) to get their green cards and are soon on his payroll.

Tony’s elimination of rival Colmbian drug dealers gives him a more prominent role in the organization. His duties now include serving as chauffeur to Lopez’s beautiful but drug-addicted wife, Elvira (Michelle Pfeiffer). In no time, he seduces Elvira and then marries her.

Tony’s other female obsession is his sister Gina (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio). Tony’s feelings for his sister are incestuous, and he dominates her, refusing her to let her date other men.

After a bad business deal and an argument over Elvira, Lopez attempts to have Tony killed. However, Tony kills the assassins and Lopez, and becomes the most powerful drug lord in Florida.

Once at the top, the real problems begin. Manny is secretly dating Gina (though warned no to). Elivira has increasingly become a zombie-like drug addict, and Tony’s money is not earning the interest it should be. Moreover, Tony himself has become selfish, paranoid, and addict to his own “good stuff.”

Jammed with action sequences and tense moments, the film depicts the seediest aspects of the new American underworld in Miami, right after the mass Cuban immigration, which changed the city completely.

Stone’s script twists and turns beneficially gangster movie conventions, and helmer De Palma demonstrates an unusual understanding of the genre with a bravura style.
Arguably, with the exception of “Carrie” and “Dressed to Kill,” his skills with the camera and in the editing room have seldom been this impressive.

The movie contains many excessive and over-the-top images. One of the most memorable compositions is an overhead shot of Pacino soaking in an obscenely large bathtub

Along with the high-voltage action sequences, the film offers excellent acting, from the entire ensemble.

The film represents the big screen debuts of Michelle Pfeiffer and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, both showing great promise. The image of Pfeiffer as Elvira, thin and pale, coming down in a glass elevator, wearing an aqua sheath, her eyes ruined already. Thomson describes her character–a nymph turned into a witch–as the only source of moral intelligence in film. There are also fine performances from F. Murray Abraham, Harry Yulin, Steven Bauer and Robert Loggia.

But it’s Pacino’s movie from beginning to end, and he grabs the opportunity. Outgoing, randy, and all show-off, Pacino is both hilarious and delirious with his Cuban accent, coke snorting, and the sinuousness of his own big talent. He immerses himself completely in a role, thus accounting for the richness of the experience

Offering a grand visceral and emotional experience, “Scarface” is gripping from start to finish, even if it’s operatic in style and overdone in theme, due to the detailed plot and characterizations in Oliver Stone’s script. David Thomson has described “Scarface” an authentic black comedy, with red for blood, white for cocaine, and an overall smeared look that’s true to Miami.


Running time: 170 minutes
The 1932 script is by Ben Hecht
Cinematographer: John A. Alonzo
Music Giorgio Moroder

Other roles

Miriam Colon as Mama Montana
F. Murray Abraham as Omar
Paul Shenar as Alejandro Sosa
Harris Yulin as Bernstein
Angel Salazar as Chi Chi