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Scarface (1983)

In 1980 Miami, a determined Cuban immigrant takes over a drug cartel and succumbs to greed.

Scarface (1983) Trailer

Scarface (1983) Reviews

The interesting thing is the way Tony Montana stays in the memory, taking on the dimensions of a real, tortured person. Most thrillers use interchangeable characters, and most gangster movies are more interested in action than personality, but “Scarface” is one of those special movies, like “The Godfather,” that is willing to take a flawed, evil man and allow him to be human. Maybe it’s no coincidence that Montana is played by Al Pacino, the same actor who played Michael Corleone.

Montana is a punk from Cuba. The opening scene of the movie informs us that when Cuban refugees were allowed to come to America in 1981, Fidel Castro had his own little private revenge — and cleaned out his prison cells, sending us criminals along with his weary and huddled masses. We see Montana trying to bluff his way through an interrogation by US federal agents, and that’s basically what he’ll do for the whole movie: bluff. He has no real character and no real courage, although for a short time cocaine gives him the illusion of both.

“Scarface” takes its title from the 1932 Howard Hawks movie, which was inspired by the career of Al Capone. That Hawks film was the most violent gangster film of its time, and this 1983 film by Brian DePalma also has been surrounded by a controversy over its violence, but in both movies the violence grows out of the lives of the characters; it isn’t used for thrills but for a sort of harrowing lesson about self-destruction.

Both movies are about the rise and fall of a gangster, and they both make much of the hero’s neurotic obsession with his sister, but the 1983 “Scarface” isn’t a remake, and it owes more to “The Godfather” than to Hawks.

That’s because it sees its criminal so clearly as a person with a popular product to sell, working in a society that wants to buy. In the old days it was booze. For the Corleones, it was gambling and prostitution. Now it’s cocaine. The message for the dealer remains the same: Only a fool gets hooked on his own goods. For Tony Montana, the choices seem simple at first.

He can work hard, be honest and make a humble wage as a dishwasher. Or he can work for organized crime, make himself more vicious than his competitors and get the big cars, the beautiful women and the boot-licking attention from nightclub doormen. He doesn’t wash many dishes.

As Montana works his way into the south Florida illegal drug trade, the movie observes him with almost anthropological detachment. This isn’t one of those movies where the characters all come with labels attached (“boss,” “lieutenant,” “hit man”) and behave exactly as we expect them to. DePalma and his writer, Oliver Stone, have created a gallery of specific individuals, and one of the fascinations of the movie is that we aren’t watching crime-movie clichés, we’re watching people who are criminals.

Al Pacino does not make Montana into a sympathetic character, but he does make him into somebody we can identify with, in a horrified way, if only because of his perfectly understandable motivations. Wouldn’t we all like to be rich and powerful, have desirable sex partners, live in a mansion, be catered to by faithful servants — and hardly have to work? Well, yeah, now that you mention it. Dealing drugs offers the possibility of such a lifestyle, but it also involves selling your soul.

Montana gets it all and he loses it all. That’s predictable. What is original about this movie is the attention it gives to how little Montana enjoys it while he has it. Two scenes are truly pathetic; in one of them, he sits in a nightclub with his blond mistress and his faithful sidekick, and he’s so wiped out on cocaine that the only emotions he can really feel are impatience and boredom. In the other one, trying for a desperate transfusion of energy, he plunges his face into a pile of cocaine and inhales as if he were a drowning man.

“Scarface” understands this criminal personality, with its links between laziness and ruthlessness, grandiosity and low self-esteem, pipe dreams and a chronic inability to be happy. It’s also an exciting crime picture, in the tradition of the 1932 movie.

And, like the “Godfather” movies, it’s a gallery of wonderful supporting performances: Steven Bauer as a sidekick, Michelle Pfeiffer as a woman whose need for drugs leads her from one wrong lover to another, Robert Loggia as a mob boss who isn’t quite vicious enough, and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, as Pacino’s kid sister who wants the right to self-destruct in the manner of her own choosing.

These are the people Tony Montana deserves in his life, and “Scarface” is a wonderful portrait of a real louse.

  • Roger Ebert –  Roger Ebert
  • Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

Upon its initial release, Scarface was savaged by many critics and suffered from tepid box office performance. Opened at the height of Oscar season with awards aspirations, it was shut out by the Academy – although it did receive three Golden Globe nominations to go along with director Brian De Palma’s Worst Director Razzie nod.

Cartoonish and campy, Scarface played like a pastiche of hard-core violence and unintentional parody with a profanity-laden soundtrack so saturated with fucks that rarely does more than a few seconds without the word being uttered. (There are reported to be 226 instances of its usage.) Somewhat mysteriously, the film has acquired a large enough following during the 25-plus years since its release to push it into “cult classic” territory.

However, viewed today, while Scarface seems less shocking than it did during its initial theatrical run, it’s no more substantive or interesting. There is limited entertainment value for those who savor over-the-top, gratuitous exploitation, but the level of quality is not such that Scarface deserves a full re-evaluation by the critical community.

Technically, Scarface is a remake of a 1932 film of the same name, although only the structural skeleton remains. The decision was made to shift the action from Depression-era Chicago to Miami around the time of the 1980 Mariel Harbor boat lift as a means to give the movie new relevance. It’s interesting to note that De Palma apparently wanted to do a Chicago prohibition picture, since that’s what he did four years later with The Untouchables. However, although Scarface is set in Miami, most of it was filmed in California due to opposition from the Miami tourist board.

Scarface focuses on the rise and fall of gangster Tony Montana (Al Pacino). It begins with him arriving in Miami from Cuba along with his friend, Manny (Steven Bauer). The two quickly discover that menial work doesn’t suit them and they make themselves available for a “job” for boss Frank Lopez (Robert Loggia). A simple drug transaction goes wrong, but Tony and Manny escape with both the stash and the money.

Frank is duly impressed although his right-hand man, the slimy Omar Suarez (F. Murray Abraham), is not. Soon, Tony is one of Frank’s go-to guys, but he has aspirations of striking out on his own and not only surpassing Frank, but taking his boss’ girlfriend, Elvira (Michelle Pfeiffer). Manny also has his eye on a woman, but it’s his bad fortune that Gina (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) happens to be Tony’s sister, and that makes her “hands off.”

It’s a strange thing how a miscasting can lead to an iconic performance. Pacino, who has turned in his share of powerful and forceful portrayals over the years, is so over-the-top as Tony that the character turns into a live-action cartoon character.

It’s the campy nature of the acting that makes Tony so memorable. Sometimes, it’s as impossible to forget the really bad performances as it is the really good ones. Given Pacino’s track record, one has to assume that the ham is a result of De Palma’s direction. Subtlety has never been the director’s hallmark, but he outdoes himself here.

Pacino is not the only miscast actor. Three prominent Cubans are played by Italian Americans, and all of them are awful. In addition to Pacino, there are Robert Loggia and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio (making her feature debut). It’s hard to say whether Loggia and Mastrantonio are simply bad or whether they are undone by their accents.

At least Manny is played by real Cuban Steven Bauer, although his Latino heritage doesn’t compensate for the stiffness of his performance. The only one who comes through the movie relatively unscathed is Michelle Pfeiffer, who used Scarface as a stepping stone to transition from minor TV roles to a major motion picture career.

As mob tales go, this one is pretty standard, although it contains enough blood and gore to keep things lively. The ending, with the bizarre interaction between Gina and Tony followed by the bloodbath, provides Pacino at his scenery-chewing best and utterly undoes any pretensions Scarface has about being serious.

The scene, which is hugely entertaining, borders on farce, and every time I watch it, I wonder if that was De Palma’s intention. Does he want us to believe this is Tony going out in his vision of a blaze of glory, or is it a send-up of gangster movie endings? To this day, I’m unsure.

Amidst all the bad acting and cheesy plotting, there are some gold nuggets. The first is the infamous chainsaw scene. Some have compared what De Palma accomplishes in that sequence to what the director’s hero, Alfred Hitchcock, did when Janet Leigh took a shower in Psycho.

I won’t go that far, but it is impressive how the scene manages to suggest X-rated violence without showing explicit carnage. The sound of the saw, some splashes of blood, and a lot of frantic fast-cutting is all that’s needed to convince us we have seen something more horrific than what is before our eyes.

Another sequence that stands out is the third act restaurant scene, in which Tony realizes how pointless his life has become. Had the character been better realized and more firmly grounded, this two-minute, unbroken take would have added an element of poignancy to Tony’s downfall but, even as it is, it’s still effective. This man, who has fought and clawed his way to the top, discovers that the mountaintop is barren. What’s left? Drugs, meaningless sex, and money – pleasures of the body but not the spirit or mind.

It’s a bitter comment on the “American dream.” If life is given meaning by the pursuit of a goal then Tony has reached the end; the dream he chased so doggedly has turned into a nightmare. De Palma and screenwriter Oliver Stone are shrewd enough to include these themes in the movie, but the director hasn’t provided surrounding material of equal quality. The ideas are good; the context is weak.

Scarface contains its share of frequently quoted lines, the most common of which is probably, “Say hello to my little friend!” However, as with Bela Lugosi’s Dracula, the appeal in quoting Tony seems to be more in mimicking the accent than in repeating the actual words. Regardless of how “accurate” Pacino’s accent may be, it sounds exaggerated. Tony would probably seem more real and less of a caricature if Pacino toned it down a little.

Scarface is structured around a series of mostly warped relationships. The only one approaching normalcy is the friendship between Tony and Manny, but that goes off the track toward the end. Tony never views Elvira as a woman. She’s an object to be obtained and, once he gets her, he’s not sure what to do with her. For her part, her vision is blinded by money and her nose is full of coke. Like all mentor/student relationships in gangster films, Tony’s interaction with Frank becomes twisted by betrayal and backstabbing.

Finally, there’s Tony’s attitude toward his sister. He has an idealized vision of Gina as a virgin princess and he’s willing to kill and brutalize to keep that image intact. He would rather she be locked in a convent than consort with even the most decent man he knows. It’s too bad the movie doesn’t do a better job exploring the psychology of these two, because it might have made their final confrontation more credible.

Scarface is beautifully shot and edited. One area in which De Palma excels is in crafting the look of the film. Despite having only a couple of weeks to shoot in Miami, there’s never any reason to question that events transpire in South Florida. Of course, since it’s not a period piece, there’s no trouble capturing the feel of the era. Giorgio Moroder’s score emphasizes the time frame – the dated electronic music drips ’80s. Some movie music is timeless. That does not apply to Scarface.

It’s a little hard to understand or explain why Scarface has become ingrained in ’80s pop culture. The movie does not get better with repeat viewings – if anything, it gets worse. Maybe Scarface‘s popularity is a result of its unabashed campiness – perhaps audiences react to that on some level. There’s also the theme (although one not presented in an especially compelling manner) of the underdog slogging his way through blood and shit to reach the pinnacle, then finding there’s nothing at the top and the only trajectory is down.

That resonates, especially in an era of excess. Al Pacino could come back today without the accent and play Bernie Madoff. That would be Scarface without the gore. And maybe that’s the key to its popularity – the style and approach may be over-the-top, but some of what the film has to say is tragically universal.

  • A movie review by James Berardinelli

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Scarface (1983) Credits

Scarface movie poster

Scarface (1983)

Rated R

170 minutes

Cast

Al Pacino as Tony Montana

Steven Bauer as Manny Ray

Michelle Pfeiffer as Elvira

Robert Loggia as Frank Lopez

Directed by

  • Brian DePalma

Produced by

  • Martin Bregman

Screenplay by

  • Oliver Stone

Photographed by

  • John A. Alonzo

Edited by

  • Jerry Greenberg
  • David Ray

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Scarface (1983) Plot

In 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 his best friend Manny Ray and their companions 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 become dishwashers at an eatery, but a dissatisfied Tony proclaims that he is meant for bigger things.

Frank’s right-hand man, Omar Suarez, sends the four to purchase cocaine from Colombian dealers. The deal goes badly, however, when Tony and Angel get captured; Tony is forced to watch Angel being dismembered with a chainsaw before Manny and Chi-Chi rescue him. The three kill the Colombians and personally deliver the recovered drugs and money to Frank, suspecting that Omar set them up.

During their meeting, Tony becomes attracted to Frank’s trophy wife, Elvira. Tony and Manny begin working for Frank. Later, Tony reunites with his mother and younger sister Gina, the latter 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. During the meeting, Omar is unhappy when Tony negotiates a large deal without Frank’s approval. Sosa later claims to Tony that Omar is a police informant and has his men hang Omar from a helicopter, telling Tony that Frank has poor judgment. Tony vouches for Frank’s organization; Sosa takes a liking to Tony and agrees to the deal, but warns Tony never to betray him.

Seeing that Frank is infuriated by Omar’s death and the size of the deal with Sosa, Tony sets up an independent cocaine operation. Mel Bernstein, a corrupt police detective on Frank’s payroll, accosts Tony at a nightclub and attempts to extort money from him in return for police protection. Tony spots Gina fraternizing with a man and beats them both when he sees him grope her.

Hitmen then attempt to kill Tony, who escapes with a bullet wound. He confronts Frank and Bernstein, certain that they orchestrated the attack; Frank confesses his involvement at gunpoint and begs for his life, but Tony has Manny shoot him dead before proceeding to kill Bernstein. Tony marries Elvira and becomes the distributor of Sosa’s product, using his profits to build a multi-million-dollar business empire and construct a large, heavily-guarded estate.

In 1983, a money laundering sting operation by federal agents results in Tony being charged with tax evasion and facing a prison sentence. Sosa offers to use his government connections to keep Tony out of prison, but only if Tony helps kill an activist intending to expose Sosa’s drug operations. During dinner at an upscale restaurant, Tony accuses Manny of causing his arrest and Elvira of being an infertile junkie, prompting Elvira to leave him.

Tony travels to New York City to carry out the assassination with Sosa’s henchman, Alberto, nicknamed “The Shadow”, who plants a radio-controlled bomb under the activist’s car. However, when the activist is unexpectedly accompanied by his wife and children, a horrified Tony tries to call off the hit. Shadow refuses to back down, and Tony kills him before he can detonate the bomb.

Tony returns to Miami, where an enraged Sosa calls him to promise retribution for allowing the activist to deliver the exposé. At his mother’s behest, Tony tracks down Gina and finds her with Manny; in a fit of rage, Tony shoots Manny dead only to learn that Gina had just married him. A distraught Tony returns to his estate with Gina and begins a massive cocaine binge in his office.

Sosa’s men begin to invade the grounds and kill Tony’s guards as Gina enters the office, accusing him of wanting her for himself. She shoots and wounds him, but is killed by one of Sosa’s men whom Tony kills in turn. Tony deploys a grenade launcher-equipped rifle against the invaders, killing many of them but suffering multiple gunshot wounds.

He continues to taunt them until “The Skull,” Sosa’s top lieutenant, climbs up to the office and fatally shoots him in the back. Tony falls off the balcony and lands in a pool, at the base of a statue bearing the motto “The World Is Yours” – a message Tony had earlier seen displayed on a blimp and taken as inspiration.

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Scarface (1983) Box office

Scarface was released theatrically in North America on December 9, 1983. The film earned $4.5 million from 996 theaters during its opening weekend, an average of $4,616 per theater, and ranking as the second-highest-grossing film of the weekend behind Sudden Impact ($9.6 million), which debuted the same weekend. It went on to earn $44.6 million in North America and $20.4 million from other markets, for a total of $65.1 million.

This figure made Scarface the 16th highest-grossing film of 1983, and seventh highest grossing R-rated film in North America for 1983.[5][65] It has since been given three re-releases in 2003, which featured a remastered film for the film’s 20th anniversary, 2012, and 2014, bringing the total earned to $45.4 million domestically, for a total of $66 million worldwide.[5]

In terms of box office admissions, the film sold 14,197,700 tickets in the United States and Spain,[66] 1,067,544 tickets in France and Italy,[67] 250,746 tickets in South Korea,[68] and 195,872 tickets in Germany,[69] for a total of 15,711,862 tickets sold in these territories.

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Scarface (1983) Critical Response

The original release of Scarface was met with a negative critical response[23] and was criticized for its violence and explicit language.[70] The New York Magazine defined it as an empty, bullying, and overblown B movie.[71] Writers Kurt Vonnegut and John Irving were among those who walked out in disgust after the notorious chainsaw scene.[72] At the middle of the film, Scorsese turned to Bauer and told him: “You guys are great – but be prepared, because they’re going to hate it in Hollywood … because it’s about them”. 

Roger Ebert rated it four stars out of four in his 1983 review, and he later added it to his “Great Movies” list.[74] Ebert wrote, “DePalma and his writer, Oliver Stone, have created a gallery of specific individuals, and one of the fascinations of the movie is that we aren’t watching crime-movie clichés, we’re watching people who are criminals”.

Vincent Canby praised the film in The New York Times: “The dominant mood of the film is… bleak and futile: what goes up must always come down. When it comes down in Scarface, the crash is as terrifying as it is vivid and arresting”.[76]

Leonard Maltin was among those critics who held a negative opinion of Scarface. He gave the film 1½ stars out of four, stating that Scarface “wallows in excess and unpleasantness for nearly three hours, and offers no new insights except that crime doesn’t pay. At least the 1932 movie moved“. Maltin included an addendum to his review in later editions of his annual movie guide, stating his surprise with the film’s newfound popularity as a cult-classic.[77]

In his review for Newsweek, David Ansen wrote: “If Scarface makes you shudder, it’s from what you think you see and from the accumulated tension of this feral landscape. It’s a grand, shallow, decadent entertainment, which like all good Hollywood gangster movies delivers the punch and counterpunch of glamour and disgust”.[78] Jay Scott wrote in his review for The Globe and Mail: “For a while, Al Pacino is hypnotic as Montana.

But the effort expended on the flawless Cuban accent and the attempts to flesh out a character cut from inch-thick cardboard are hopeless”. In his review for The Washington Post, Gary Arnold wrote: “A movie that appeared intent on revealing an alarmingly contemporary criminal subculture gradually reverts to underworld cliche, covering its derivative tracks with outrageous decor and an apocalyptic, production number finale, ingeniously choreographed to leave the antihero floating face down in a literal bloodbath”. 

On review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds an 81% approval rating based on 69 reviews, with an average rating of 7.50/10. The website’s critics consensus reads: “Director Brian De Palma and star Al Pacino take it to the limit in this stylized, ultra-violent and eminently quotable gangster epic that walks a thin white line between moral drama and celebratory excess”.[81] Metacritic, which uses a weighted average, assigned the film a score of 65 out of 100 based on reviews from 9 critics, indicating “generally favorable reviews”.

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Scarface (1983) Accolades

Award Category Subject Result
Golden Globe Awards Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama Al Pacino Nominated
Best Supporting Actor – Motion Picture Steven Bauer Nominated
Best Original Score Giorgio Moroder Nominated
Motion Picture Sound Editors Golden Reel Award for Best Sound Editing Maurice Schell Nominated
Golden Raspberry Award Worst Director Brian De Palma Nominated
Satellite Award Best Classic DVD Release Nominated

The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:

  • 2003: AFI’s 100 Years…100 Heroes & Villains:
    • Tony Montana – Nominated Villain
  • 2005: AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movie Quotes:
    • Tony Montana: “Say “hello” to my little friend!” – #61
  • 2008: AFI’s 10 Top 10:
    • No. 10 Gangster Film

Notably, Scarface is the only remake to appear in the same AFI 10 Top 10 list as the original film. It is No. 10 while the 1932 original is No. 6.

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Scarface (1983) Movie Info

After getting a green card in exchange for assassinating a Cuban government official, Tony Montana (Al Pacino) stakes a claim on the drug trade in Miami. Viciously murdering anyone who stands in his way, Tony eventually becomes the biggest drug lord in the state, controlling nearly all the cocaine that comes through Miami. But increased pressure from the police, wars with Colombian drug cartels and his own drug-fueled paranoia serve to fuel the flames of his eventual downfall.

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