Brian DePalma was always one of those directors during the 1960s and 1970s who seemed to be on the finge of Hollywood. So, it’s no surprise that he wasn’t the first choice to direct a remake of the 1932 Howard Hawks original Scarface. It was actually Sidney Lumet who Al Pacino and his manager/film producer Martin Bregman wanted. They had worked together before. DePalma was still making Alfred Hitchcock-inspired thrillers like Dressed to Kill and Blow Out when he was tap to direct.
It’s been reported that a premiere of the movie in New York City on Dec. 1, 1980, a young Eddie Murphy, the star of Saturday Night Live, turned to Pacino and DePalma after the credits roll and told them, he loved it. But Murphy also told them not a lot of other people would. And truth be told, the crime saga running about two hours and fifty minutes long with credits was very hated. Kurt Vonnegut Jr. and John Irving both walked out during the scene where Colombian drug dealers use a chainsaw on a character, even though it’s very tame by some of today’s standards.
The movie set the Guinness record for the most use of the F-bomb over 200 times. Some reports say it’s used 207 times. Others say it’s more like 230. Either way, it was huge for the time. It had been only 13 years since the F-word was said during MASH. Now, there are dozens of other movies with more use of it. And the movie’s violence wasn’t for the squeamish. Not only does Tony Montana (Pacino) have to watch while his good friend, Angel (Pepe Serna) is dismembered by a chainsaw, but a crime associate, Omar Saurez (F. Murray Abraham) is roughed up by Bolivian gangsters and thrown out of a helicopter with a noose around his neck. It was a brutal movie n which characters are shot, stabbed, garroted and even crushed by lighting fixtures.
Pacino had appeared in the first two Godfather movies which pushed the envelope. But if The Godfather was a filet mignon dinner with a nice Chianti of a gangster movie, Scarface is the double bacon cheeseburger deluxe with the chilicheese fries and the extra large Coke equivalent. It may not be good for you, but damn it, it’s so fucking tasty. And you need to indulge your senses every now and again. The movie is actually the ultimate morality play. No matter what you think, getting involve in the drug distribution business only has one conclusion – you’re eventually are killed.
The movie begins with the Mariel boatlift of 1980 where over the course of about six months, Cuba lifted its embargo and allowed 125,000 Cubans to go Florida. But what Americans didn’t know was that Fidel Castro had made the boats carry many criminals with them. About a fifth of those who arrived in Florida had a criminal record, Tony is one of them as he tries to play it off to immigration officials he wasn’t.
His friend, Manolo “Manny” Ray (Steven Bauer who was really born in Cuba) is with him at Freedomtown along with others when Manny has arranged for them to get green cards and jobs. However, they have to do something in return. Frank Lopez (Robert Loggia) is a popular car dealer in Miami as well as a cocaine smuggler. He wants them to kill a former general who Castro has exiled who was responsible for the death of Frank’s family member. They do this during a riot at Freedomtown to cover it up, get their green cards and leave.
Initially working at a roadside restaurant, they are recruited by Omar, who butts heads with Tony, to purchase cocaine from the Colombians at a motel. As I’ve mentioned earlier, the drug deal goes bad, because they all do. But Tony was expecting a double-cross so while Angel is killed, Manny and their other friend, Chi Chi (Angel Salazar) who remained in the car for a few minutes are able to stop it before Tony is killed.
They deliver the cocaine and money in a meeting to Frank over Omar’s objection and Frank becomes friendly with Tony and Manny asking them to work for him. And Tony puts his eye on Frank’s much younger blonde wife, Elvira (Michelle Pfeiffer in a star-turning role). Over time Tony and Manny become more successful as Tony becomes more interested in Elvira. Tony also tracks down his estranged mother, Mama Montana (Miriam Colon) and his younger sister, Gina (Mary Elizabeth Mastratonio), who are already living in the Miami arra offering money and gifts. But Mama rejects Tony because of his past and says he’s a bad influence on Gina because he’s no different than other Cuban immigrants on the news committing crimes.
Later, Tony accompanies Omar to Bolivia for a meeting with a cocaine manufacturer/crime boss Alejandr Sosa (Paul Shenar) who wants Frank to do a bigger deal than what he planned. Tony piques Sosa’s interest by saying they can possibly meet halfway in Panama which angers Omar who is later killed when he says he’s going to have to discuss this plan with Frank in person. But Sosa says that Omar was identified by an associate as an informant for police in NYC and killed.
Back in Miami, Frank and Tony part ways after Frank gets angry with him over what happened in Bolivia and Tony and Manny begin their own enterprise. However, Frank double-crosses him by sending a corrupt cop Mel Bernstein (Harris Yulin) to extort money out of Tony. And Frank later sends two hitmen to kill him at a nightclub but Tony recognizes them and manages to get away killing both.
Tony, Manny and Chi Chi then go to Frank’s dealership where they get him to confess before they kill him and Mel. With some competition gone, Tony begins his empire and marries Elvira. He puts the money into private business including a boutique for Gina who has Manny is interested in and she’s interested in him. But Tony learns that he can’t keep washing the money without paying the dirty bankers more.
Eventually, just as quickly as it began, it begins to fall apart. His marriage to Elvira isn’t what neither wants as she spends most of her days, doing cocaine and other drugs as well as drinking. Tension rise between Tony and Manny when Tony makes the comment that Manny who he has made head of security is just a junior partner. And when Manny tries to set up a deal with another person to laundry the money, Tony says he’s going to the arrangement himself.
However, it ends up being a sting operation by the feds and Tony is arrested on tax evasion and conspiracy complaints. His lawyer says that they can beat the conspiracy charge but the tax evasion will require him to do time in prison. However, Tony doesn’t want to go back to prison, even if it’s in America and he turns to Sosa for help. But in the end, he finds there’s no honor among criminals and Sosa orders a seige on his house that ends with everyone including Tony being killed.
Despite being almost three hours, the movie movies at a fast pace as it presents the quick rise and quicker downfall of Tony, whose own arrogance destroys him. Tony becomes greedy and lives a lavish lifestyle of excess because “nothing exceeds like excess.” He even has a tiger on his property. At one point, he has a huge mountain pile of cocaine on his desk that he just buries his head into to take a snort as his associates can only watch and see him crumble.
His abuse gets the best of him. Elvira leaves him after he publicly insults her at a public and very fancy restaurant. He then discovers that Manny and Gina have gotten married and shoots Manny when he shows up at an address where Mama says she was at only to be greeted by Manny wearing just a robe. I think he would’ve killed Manny regardless if he was clothed or not.
Production of Scarface was controversial for its portrayal of Cuban immigrants that a lot of it was filmed in southern California. The Miami Tourist Board declined requests for filming to be in the area and Cuban-American civic groups protested the production. There’s even a disclaimer in the end credits explaining that the story is fictional and not a factual representation of Cuban-Americans nor should it be considered a stereotype or criticism. There were similar criticism among Italian-Americans over The Godfather. There was criticism to the casting of Pacino and Loggia as cubans and Abraham, a Syrian-American, as a Latino as well as Shenar, of European ancestry, as a Bolivian.
The movie also faced a setback in shooting when Pacino accidentally grabbed the barrel of the M-16 rifle he was using and suffered burns on his hand. He had to spend two weeks recovering. It’s been reported that they shot most of the siege scenes without Pacino or using doubles. DePalma’s friend Steven Spielberg was on set for a while and shot and directed some of this footage.
In the end, Scarface‘s influence wouldn’t be on Cuban-Americans but the hip-hop/R&B/rap culture as many performing artists would draw on the movie in their music video, album covers and even in their music using samples of dialogue. One performer, Bradley Terrence Jordan, goes by the rap name Scarface. In many ways, Tony is about excess and rappers are often putting on a wild show with extravagant jewelry and flashy cars.
But aside from that, it’s one of Pacino’s most memorable performances. As Michael Corleone, he played a young innocent Marine who gets roped by accident into the “family business” that it turns him bitter and cold inside. Tony is the exact opposite. He wants everyone to know he’s the center of attention. Even his bathtub is bigger than most people’s swimming pools. But in the end, all of that excess does him in. With a beautiful musical score by Giorgio Moroder and a musical soundtrack including Blondie, public opinion and critical reviews have changed over the years. It’s now one of the classic crime sagas of all time.
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