Due to my age and upbringing, I skew heavily in favor of more recent movies on this blog. But today is a special day: I’m going to throw my weight behind a film that’s nearly 100 years old. WHAT??? I actually saw the 1932 version of Scarface in one of my college film history classes; it’s not an instant classic, but I recognized the impact the film had on the gangster genre. As an added bonus, it clocks in at a short and sweet 95 minutes…which is more than I can say for the remake starring one Al Pacino. At nearly twice the length, the 1983 Scarface in no way improves upon the original nor attempts to say anything different, which should be the main goals of any remake.
Let’s start with Pacino, everyone’s favorite Cuban actor…wait, what? In the fifty years since the original Scarface, someone in Hollywood decided to update the setting from 1920s Chicago to 1980s Florida. Makes sense as a reflection of modern drug culture, but then they had to go and cast Pacino, who’s decidedly…um…not Cuban. In fact, he comes from an Italian background, which would’ve better suited the 1932 movie if they had kept the original iteration of the character Tony Camonte, an Italian immigrant. Instead, his culturally appropriated Tony Montana sounds like Sylvester Stallone at the end of the first Rocky. I don’t know what accent he thinks he’s doing, but it made parts of the film completely unintelligible. You couldn’t give the part to a young Andy Garcia?
Perhaps more atrocious than the casting of Pacino is the writing. Oliver Stone, who later became an acclaimed director himself, penned the screenplay while battling his own cocaine addiction (research purposes?) and it shows. Everyone obviously knows the iconic line “say hello to my little friend,” but here are a few others that made me audibly groan:
“I always tell the truth. Even when I lie.”
“This town is like a great big [insert other name for cat] just waiting to get [F-worded].”
“All I have in this world is my balls and my word and I don’t break them for no one.”
There are many more, most of which prominently feature profanity, but it feels like this version of Scarface was trying too hard to glamorize the criminal lifestyle that the dialogue was written as over-the-top as possible to match. It clearly worked because this is the one poster you’ll find most often in college dorm rooms (along with Pulp Fiction).
Furthermore, I don’t think Scarface holds up if you watch it today. First of all, Tony Montana’s relationship with his sister Gina borders on Cersei-and-Jaime territory. Even though she’s visibly drugged at the end, it’s still unsettling to see a younger sister slowly exposing herself to her older coke-riddled brother while whispering, “is this what you want, Tony?” Sure, the 1932 version also depicts a close sibling relationship, but it never reached incest level. Speaking of Tony’s sister, there’s a crucial plot point involving her that makes absolutely no sense in both versions. In short, Tony sees his best friend Manny (played by Steven Bauer, the only actual Cuban in the cast) with Gina and kills him in a fit of rage. As she’s weeping over his dead body, she reveals that the two had secretly married and were planning to surprise Tony. Let me stop you right there: in what universe do you think Tony Montana, one of the most abrasive and uncontrollable criminals out there, likes surprises? After the last run-in with a boyfriend, Gina really thought it would be a good idea to elope with Tony’s right-hand man? It’s a colossally stupid move that serves as the final nail in the coffin for Tony; by losing Manny and essentially alienating his sister in the process, there’s no one left in his life (not to mention Michelle Pfeiffer walking out on him), leading him to go crazy in the final shootout.
Remaking Scarface is not the problem here; there are themes relating to corruption and the abuse of power that you can continue exploring in the crime genre, even with the same source material. But this gross misuse of excess is not the answer. Every aspect is bloated from the runtime to the bullets to the heaping pile of cocaine on Pacino’s desk. The characters are creepy, misogynistic, and generally unlikable. Brian De Palma and Oliver Stone attempt to replicate the greatness that Scorsese put forth around the same time, but it just comes off as a discount version. To make matters worse, they dedicate the film to Howard Hawks and Ben Hecht (director and writer of the 1932 original respectively); I can’t imagine what a slap in the face that would’ve been to those two individuals if they had been alive to witness a far inferior dramatization of the same story. Just do yourself a favor and watch Goodfellas instead.
*I don’t know why I hate “cult classics” so much. First Big Trouble in Little China, then Temple of Doom, and now this. I guess I just don’t see the appeal; the parts of Scarface and those other films that specifically bother me clearly don’t have the same effect on my peers. Maybe I’ll come around in the future, but in the meantime, I’m thankful it gave me three more writing ideas.