When I hear Brian De Palma’s name strangely not much comes to mind. I am not sure why because he directed Scarface, Carlito’s Way, The Untouchables and Bonfire of the Vanities but for some reason his name seems to stay under the radar. Be that as it may, Scarface came up in conversation over the Mariel Boatlift, Castro’s announcement that all Cubans wishing to emigrate to the U.S. were free to board boats at the port of Mariel west of Havana the first of 125,000 Cuban refugees from Mariel reached Florida the very next day. What the person I was discussing this event with didn’t know was that Castro used this opportunity to empty out some prisons and insane asylums. Enter Tony Montana a/k/a “Scarface” the one time Cuban peasant turned Miami drug lord.
I was very young when I saw this film and I think because of its hardcore nature I thought it was great. To my surprise, the film during its run was apparently shunned by many and earned Brian De Palma’s a Worst Director Razzie. Apparently this movie is like a fine wine has acquired a large enough following during the 25-plus years since its release to push it into “cult classic” category. When viewed today, Scarface seems less shocking than it did during its initial theatrical run and there is limited entertainment value for those who savor over-the-top, gratuitous exploitation, but the level of quality is I believe is such that Scarface deserves a full re-evaluation by the critical community. It has become a benchmark for other films within its genre.
Look at the numbers. Scarface was released on December 9, 1983, grossing $4.6 million in its opening weekend. The film went on to make $45.4 million in North America and $20.5 million internationally for a worldwide total of $65.9 million (over $135 million, when adjusted for inflation, as of 2010). Scarface also served as a stepping stone for Michelle Pfeiffer and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio who would each go on to bigger and better things.
Scarface is also one of a very few remakes that Hollywood got right. 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.
As far as the story goes, in 1980, Cuban refugee Tony Montana arrives in Miami during the Mariel boatlift. He, along with his best friend Manny Ribera (Steven Bauer), and their friends and associates Angel (Pepe Serna) and Chi-Chi (Ángel Salazar), are sent to “Freedom Town,” a refugee camp. In exchange for killing a former Cuban government official at the request of cocaine trafficking player Frank Lopez (Robert Loggia) in revenge for torturing his brother to death, the group is released from Freedom Town and given citizenship. Once out of Freedom Town, the gang is offered a deal by Frank’s henchman Omar Suarez (F. Murray Abraham) to buy cocaine from some Colombian dealers. The deal goes a little south and Angel Fernandez is dismembered with a chainsaw by the Colombians in the shower. Some have compared what De Palma accomplishes in that scene to what the director’s hero, Alfred Hitchcock, did when Janet Leigh took her shower in Psycho. It is impressive how the scene manages to suggest X-rated violence without showing explicit carnage the vivid 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.
After checking out some women, but too late for angel, Manny and Chi-Chi finally storm the apartment before Tony get butchered, and the Colombians are killed. Tony and Manny insist on personally giving Frank the money and drugs retrieved from the deal. Impressed, Frank hires Tony and Manny. During their meeting, Tony meets, and is instantly attracted to, Elvira Hancock (Michelle Pfeiffer), Frank’s girlfriend.
From there the film follows the rise of Montana to the dizzying height of drug kingpin to his spectacular fall in the final shootout when he famously says “Say hello to my little friend!” spoken by Montana of his M16A1’s M203-military grade grenade-launcher. And it is a long rise and fall—the film is over three hours long, probably to long for many viewers.
I can’t tell you if you’ve got a spare three hours that you must watch this film. Scarface is not for everyone—not even close. But as I noted before, the movie has become a standard by which others within its genre are measured against. That, combined with its cult classic status, make it worthy of watching for the more serious movie viewer. So don’t say I didn’t warn you, but I will watch it again simply because I like it.