Tony Montana: Me, I want what’s coming to me.
Manny Ribera: Oh, well what’s coming to you?
Tony Montana: The world, chico, and everything in it.
Producer Martin Bregman was watching TV late one night when 1932’s “Scarface” came on.
Directed by Howard Hawk and Richard Rosson, and starring Paul Muni, “Scarface” is the story of a prohibition era gangster named Tony Camonte whose quick trigger finger leads him to the top of the mob. Disregarding his boss’ orders, Camonte strikes out at rival mobsters, staking claim to new territories on his own. Camonte even makes moves on the his boss’ girl. When his boss puts out a hit on him, Camonte survives, and exacts his revenge. His hot-headed temper gets him in trouble though when he finds that his sister and his right hand man are romantically involved. He guns his sister’s lover down in anger and retreats to his fortified apartment to await a showdown with the cops.
Bregman knew he wanted to make an updated version of it, and from the start, the person he saw in the lead was Al Pacino. Pacino had recently seen the movie himself (he claims HE was the one who called Bregman to propose the project), and was in. Universal had just purchased the rights to the film from the estate of Howard Hughes (who produced the original), so things were lining up.
Bregman approached Brian De Palma to direct. De Palma was finishing editing on 1981’s “Blowout” (starring John Travolta) at the time, and was intrigued by the notion of shooting a gangster film. However, after unsuccessfully attempting to put a period piece script together with playwright David Rabe (think Chicago and Tommy guns), De Palma dropped out.
So Bregman turned to friend and previous collaborator Sidney Lumet (the two had made “Serpico” and “Dog Day Afternoon” together with Al Pacino). Lumet wasn’t all that interested in making a period piece gangster film, but he did have an excellent, game changing idea for the film.
Why not update the setting to (then) modern-day Miami, and focus on the Cocaine Wars?
Bregman was sold. And he had the perfect man to write the script. Oliver Stone.
Stone, who would later become a renown, Oscar-winning director, began his career in movies as a screenwriter. In 1979, he won an Academy Award for his adaptation of “Midnight Express”. He scored another big hit by scripting 1982’s “Conan the Barbarian”. However, his directorial debut, the 1981 Michael Caine vehicle, “The Hand”, had been an umitigated flop.
So when Bregman offered him the job writing “Scarface”, Stone was in a position where he needed the money. He was also in a unique position to write it due to the fact that he was using cocaine himself at that time. He had begun heavy abuse while writing “Conan”, and all through directing “The Hand”. Now, his habit would be an inroad to Miami and South America’s cocaine underground.
Stone flew to Miami and began doing investigative reporting on both sides of the law. He interviewed drug dealers and cops. Smugglers and DEA agents. He would score coke from dealers, get wired with them, and ask questions. Occasionally, he wound up in danger – mortal danger – from dealers who thought he was a narc. From Miami, he went to the Caribean, and into South America countries, including Ecuador, Columbia, and Bolivia.
When it was over, his coke habit was out of control. To actually write the screenplay, he had to leave America (he went to Paris) in order to quit cocaine cold turkey. He literally wrote the script for “Scarface” while recovering from cocaine addiction.
When he was finished, he had a screenplay that Bregman and Pacino liked very much, but Sidney Lumet found vulgar. Lumet had also been hoping that some political commentary would have worked its way into the screenplay, he felt that Reagan era policies contributed to the situation in Miami at the time. But Bregman and Stone felt politics was the kiss of death in a film, and refused to work it in. Lumet dropped out.
The project was no safe bet, however. De Palma was known for small thrillers, not big budget movies. And Pacino, at that particular moment in his career, was in a lull. After “Dog Day Afternoon”, Pacino had seen modest success with “…And Justice for All”, but “Bobby Deerfield”, “Cruisin'”, and “Author! Author!” had been disappointments, to say the least. Stone, of course, was still looking for the big hit that would give him enough clout to transition to directing full-time.
The stakes were high for all involved.
In order to get the accent he would use for the film, Al Pacino worked with a dialect coach, then spent time grilling the Cuban members of the cast (Ángel Salazar, as Chi Chi, and Steven Bauer as Manny Ribera, a part that John Travolta was considered for) on pronunciation.
The cast was being put through a rigorous audition process. Multiple reads were required for every actor/actress. Especially for Michelle Pfeiffer for the part of Elvira Hancock. Pfeiffer was a relative unknown at the time, but the studio was pushing her. Bregman wanted a bigger name… he wouldn’t even pay Pfeiffer’s flight to New York to read for the part. But Pfeiffer paid her own way out and auditioned. De Palma and Bregman were sold, but Pacino wasn’t. He wanted Glenn Close for the role. Eventually, however, De Palma was able to win him over, and Pfeiffer got the part.
Shooting was initially intended to be done exclusively in Miami. However, word of the film got out and the Cuban community began to protest. A Miami City Commissioner named Demetrio Perez was particularly vocal and began taking his feelings about the film to the local press. Filming permits were denied (only one scene was actually filmed in Miami: the exterior shots at the Sun Ray Motel). The production began receiving death threats, including Pacino.
The decision was made to shift the production back to California.
Which was one of many factors that was swelling the budget and the shooting schedule. Pacino was a perfectionist who was demanded rehearsal time up front (two weeks were set up), and was trying multiple takes of practically every line in order to get his accent perfect. De Palma was taking his first big budget film seriously, and setting up several difficult, involved camera shots that wound up costly and time-consuming to execute. All the while, he had to contend with a complaining, kibitzing Oliver Stone, who was on set (by Bregman’s request). Pacino burned his hand on the muzzle of the M16 with grenade launcher (his “Lil friend”) and was out of shooting for two weeks. What was scheduled to be a two month shoot lasted seven months.
But the going over budget and over schedule were only the beginning of the trouble for Scarface. Editors were faced with an extraordinary amount of footage to cut, after all of the various takes and camera angles. And when they did get it cut? The MPAA wouldn’t give it an R rating.
De Palma’s first three submissions to the MPAA were given X ratings for “Excessive and cumulative violence”, plus all the profanity (there are over 200 F-bombs in the film). Eventually, Bregman had to intercede. He treated the MPAA hearing as a day in court and brought in experts, including DEA agents and journalists, to testify to the film’s authenticity and to the importance of its “message”. His tactics were successful, and the film’s third cut was given an R.
De Palma, however, was embittered by the process. Realizing that the studio had no idea what cut was which, he gave them the original cut – which had actually been given an X rating by the MPAA – to actually release into theatres.
When it was released, critics savaged the movie. They vilified the film for its shocking levels of violence, drug abuse and profanity. They also disparaged its bleak tone and irredeemable characters. The central character is a cold-hearted killer who rises to power through the sale of cocaine, prior to losing control of himself on drugs and ruining the lives of everyone who ever cared for him. Critics felt there wasn’t much to root for.
Audiences didn’t exactly embrace the film upon release, either. Released December 9th, 1983, “Scarface” was a Holiday Season release. It wasn’t the type of film that audiences are seeking at that time of year. It grossed a mere $45 million domestically, barely entering the top 20 for the year (16th).
It was not the success that any involved had hoped for. In fact, the critical panning made the film feel like a backfire. Brian De Palma was even nominated for a Razzie for worst director.
With the advent of cable television and VCRs, “Scarface” was given a new life on home video. Teens and kids at the time (who were too young to see it in theatres) latched on to it. The controversy surrounding the film had built up expectations, and “Scarface” rapidly became a cult hit. Kids began rewatching it and learning the lines, quoting it. It became especially influential in the hip-hop community, where today it’s hailed as a classic.
It was the perfect film for the early 80s. Everything was done to excess. The blood, the drugs and the F-bombs all created an intoxicating cocktail of destiny, decadence and death. There was tons of violence, over the top characters, and a plot revolving around greed and the gangster life.
And it was all capped off by one of the most memorable onscreen performances ever, Al Pacino’s Tony Montana.
Tony Montana is a hot-headed Cuban immigrant who enters the country with nothing, but due to his willingness to kill and his brash attitude, he quickly winds up involved in a high level cocaine distribution operation. After muscling his boss out of the way, he takes the girl and anything else that he wants. Of course, his greed gets the best of him, and his empire begins to topple once his reach exceeds his grasp. Worse still is the fact that his cocaine abuse causes him to strike out at his own friends and family just when he’s the most vulnerable.
It’s the classic “rise and fall” tale, delivered with a cocaine frosting. And Pacino gleefully takes it over the top with his snarling, sneering, thick accented Tony Montanna. It’s easily one of his best performances, even though it’s far from his most subtle. There’s an electricity to it. At certain points, Tony turns on the charm, and you really want to root for him… he’s likeable, funny, smart. At other times, he lashes out with his temper and you can see that he’s a volcano waiting to explode.
And explode he does. In one of the most explosive finales in movie history, Tony Montana stands alone against a Columbian death squad. Coked up, out of control, refusing to go out without a fight… “SAY HELLO TO MY LIL FRIEND!”
It’s an unforgettable, quotable, incredible film. Multiple rewatches may render it more of a dark comedy than the cautionary tale it was intended to be, but that doesn’t make the film any less delicious. Every cast member is perfect. Robert Loggia, F Murray Abraham, Steven Bauer, Harris Yulin, Michelle Pfeiffer, they all perfectly support Pacino’s overpowering central character. Cartoonish and overexaggerated? Perhaps. But intoxicating to watch, and completely unforgettable without a doubt.
“Scarface” has become a pop culture touchstone, the likes of which few movies can compare to. It’s given rise to immeasurable amounts of merchandise and countless bad impressions. It’s insanely quotable and endlessly rewatchable.
It’s definitely a “Movie That Everyone Should See“.