Scarface (Howard Hawks, 1932 & Brian De Palma, 1983)


Remake special, round 3:

Scarface (Howard Hawks, 1932)



Scarface (Brian De Palma, 1983)

I had a yen for early 1930s film noir (since my noir expertise is pretty much confined to the names Humphrey Bogart and Billy Wilder and the decade of the 1940s), so I figured I’d kill two birds with one stone and take on one of the most famous early noirs and also get the remake out of the way since I’m pretty much the last person on earth to see it. Truth be told, I almost regretted it in the first 2 minutes of the original with that message that gang violence = bad and we have to do something about it…it was basically a P.S.A. to guilt-trip you into writing to your congressman. But I decided to give it a chance…it was the Hayes Code era, after all, and people were uber-puritan back then. And ideologically, story-wise and dialogue-wise at least, this was basically Reefer Madness, replacing weed with gangsters. There were points where the narrative just came to a complete halt so that some cops and other upstanding citizens can basically talk right to the audience, giving advice on how the common man can put an end to gangland culture, and that was absolutely infuriating.

Other than that, there were two redeeming qualities of Scarface that I thought made it the noir/crime classic that it is: Paul Muni’s wonderful performance, and the overall look and feel of the film. Thank god I watched this before Pacino’s performance in the remake, so that I was able to appreciate Muni’s Tony as a character who, granted, is portrayed as over-the-top, but whose range of emotions are also great and varied. He’ll push you around and definitely gives off an air of confidence about him, but also has his concealed weaknesses, namely his obsession with his sister. Of course his performance, like all the others, are chock full of circa-1930s clichés like the fake macho language, but I thought it was a surprisingly layered performance for the time, especially his final violent spree of both agony and glee with his equally agonized/gleeful sister.

As for the look and feel, the image I’ve included pretty much says it all. For a film from the 1930s, Scarface really pulls few punches when it comes to spurts of violence. They’re quick, non-glamorized (except maybe for that little bit with the comic relief of Tony’s inept secretary, which I happened to like a lot), and if Howard Hawks and Ben Hecht had only relied on this unglamorous portrayal of violence and the layered characters to get across their criticism of gang culture instead of the Sunday sermon technique, this film would’ve been a masterpiece. There were also wonderfully moody images (like the one included of course), especially with that implicitly frequent incorporation of the cross and the letter X. That last confrontation between Tony and his sister, with the light and shadows, was perfect, and like I said, the absolutely manic feel of that and the following shoot-out, leading up to the “The World is Yours” phrase made famous by the remake, shows a filmmaker at his very finest. I’d say in terms of the visuals and mood, this was a step or so below Fritz Lang’s “M”, and that’s still really saying something, some terrible writing (even for the ‘30s) aside.

And then comes De Palma’s remake: the seminal gangster film of the last 30 years, the seminal role of Al Pacino post-Godfather, and the seminal influence of hip-hop artists near and far…so famous that the reason I’d avoided it until now was because it was so famous and I just knew it was going to be overrated. And 3 hours later, it’s definitely overrated when considering there are those who call it an all-time great film, and it’s far too long, but fuck it, I liked it. I liked it a lot, actually…for some right reasons and for some wrong reasons. Just like with just about every De Palma film, the word subtlety is thrown out the window from the first frame, from Pacino who chews more scenery than even Kirk Douglas in Ace in the Hole to the unbelievably exorbitant colors and settings, especially after Tony’s rise to power. It’s probably one of the most over-the-top movies I’ve ever seen, but it actually works, mainly because it’s a picture-perfect product of its times. If the original Scarface defined the gangland / Hayes code culture of the 1930s, then the remake is the 1980s, from the leisure suits to the nightclubs to the Karate Kid-like “Take it to the Limit” montage to Tony’s mansion to Giorgio Moroder’s synthesizer score to F. Murray Abraham just…being in a movie at all: all ridiculous, but all fitting perfectly into the culture that thrived around the movie. A lot of Oliver Stone’s screenplay and dialogue is cheesy, but like everything else, it fits right in with the values and culture of the 80s, and with the just-as exorbitant characters saying them, and in that regard and others, a lot of that screenplay actually felt natural to me, and really worked.

Like it or not Godfather fans (especially myself), this is going to be the role that defines Al Pacino’s long and distinguished career, and while Michael Corleone is certainly the more layered and complex performance, this is certainly his most memorable. Tony Montana is, easily and without question, the most over-the-top main character and performance I’ve seen in a very long time, but as over-the-top as it is, I think it worked so well just because it’s so memorable. Screw poignancy and realism, that’s not Tony’s m.o., and it’s certainly not what Pacino’s going for. Tony wants the world and everything in it, whether it’s within his reach or not, and likely not even he knows why or how he’ll get it, other than through pure impulse. A movie as flamboyant as this needs a pro/antagonist just as flamboyant, and Tony Montana fills that role perfectly. From the first moment I know that I shouldn’t, and in fact don’t even want to, look for a performance invoking internal conflict and realism. This is a film relying on raw energy and pure exaggeration to get its point across, in a way that the preachy original failed to do. Scenes of Tony in a ridiculously huge bathtub and even more ridiculously over-made office and mansion, mounds of coke and all, invoke laughs, sure, but also comment on such an overly-exorbitant and greedy lifestyle without quite stating it explicitly…that one image of a coked-out Tony, powder covering his nose as he simply sits slumped in his desk chair as Moroder’s depressing synthesizer track plays in the background, says everything the film needs to about hubris, a greedy man’s rise and fall, and wanting the world and losing it.

Too long? Absolutely. Flamboyant and over-the-top? Brian De Palma wouldn’t have it any other way. Clearly it’s not a prototypical “masterpiece” like you’d expect out of a depressing, introspective Bergman drama or a masterfully-written neo-noir a la Chinatown, but something about it completely clicked with me, so the planets must’ve aligned somehow. You never know sometimes.


Scarface (1932): 8/10

Scarface (1983): 8.5/10


4 comments so far

  1. asdf on

    I haven’t seen either version yet. But what you saw about Hawks’ version depresses me. I was hoping for a movie that would whack the Hayes Code off its feet. Guess not. 😦

  2. Simon M. on

    In terms of the violence, it definitely whacks the Hayes Code off its feet. The only place it doesn’t do that is some of the preachy dialogue…a lot of which is pretty risqué for the early ’30s anyway, so this is really a pretty non-Hayes-ian kind of movie, despite what I wrote.

  3. Simon M. on

    wait, what am I saying? The Hayes Code didn’t even come around until 1934!

  4. ie on

    “I had a yen”?

    You mean, I had a yeaaarrning?

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