Denigrated by audiences and critics for its ultra-violent scenes when it was released, in 1983, Scarface has matured into a fully-fledged gangster classic. That’s as it should be, as the film features four movie legends – Al Pacino, director Brian De Palma, then-screenwriter Oliver Stone and producer Martin Bregman – working at the height of their powers.
The remake of a 1932 movie of the same name, itself based on a book about the life of notorious Chicago gangster Al Capone, Scarface is a scathing critique of greed, avarice and the American dream. Shifting the original’s Chicago setting to 1980s Florida, the story focuses on Tony Montana (Pacino), an ambitious Cuban immigrant intent on becoming a drugs baron in the United States.
Coveting his gangster boss’ sullen girlfriend (Michelle Pfeiffer, then unknown) as well as his drug-smuggling organisation, Montana employs his vicious nature and fearless heart to take over the Florida drugs trade and make himself millions. But his unvarnished arrogance and his raging temper ultimately threaten to trump his murderous power plays.
Envisioning himself as Scarface, Pacino had the idea to remake the 1932 film after seeing it at the cinema, and persuaded producer Bregman, who was also his manager, to get the production under way. Pacino is in almost every scene; he smoulders his way through the film with his customary intensity, moving erratically from moody introspection to incendiary violence.
Although there are some exaggerated gunplay sequences, Pacino’s character is no cartoon, and the actor brings method acting and his knowledge of Shakespeare to the role. The magnificent desolation of the final scenes has Pacino drawing on Macbeth and Richard III, the star’s favourite Shakespearean characters.
Sidney Lumet was originally hired to direct – he was responsible for the story update from Chicago to Florida – but he wanted to make a more political film than Pacino and Bregman had in mind. As soon as De Palma came on board, he quickly made the movie his own. Known then as a visual stylist with a Hitchcock obsession, for films such as Carrie (1976) and Dressed to Kill (1980), De Palma envisioned Scarface as a classically styled epic on the scale of The Godfather (1972).
Screenwriter Stone, for his part, was a little too close to the story for comfort – a cocaine addict, he left the US for France in an attempt to break his habit while writing the script.
The high body count did not play well with the Hollywood set, who claimed it was too violent, but Hongkongers used to local action films probably wondered what all the fuss was about.
Scarface will be screened on November 6 and 25 at The Grand Cinema, in West Kowloon, as part of the Cine Fan programme.