Though a classic by its own merits, Brian De Palma’s Scarface (1983), starring Al Pacino as the iconic Tony Montana, is actually a remake of another classic: the original Scarface, released in 1932. While De Palma’s rendition of the gangster film is revered and reviled as one of the most gratuitously vulgar and violent movies of all time, Howard Hawk’s Scarface (1932) was originally banned in the United States for its gangster violence and anti-hero protagonist. Yet, though the 1983 version stays true to the violent spirit of the original, the remake makes a few major changes.
The story of Tony “Scarface” Montana (or Tony Camonte, as per the original version) is a now-familiar rags-to-riches tale to any mobster movie fan. Scarface is a sort of inverse bildungsroman that sees the rise of a low-level mob henchman to the top of his respective criminal empire — the bootlegging empire of Prohibition Era Chicago in the original Scarface, the ’80s Miami cocaine empire in the 1983 version. A modern day moral fable about the ultimate amoral capitalist, Scarface has achieved iconic status twice with both of its releases, each possessing seminal importance in US pop culture. Nonetheless, here are the major differences between the two.
Scarface Relocates The Original Setting
Simply put, Scarface ’32 takes place in 1920s Chicago gangland, whereas Scarface ’83 starts in 1980 Miami during the real-life Mariel boatlift (éxodo del Mariel), a mutually agreed-upon mass migration of Cubans from Cuba’s Mariel Harbor to the United States. As the introductory exposition explains in Scarface ’83, the Mariel boatlift brought as many as 125,000 Cubans to Florida, with a suspected 25,000 of the refugees having criminal records. The Carter administration’s struggles to develop an effective response to the mass influx of refugees alongside the public’s suspicion that Cuban President Fidel Castro was essentially emptying his prisons and mental health facilities onto the Mariel boatlift proved problematic for US President Jimmy Carter, creating political tension around crime and immigration that partly inspired the relocation of Scarface from an inky black-and-white 1920s Chicago to the vaporwave citrus sunshine of 1980s Miami.
With the relocation in setting also came a shift in the ethnic character and caricatures of Tony “Scarface” Camonte/Montana and his fellow mobsters. Similar to how Scarface ’83 was contending with the public perception of Cuban Americans in the early ’80s, Scarface ’32 (and its literary source material) mined its crime drama narrative from the burgeoning image of Italian Americans as swarthy mobsters and organized criminals — an image heavily popularized by the real-life gangster Al “Scarface” Capone, who inspired the original Scarface novel and film. Despite the original film’s ham-fisted attempts to overtly condemn gangsterism (which even include a prologue PSA demanding of the US government: “What are you going to do about it?“), Scarface ’32 was simultaneously criticized for sympathizing with gangsters and for defaming Italian Americans. Nonetheless, Scarface ’32 has served as an archetype of the gangster film genre that, as Scarface ’83 demonstrates, extends beyond locale and ethnicity.
Tony Montana’s Drug Problem
In the original Scarface, the drug of choice is booze, as the Italian mobsters make their bones off of bootlegging beer to certain gang-controlled regions of Prohibition Era Chicago. However, Scarface ’32 mostly ignores the central crop of the gangster economy and pays more attention to the contraband shipments of weapons, namely the Thompson submachine gun (“Tommy gun”), that Tony Camonte excitedly acquires to overtake competitive gang territories. If anything, Tony Camonte’s downfall seems to be spurned on by a power-hungry hot-headedness triggered by the Tommy gun itself. Conversely, though Scarface‘s R-rated violence and gore are ramped up to a gloriously over-the-top degree in the ’83 version, Brian De Palma’s Scarface depicts Tony Montana’s downward spiral as occurring in direct proportion to his cocaine use. “Don’t get high on your own supply,” Elvira warns Tony early in his cocaine dealings, a lesson Tony fails to heed, instigating his delirious descent into paranoia and loneliness atop the Florida cocaine empire.
Criminals Get Al Pacino’s Tony (Not Cops)
The famous ending of Scarface ’83, in which Tony Montana shouts his iconic line (“Say hello to my little friend!“), sees Tony gunned down by criminals, specifically cocaine kingpin Alejandro Sosa’s gunmen, with Tony falling off his balcony into a pool at the base of statue bearing the motto “The World Is Yours.” This motto also appears at the end of Scarface ’32 after the death of Tony Camonte, except the motto appears on an electric billboard advertisement for a business called Cook’s Tours. What’s also different about Tony Camonte’s death from Tony Montana’s is that the former is killed by cops, as a conclusion to the more conventional cops-vs-robbers plot line in Scarface ’32 that is largely absent in Scarface ’83. However, in both movies, Tony’s sister (named Cesca in Scarface ’32; Gina in ’83) is murdered by Tony’s assailants in the final shootout, which is what finally pushes him over the edge to his explosive death by murder-suicide.
Scarface Revealed More Of Tony Montana’s Backstory
The original Scarface begins more or less in media res, with Tony “Scarface” Camonte already operating within the Italian mob, albeit as a low-ranking bodyguard for the crime lord Louis Costillo. Within the first scene, Tony assassinates his boss to curry favor with John Lovo, who subsequently takes over Costillo’s territory and elevates Tony within the mafia pecking order. Tony’s betrayal doesn’t end there, as he increasingly acts on his own to further ascend the ranks of Chicago’s gang scene. Through Paul Muni’s exceptional acting, Tony Camonte comes alive as a fully realized character with clearly understood motives. If anything, his lack of a backstory works to highlight his simple-minded nature; his idiot savant-like drive and competence to attain power within the world of organized crime.
Tony Montana, on the other hand, is afforded more of a backstory within the early scenes of Brian De Palma’s Scarface; although his “origin story” as a Cuban refugee seems designed to offer greater historical and cultural context to his story more so than to flesh out Tony Montana’s character. For all intents and purposes, Tony Montana is just as simple-minded in his ambitions as Tony Camonte; though Montana does seem to have a more rabid Napoleon Complex than his predecessor, suggested by actor Al Pacino’s seemingly deliberately unconcealed 5′ 5″ height and all-around cruder and more irascible persona, as compared to Paul Muni’s somewhat more sly, witty interpretation of Tony “Scarface” Camonte. In either case, though Scarface ’83 does offer its anti-hero protagonist more of a backstory than Scarface ’32 with the former’s Mariel boatlift intro, both movies seem content to characterize Scarface through his present personality over his past.
Elvira Leaves Tony In Scarface
Poppy (Karen Morley) and Elvira (Michelle Pfeifer) respectively play the same role in the original Scarface crime movie and De Palma’s remake. Once Tony (both Camonte and Montana) commits his first assassination to curry favor with the crime lord he serves next, Tony recklessly shows immediate attraction to his superior’s girlfriend: Poppy in Scarface ’32, Elvira in ’83. While Poppy serves mostly as a subplot to the overarching narrative of Scarface ’32, seemingly with the sole purpose of emphasizing Tony Camonte’s relentless (and reckless) will to power, Elvira has more of a moral and judgmental presence in Tony Montana’s life — however aloof and apathetic she initially seems to the men’s criminal dealings. Whereas Poppy simply vanishes from the plot by the third act, Elvira abandons Tony Montana, highlighting his self-inflicted loneliness by the end of De Palma’s Scarface.
Interestingly, the only characters who seem to affect Tony’s self-worth are the women in his life: his mother, his sister, and his lover. His mother’s disapproval of his criminal lifestyle, his sister’s attraction to his partner-in-crime, and his lover’s rejection — all of these moments seem to affect Tony emotionally in ways that are mostly unavailable to his male peers. Naturally, as a student of Hitchcock, Brian De Palma seems apt to explore (or, at least, lay bare) the Freudian dimensions of Tony’s psyche, as is typical of De Palma’s filmography. Nonetheless, by having Elvira leave Tony in Scarface, De Palma’s version of the story creates a richer character study with Tony “Scarface” Montana than the original 1932 version.