It’s arguably the most influential gangster film of all time and without it we wouldn’t have The Godfather, Goodfellas and pretty much any other ultra-violent gangster film since. Everyone quotes the Pacino movie ad-nauseam but the original rarely gets a mention.
The interesting thing about Scarface from 1932 is how similar the story is in the remake; some scenes are almost identical in terms of tone and considering it’s from 1932 it’s pretty violent too.
This was made during the “Pre-Code” era of Hollywood, which was adopted in 1930.
Pre-Code Hollywood refers to the era in the American film industry between the introduction of sound in the late 1920s and the enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code censorship guidelines. Apparently, oversight was poor and it did not become rigorously enforced until July 1, 1934.
Before that date, movie content was restricted more by local laws, negotiations between the Studio Relations Committee and the major studios, and popular opinion, than strict adherence to the Hays Code, which was often ignored by Hollywood filmmakers.*
As a result, films in the late 1920s and early 1930s included sexual innuendo, profanity, illegal drug use, promiscuity, prostitution, infidelity, abortion, intense violence, and more.
Scarface has multiple shoot-outs and but rather than glorifying the violence, it’s actually trying to bring attention to the crimes going on at the time. The opening credits point the finger at the government for their lack of action in bringing these gangsters to justice:
It was a film that wasn’t afraid to take risks and still manages to shock after all these years.
But enough rambling from me; let’s take a look at the two Scarface films and see which one truly is the best.
First of all let’s look at the character; the 1932 film has Paul Muni playing Tony Camonte; Muni does a stellar job as Tony who is every bit as insane as Al Pacino’s incarnation 50 years later. He’s a sociopath whose behaviour is unpredictable and you never know when he’s going to lash out at someone. He is a little more restrained than Pacino but there is no denying he is utterly insane. He has the overly protective obsession with his sister Cesca who is played to perfection by Ann Dvorak. Tony’s sister would be played by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio in the 1983 remake and their relationship would arguably be a bit creepier with less subtle incestuous tones.
In the Brian DePalma remake, Al Pacino plays Tony Montana and is the perfect example of 80’s excess. Everything is over the top; the gaudy clothes, big houses and bigger hair-styles. Rather than being a thinly veiled story about Al Capone, like the original, Pacino’s Scarface is about a Cuban refugee who comes into America and works/kills his way to the top of d rug empire. As the tagline goes “He loves the American dream… with a Vengeance.”
Pacino is very controlled for the first half as Tony is almost naive about the business he’s entered and if he sees something, he takes it without worrying about the consequences. As he starts getting high on his own supply, his eyes grow deader and his sanity slips father away until his classic meltdown at the end.
For this round I have to say it’s a tie; I think both actors give stellar performances and managed to bring different facets to a similar character. Muni’s worked for 1932 and Pacino’s worked for 1983; both actors manage to create men who are tragic and terrifying all at once.
As you all know I’m a big fan of movie music, especially scores; what’s most interesting about the original Scarface is that it barely has any music. This really works to its advantage as it adds to the realism of the story. Whereas many movies during this era would have loud rather tuneless scores, the lack of music makes it all the more atmospheric and it’s the performances which really shine the most.
The Al Pacino/Brian DePalma movie has a score from Giorgio Moroder which is done electronically and sadly a little dated sounding now. It still works though with the theme perfectly giving a sense of Tony’s growing madness.
For this round I have to say the original Scarface wins; the lack of music was a bold choice that worked only as an advantage.
The relationship with the love interests of both Scarfaces is remarkably similar with Karen Morley playing the aloof Poppy who Tony becomes obsessed with in the 1932 version. The 1983 version has Tony Montana falling head over heels with Elvira Hancock who is played with typical coldness by Michelle Pfeiffer. Both characters are nearly identical with their behavior; bored with the world and nothing really impresses them. They both come around to Tony due to his money, power and persistence.
I think Michelle Pfeiffer is the better looking of the two actresses but Poppy wins due to her being a bit warmer… a bit.
Both movies have excellent scripts but it’s the 1983 remake that is superior as it is just so damn quotable. “Say Hello to my Little Friend!” is one of the most iconic movie lines of all time and there are many other great lines like “In this country, first you get the money, then you get the power, THEN you get the woman.”
Now on to what really matters: The Action.
As previously stated I was surprised by how violent the 1932 version of Scarface was but it’s a romantic comedy in comparison to DePalma’s bloodbath. The finales to both movies have Tony going down in a blaze of glory (at least in his mind). The 1932 film has Tony eventually gunned down by the cops but Pacino is killed by rival drug gangs whom he betrayed earlier. Both films end with a close up of the sign “The World is Yours” as Tony lies dead after a violent shoot-out.
For this round the 1983 version wins in every way; so many quotable lines and Pacino’s meltdown in the finale is now the stuff of legend. Interestingly enough, Pacino has said that Scarface was his favourite movie that he’s starred in.
And the Winner is…
The 1983 Scarface wins for me as it is just so iconic; the script, the violence and the characters are so memorable. Both films have plenty in their favour and you should at least check out the original just to see how ahead of its time it was. Pacino manages to be utterly terrifying as Montana and the character is now etched in the minds of filmgoers as one of his very best. There are a few things I prefer about the 1932 film but in terms of which movie I watch more often, it’s Pacino all the way!