#107 & #108 Scarface

(1932, Howard Hawks / 1983, Brian De Palma)

“Say hello to my little friend!”


Before doing this challenge, I never knew there was an earlier Scarface. Figured it’d just sprung up with Al Pacino threatening people with his little friend (not as dirty as it sounds) and claiming Miami was “a pussy waiting to be fucked” (which is as dirty as it sounds). But no, turns out it was originally a novel based on the life of Al Capone, which got made into a movie, and then got remade, with rather extensive changes, in the 80s, and that’s the version everyone knows. But both of them are on the list, so let’s look at both!

The plot of the two movies is largely the same. A man named Tony, notable from an obvious scar on his face (hence “Scarface”, then), moves into the city, makes friends with a local crime boss, assists in the killing of a rival, and begins to climb the chain of power within the organised crime world. Drugs of some sort are involved, and in each case, the man overthrows his “mentor” in a violent manner, before he eventually finds his empire crumbling around him as he becomes a victim of his own vices.

The differences are in everything else. Paul Muni in 1932 played Tony Camonte, an Italian-American whose empire exists in Chicago during the Prohibition era. His drug of choice is therefore alcohol. Meanwhile, Al Pacino is Tony Montana, a Cuban immigrant who’s landed in Miami in the early 80s. His drug of choice? Cocaine.

It’s amazing how similar and yet so different the two movies are. Being from two separate eras, 50 years apart from each other, means that, aesthetically, they are very different. Hawks’ Scarface is the archetypal 1930s gangster movie, from the pinstripe suits to the Tommy Guns to the bizarre vocal tic of adding “see?” on the end of sentences. There are elements of film noir, and signs that the film industry only just came out of the silent era in the excessive makeup of the female members of the cast and heavy reliance on imagery over dialogue. De Palma’s Scarface is full of 1980s excess, a neon temple of decadence and stupid hair. It’s from a post-Godfather time where every crime movie had to be epic and brooding. AND there’s even a montage set to a heavily synthesised Giorgio Moroder score as his empire grows! Can’t get more 80s than ol’ Giorgio.

And yet despite these differences, the plot is almost identical. De Palma’s version, overall, sticks very closely to Hawks’ version. All major events are present and correct, and all in the same order. However, he does expand on some aspects. For example, De Palma actually shows Tony’s trip to New York, while the original merely mentions Tony’s equivalent trip to Miami through dialogue. There’s also a greater exploration of Tony’s relationship with his “love interest” (using the term very loosely) and a greater number of scenes detailing the downfall of his crime empire in the remake.

And yet, despite the closeness in plot, the portrayal of the lead character is vastly different. Pacino is brash, short-tempered and seemingly wins people over through intimidation alone. Muni’s portrayal is a little more charming, and at times seems to act a little stupid, but there is clearly a sinister tone hidden underneath. As brilliant and memorable as Pacino’s performance was, I actually preferred Muni’s. Pacino could be a little over-the-top at times, and the wild Cuban accent often made it difficult to understand what the hell he was saying. Muni, however, is subdued, hiding his devious criminal nature behind a wry smile and a wink, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

It’s difficult to say which is the better movie of the two. The remake is very melodramatic, and I felt that its attempts to go into more depth on certain aspects of Tony’s history and background worked well at rounding out the character a little more. However, it did drag a little around the hour-and-a-half mark, and didn’t really pick up again until the climactic gun fight at the end.

Meanwhile, the original condenses the action down to the more interesting points and has some impressive imagery using “X marks the spot” as a recurring motif, but often suffers from seemingly trying to inject some unnecessary humour into the proceedings, particularly in the groan-worthy secretary character who seems incapable of doing normal everyday things like write or answer a phone.

They are both classic crime films though, and honestly, I felt that watching both together enhanced my enjoyment of both movies. If you’re interested in crime movies, I say give both a watch, and personal opinion will help shape which you prefer. Quite frankly, I’m on the fence.

(1932 Credits)
Starring Paul Muni, George Raft, Ann Dvorak, Karen Morley & Boris Karloff
Written by Armitage Trail (book) & Ben Hecht
Produced by Howard Hughes
Cinematography by Lee Garmes & L.W. O’Connell
Edited by Edward Curtiss

(1983 Credits)
Starring Al Pacino, Steven Bauer, Michelle Pfeiffer, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Robert Loggia, F. Murray Abraham & Harris Yulin
Written by Oliver Stone (screenplay)
Produced by Martin Bregman
Music by Giorgio Moroder
Cinematography by John A. Alonzo
Edited by Gerald B. Greenberg & David Ray

Favourite Scene (1932): The bowling alley assassination was fantastic, technically and aesthetically. Even the movie’s X=death theme is very subtly done here (a strike mark on a bowling score card)
Scene That Bugged Me (1932): Lose the comic relief secretary, for god’s sake. Watching him try to figure out how to use a phone was just painful, not funny

Favourite Scene (1983): SAY HELLO TO MAY LEETLE FRIEND!
Scene That Bugged Me (1983): The police sting operation is one of the major scenes that dragged and felt inconsequential towards the latter half of the movie.

Watch them if: You like crazy Cuban accents
Avoid them if: You have an aversion to fedoras and/or Giorgio Moroder

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Posted on July 24, 2012, in 1930s, 1980s, Crime and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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