De Palma’s “Scarface” shows how to do a remake correctly

Al PAcino as Scarface

Courtesy Universal Pictures

Universal Pictures has announced a new writer for the second remake of the 1932 Paul Muni gangster film “Scarface.”

“Second remake?” you say? “There was a ‘Scarface’ before Al Pacino?”

Yes and yes.

De Palma’s Miami-set, cocaine cowboy version of “Scarface” starred Al Pacino in a tour de force performance as Cuban refugee-turned-gangster Tony “Scarface” Montana.

It is also an outstanding example of “if you have to remake a movie, this is how you do it correctly.”

The original “Scarface”

In the original “Scarface,” stared Muni played Tony “Scarface” Camonte, a low-level mobster in Prohibition era Chicago. Like Pacino’s Montana, Camonte was a wild card hedonist with a violent streak. He always had something to prove, but always knew when to be loyal.

Camonte and Montana both also knew when to cast loyalty aside for something they wanted, particularly when that something was a woman.

De Palma and Stone create the remake

De Palma turned to screenwriter Oliver Stone to pen the remake. (Yes, THAT Oliver Stone, the one who would go on to win a Directing Oscar for “Platoon.”) Stone had already won an Oscar for screenwriting (“Midnight Express”), so the guy was a proven talent even then.

Stone took several key elements from the original film almost verbatim, including the following: Camonte’s first meet and relationship with the boss’s girl Poppy; Camonte’s bizarre obsession with his sister; Camonte’s friendship with his right-hand man and that man’s subsequent death for marrying Camonte’s sister; Camonte’s clever phone call during a meeting with his boss that reveals the boss’s assassination attempt; a climax with Camonte taking on a horde of enemies.

Lifting scenes as Stone did is inevitable with a remake. You don’t want to veer too far from the source material for fear of alienating the original audience. But you can’t simply do a shot-for-shot movie. You’ll lose the spirit of what made the original great (looking at you Gus Van Sant).

The dangers with remakes

Brian De Palma, director "Scarface"

Courtesy Universal Pictures

The filmmaker who sticks too closely to the original also risks creating a film relevant to an older generation but not relevant to their present audience.

Worse, some remakes lift scenes but add material that changes the tone of the original. This goes to the generational audience appeal. You’ve got old gen material conflicting with the new gen additions, creating a disjointed movie that drowns under its own weight.

This is where Stone and De Palma’s genius gets full applause.

The duo moved their Tony’s drama from the played out streets of 1930s Chicago to the newly minted drug wars in Miami, Florida. This gave the dual big bang of a setting untapped and overused by Hollywood while maintaining the “Wild West gangsters” motif of the original film.

Making a remake is tricky business, but De Palma and Stone pulled it off with aplomb.

For an interesting take, watch the new “Scarface” Blu-ray in U-Control mode. You’ll get a picture-in-picture comparison of scenes between the two versions of “Scarface.” The limited edition steel case edition also comes with a DVD copy of the original 1932 film.

For more on the new writer and Universal’s thoughts on the new movie, check out Collider. Though I don’t agree with their notion that De Palma’s “Scarface” “really isn’t all that good.” That’s just me thinking out loud.

Here’s the trailer for the original “Scarface.”

Leave a Reply