I was going to watch the Howard Hawks and Brian De Palma versions of Scarface back to back, and then write a review where I talked about their differences. But the classic 1932 film starring Paul Muni and George Raft is so similar to the legendary 1983 remake with Al Pacino and Michelle Pffeifer that it’s probably better to talk about how much alike they are. It all comes down to Al Pacino’s over the top, operatic performance and a lot more fake blood and gore. Aside from that they’re almost exactly the same story. What Vince Gilligan did over the course of 5 years of Breaking Bad, what Brian De Palma took 160 minutes to do in 1983, Howard Hawks managed to accomplish in a crisp 90 minutes, all the way back in 1932.
Whether or not you like Walter White, Tony Montana, or Tony Camonte, the original Scarface, probably depends on the values you bring to each. Part of the reason Breaking Bad turned out to be such a bloated mess was how Vince Gilligan spent so much time trying to figure out how to make Walter White go out like a hero. Brian De Palma was more honest. He never tries. Pacino vividly depicts the Cuban immigrant turned drug lord as a human monster beyond redemption. Yet Tony Montana is still a hero in hip hop culture. Young men still wear Scarface shirts. People everywhere still repeat his most quotable lines as if they could channel some of his outlaw gusto through his words.
Considering how both films were made half a century apart, the difference between Paul Muni’s Tony Camonte and Al Pacino’s Tony Montana isn’t as much as you would think. Muni’s Scarface is every small town, American Protestant’s nightmare. With his thick accent, leering facial expressions, insouciant body language, he’s like a demon coughed up from the deepest depth of the urban hellhole. Yet, Howard Hawks, and the film’s producer, Howard Hughes, were still strong armed into re shooting the end of the film to show that “crime doesn’t pay.” Admittedly, Paul Muni never quite takes on the tragic nobility of James Cagney’s Eddie Bartlett, who goes down protecting the “nice girl” he’s too much of a thug to marry, or Cody Jarrett, who goes down in flames on top of an oil refinery shouting “top of the world ma.” He has a creepy incestuous obsession with his sister. He betrays his mentor. He murders his best friend. Take him or leave him. He is what he is. Howard Hawks had the integrity to portray Tony Camonte in all of his unvarnished, sociopathic glory. He’s a real artist, not a shockmeister like Brian De Palma, or a hack like Vince Gilligan.
Make sure you keep an eye out for the film’s best scene. Tony Camonte guns down Gaffney (a rival mobster) in a bowling ally, pulling the trigger a split second after he releases the ball. Gaffney throws a strike. But his luck’s run out.