When the profanity-laced cocaine epic finally made it to TV, editors scrambled to find 160 words that rhymed with "suck."

By Max Garrone
Published April 10, 2001 7:00PM (EDT)

Directed by Brian De Palma
Starring Al Pacino, Steven Bauer, Michelle Pfeiffer, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Robert Loggia
Universal: Letterbox (2.35:1 aspect ratio)
"Making of 'Scarface'" documentary, outtakes, production photos, trailers

"Scarface" is best remembered for Al Pacino's violent, live-wire cocaine kingpin, a roaring chainsaw and more "fucks" than pretty much any movie in history. With an operatic script from Oliver Stone and some of Pacino's finest work, director Brian De Palma also managed to tap into America's gangster myth and define a visual sensibility for the 1980s.

You could call it a prototype for "Miami Vice" but you'd be missing the point. This isn't a police drama; it's the Horatio Alger story of a Cuban immigrant slogging through the muck of Miami to make a place for himself at the top of the drug world. Viewed today, it's almost nostalgic: no cellphones, neon-and-mirror sets, dark men in three-piece, red-and-black suits. It's an absolutely garish and unflattering picture of the nouveau riche strivers who built the cocaine trade in the '80s.

Still, without Al Pacino, this movie would probably have been a footnote. He's absolutely convincing as a criminal who slips out of Cuba in the Mariel boatlift and thinks of Miami as "a great big pussy just waiting to get fucked." The scenes of Pacino with his nose buried in a small mountain of cocaine, eyes glazed, are absolutely glorious. He channels a frighteningly primal and absolutely delusional state.

Watching "Scarface" from a distance of almost 20 years also offers a good bit of new perspective. Some things never change: Michelle Pfeiffer looks the same today as she did in her breakout film role; while Richard Belzer, who played Detective John Munch on the dearly departed TV show "Homicide," shows us that he was ready for the big time a long time ago with his cameo as a stand-up comedian. When it was released in 1983, critics said "Scarface" was too graphically violent. By today's standards, most of the movie's violence is rather tame -- all except for that chainsaw scene.

Then again, DePalma used Hitchcock's "Psycho" as a template; there's no actual gore, only the worst kind of suggestion. The "Scarface" DVD features a great side-by-side comparison of the scenes in its making-of documentary. DePalma explains that he "wanted to establish a level of violence that no one had ever seen before." Later, he responds to his critics, complaining that he "always gets penalized" because he does violence so well. He blames his audience for following exactly where he wants them to go.

The "Making of 'Scarface'" documentary also features smart interviews with the cast and crew about the background of the project and the ideas that motivated them at the time. Quick comparisons between the theatrical version and the dubbed-for-TV version are priceless; as producer Martin Bregman points out, editors managed to dub over all the 160 or so "Fucks" with similar words like "suck." The outtakes are even better, showing DePalma and Pacino developing a nuanced film with a sharp supporting cast. For the truly trivia-obsessed, there is also a set of production notes as well as the original theatrical trailers, one of which is a dead-on remake of a Sergio Leone trailer for "The Good the Bad and the Ugly," complete with expressionistic paint effects and woodcuts.

Max Garrone

Max Garrone is Salon's Vice President for Operations.

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