The gangster genre, arguably birthed by Howard Hawks’ 1932 film Scarface, has long since been a favorite target for discussions about violence and controversiality in cinema. Brian De Palma’s remake of Scarface in 1983, though made 51 years later, did/does nothing to stem this allusion. This was of course deliberate, as De Palma attempted to capture what he may have felt the original wanted to but could not because of censorship restrictions by the Hays Code adopted in 1930. Exemplary of the differences found between the two versions are their respective endings, which also reflect the strictness of each era’s censors. And the differences in the films’ conclusions prove to be great enough to allow for vastly different messages to be read from them.
In covering differences and controversiality let us, as suggested, consider the different endings to Hawks’ and De Palma’s versions of Scarface. In the 1932 film, the protagonist Tony Camonte (Paul Muni) pleads for his life just before he is punished by law enforcement by being shot and killed in the streets of a raging city. Due to censorship restrictions at the time, Hawks was forced to display the despicable character of Tony getting “what he deserved” so as not to endorse his kind of behavior. Meanwhile, the conclusion to De Palma’s film showcases the protagonist (newly named Tony Montana, played by Al Pacino) being shot to death in his own home, and not by law enforcement but by his competitors. These two endings elicit completely different meanings because of these incongruences. Hawks’ ending does what the censors intended by showing that even though one can have success through murdering and breaking the law, such a lifestyle ultimately leads to an appropriately violent and untimely death that will result from the hands of societal justice. Also, the mere fact that Tony Camonte displayed a cowering disposition right before he decided to make his final escape attempt works to imply that even though a man may be evil enough to do all that Tony did, it nevertheless does not prove anything about his manhood or courage. So, the message becomes that a violent climb to the top results in an equality violent fall back to the bottom, proving such a plan’s redundancy and futility.
De Palma’s ending leads to a different reading that would have disagreed with the censorship rules of the original’s era, and it has everything to do with the protagonist’s temperament when he dies and by whom he falls from his thrown. The fact that Tony Montana meets his end at the hands of his competitors, whom he “fucked over,” and not by law enforcement (which symbolizes judicial authority and justice) results in the availability of a reading implying that while murdering and committing crimes is to be considered evil and wrong, it is possible to get away with such a lifestyle as long as you continue to play by that lifestyles rules. This of course allows for an interpretation that says that being like Tony Montana is an actual, albeit ill-advised and improbable, option when deciding one’s path in life. And naturally, what censorship board in the depression era would allow for such a possibility to enter audiences’ minds? In regards to Tony Montana’s temperament at the time of his demise, he is the exact opposite of Tony Camonte. Instead of wasting breath pleading for his life (which given that he is in fact encountering henchmen, instead of police officers who are required by law to uphold life whenever possible, his chances were nil that a plea would work anyway) he chooses to stand in the face of his enemies while screaming and thumping his chest for the purpose of displaying, and indeed showing off his level of manliness and courage. Such a display naturally leads to a reading that it is better to die while laughing at death than to ever show fear for its inevitability; a glorification of violence, if you will. And while Tony Camonte initially adopts this same outlook towards death at the end of the 1932 film when he makes his last stand in his fortressed apartment, the fact that he regresses into desperatism negates that initial exhibition of bravado. Interestingly enough, though Hawks’ film met the requirements of censors at the time of its release, it and other films like She Done Him Wrong (1932) and Baby Face (1933) helped spawn a new censorship committee called the Legion of Decency between the years 1933 and 1934, which was governed by Catholics who found that the film industry was not adhering to its codes over sex and violence strictly enough. Initially very influential to the entire American film industry, the Legion of Decency dwindled to being appropriated strictly to Catholics by the 1960s (Gregory Black, Changing Perceptions of the Movies; Hollywood Spectatorship, p.79-89).
In talking about censorship it is hard not to mention on screen violence, and both adaptations can be known for their respective levels. But while Hawks’ version often depicted violence by way of shadows, long shots, and off screen sound (with obvious exception to the finale), De Palma’s version is far more centered and graphic. The 1983 film fought against an X rating by way of as many as three cuts differentiated by decreased levels of depicted violence (DVD special features). These differences in on screen violence augment the aforementioned differences separating the films’ endings, being themselves arguably exemplary of their distinctions. Nevertheless, the construction of the endings themselves is primarily what permits the markedly dissimilar readings of each film as a whole.