Scarface (1983) Beat Sheet Analysis
Celebrate the 40th anniversary of Scarface—See how the De Palma/Stone classic hits the Save the Cat! story beats.
Scarface, the 1983 American crime drama film directed by Brian De Palma and scripted by Oliver Stone, loosely adapts the 1930 novel and serves as a modern retelling of the 1932 film. The narrative unfolds around Tony Montana, portrayed by Al Pacino, a Cuban refugee who rises to power as a drug lord in Miami during the Mariel boatlift. The cast includes Steven Bauer, Michelle Pfeiffer, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, and Robert Loggia. Dedicated to the memories of Howard Hawks and Ben Hecht, the original film’s writers, De Palma’s Scarface was born from Pacino’s interest in remaking the 1932 version.
Initially conceived by Pacino and producer Martin Bregman, Sidney Lumet was set to direct but was later replaced by De Palma, who brought Stone on board to pen the script. Filming unfolded from November 1982 to May 1983, spanning Los Angeles and Miami locations, with Giorgio Moroder composing the film’s soundtrack.
Premiering in New York City on December 1, 1983, and released by Universal Pictures on December 9, Scarface earned $45 million domestically and $66 million worldwide. Initial critical reception was mixed, citing excessive violence, profanity, and drug usage. Some Miami-based Cuban expatriates objected to the portrayal of Cubans as criminals. Despite these criticisms, the film has been reassessed, with some considering it one of the greatest gangster films ever made. Martin Scorsese and other notable figures in the industry have praised Scarface, solidifying its influence on pop culture, particularly in hip-hop music, comic books, television, and video games. Over time, it has earned the status of a cult classic.
Directed by: Brian De Palma
Written by: Oliver Stone
Based on the novel Scarface by Armitage Trail, and the 1932 motion picture Scarface written by W.R. Burnett, John Lee Mahin, Seton I. Miller, and Ben Hecht
Subgenre: People’s Superhero
Cousins: High Plains Drifter, Gladiator, The Mark of Zorro, Gunga Din, Whale Rider, Che, The Elephant Man, The Imitation Game, Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes
Opening Image: May 1980. After a montage of 125,000 immigrants leaving Cuba’s Mariel Harbor and arriving in Miami, Florida, we discover Tony Montana (Al Pacino), a Cuban immigrant, being processed by immigration. With the eponymous scar on his face, Tony is determined and ambitious, seeking the American dream. The STC! Superhero genre has three aspects: power, nemesis, and curse. Tony’s “power” is his willingness to do what it takes to succeed and care for those he loves, but it will come at a price for who he is: his “curse.”
Theme Stated: Tony’s pursuit of the American Dream is fueled by his desire for power and status, setting the stage for his rise to the top of the criminal underworld.
Set-Up: Tony and his best friend, Manny Ray (Steven Bauer), are sent to Freedom Town, a refugee camp housed under an Interstate 95 overpass in North Miami. It’s a hellhole and about as far from America as Tony wants it to be.
Catalyst: After being asked to kill a political refugee, Emilio Rebenga, Tony and Manny are awarded green cards and work permits to work at a Cuban food stand.
Debate: They start working through Omar Suarez (F. Murray Abraham), a shady guy employed by drug kingpin Frank Lopez (Frank Loggia). Omar hires Tony to buy drugs from Columbians in a Miami Beach hotel. He brings Manny, Chi-Chi (Ángel Salazar), and Angel Fernandez (Pepe Serna) for backup.
After a deadly transaction that leaves his friend Angel slain by a chainsaw, Tony’s relentless drive allows him to kill the Columbians and obtain the cocaine kilos without losing the buy money. He tells Omar he wants to deliver it to Frank personally.
Break into Two: We see Tony Montana in a new suit (the Hawaiian print shirts are gone) and a glimpse of who he will be in the future as he meets Frank Lopez. Impressed with his willingness to get the job done, Lopez hires Tony to do more business. Tony decides he wants what Frank has: the money, the mansion, and Elvira Hancock (Michelle Pfeiffer), Lopez’s wife. Tony wants “the world and everything in it.”
B Story: Tony puts the moves on Elvira at the esteemed Babylon Club. She is the apple of his eye and symbolic of his slice of the American Dream as he ascends to power. But she repels him, “I don’t fuck around with the help.” This will not stop Tony, however. A second B Story character is another woman, Tony’s sister, Gina (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), who he protects from other men to the point of obsession.
Fun and Games: Tony Montana learns two lessons from Frank Lopez in this upside-down world. Never underestimate the other guy’s greed, and don’t get high on your own supply. These are two rules he will inevitably break that will lead to his demise, just as it does for Frank, who underestimates Tony.
After three months of working for Frank, Tony meets with cocaine kingpin Alejandro Sosa (Paul Shenar) in Bolivia to negotiate a deal with Omar. However, Omar is discovered to be an FBI informant and executed. When Tony returns to the States, Frank is outraged that Tony made a deal on his behalf. Tony decides to break away from Lopez’s control and go into business for himself. This decision transforms him from a pawn into a kingpin, showcasing his evolution into the Scarface persona. Sosa will also grow into Tony’s inevitable nemesis.
Midpoint: At the Babylon Club, Tony is hustled by Mel Bernstein (Harris Yulin), a dirty cop on Frank Lopez’s payroll who attempts to intimidate and extort Tony. At the same time, Tony checks in with Elvira, as he previously asked her to be his wife. In addition, Tony sees Gina making out with a sleazy guy in the club men’s room. Tony goes berserk, tying in A and B Stories with each woman. And it’s only a matter of time (ticking clock) before Frank will put a hit on Tony for working with Sosa and trying to steal his woman, raising the stakes.
Bad Guys Close In: Manny takes Gina home, and a tiny flicker of romance develops between them—this will not end well with jealous Tony. Back at the Babylon Club, Frank puts a hit on Tony. However, Tony not only survives, but he kills the two men trying to kill him. He then returns to Frank’s office and kills crooked cop Mel, and Manny kills Frank. Tony abducts Elvira from her bed.
In proper 80s fashion, complete with Giorgio Moroder pop-rock, we go into a montage with Tony working for Sosa, his business rising, getting married to Elvira, and building his empire. Tony adopts the Pan Am logo “The World Is Yours,” which has become his mantra.
All Is Lost: Tony invests in Seidelbaum (Ted Beniades), a businessman who will help him launder all his millions. But it’s a set-up, and the Feds bust Tony. He gets out on a $5,000,000 bond, but he’s looking at five years in prison. There’s a whiff of death as Tony’s empire is in danger of collapsing.
Dark Night of the Soul: Tony meets Sosa and some of his shady associates. Sosa asks Tony to help assassinate a journalist who’s reporting the Bolivian operation on international television. In exchange, Sosa will help Tony out of his problem—Tony will pay back taxes but do no jail time. Tony agrees.
At an expensive restaurant, Tony loses his cool. He’s disillusioned that this is all there is to being ultra-wealthy—eating, drinking, fucking, getting fat, and eventually aging into a rich mummy. He scorns Elvira for not being able to have any children—which is what he values most: family. Insulted by his disrespect, she leaves him.
The assassination attempt in New York goes badly due to Tony’s code of not killing family, particularly children. The journalist he’s to blow up in his car in front of the UN building also includes his wife and kids. Tony and Sosa’s hitman, Shadow, argue. Tony shoots and kills Shadow. The unexploded bomb under the car is discovered—now security is tighter around the man. Sosa and his associates are angry. They want blood—Tony’s blood.
Break into Three: While Tony was away in New York, Manny and Gina went missing. Tony learns Gina is with Manny. In a fit of rage, Tony kills Manny and takes Gina. His sister reveals that she and Manny were married, and they wanted to surprise him. A and B Stories cross.
Finale (Defending the Castle):
Gathering the Team: Tony returns to his place with Gina. Tony wants to go to war with Sosa for insulting him. But doesn’t know yet that Sosa’s hit squad is already on the grounds.
Executing the Plan: Tony is too coked up and upset about killing Manny to be effective at doing anything. He’s too high on his supply, one of the cardinal rules he was warned about early on.
High Tower Surprise: Gina walks into Tony’s office. She mockingly offers herself to her brother—since he doesn’t want any other man to touch her. She then pulls out a revolver and tries to kill Tony, wounding him. A hitman coming up from behind Tony shoots Gina.
Dig, Deep Down: Tony kills Gina’s assassin. And he learns that his place is swarming with Sosa’s assassins. Tony arms himself with an M16 with an M203 grenade launcher, his “little friend.” He’s messed up about Gina, trying to pull himself together. His last friend in the world, Chi-Chi, is killed trying to gain entrance into Tony’s office.
Executing the New Plan: Completely coked up and numb, Tony goes on a mass murder spree, shooting and killing his would-be assassins while being shot himself. He’s doing quite well for himself against many armed attackers until The Skull (Geno Silva), an enigmatic and silent hitman in Ray Ban shades, creeps up behind Tony and blows a hole into him from the back with a double-barrel shotgun.
Final Image: Tony Montana lies lifeless in his mansion’s pool, now a literal blood bath, with The World Is Yours logo above it—the embodiment of the American Dream that’s gone wrong. Tony’s demise was inevitable, but he faced it with defiance, unwilling to be taken down without a fight. The once-ambitious immigrant’s tragic journey concludes in a hail of bullets.