The Ultimate Gangster Movie and How It Changed America

By Ken Tucker

St. Martin's Griffin. 276 pp. $16.95

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'Say hello to my little friend!"

Even if you've never seen the 1983 version of Scarface, starring Al Pacino, chances are you've heard that line. It's just one of several that have made their way into pop culture, appearing in TV shows, music videos and video games, and on the Internet. (Whole Web sites are devoted to amateur Scarface-inspired videos.)

Scarface is revered by people of all ages, races and socioeconomic levels. College students, especially males but sometimes females, often have posters of Pacino as Tony Montana on their walls. And musicians from Nas to Gwen Stefani have put likenesses of the movie's characters on their albums.

Twenty-five years after its theatrical release, Scarface remains one of the few movies - not counting those with sequels - that seem never to go away. But did you know that when the movie came out, people and critics alike hated it? Hollywood stars walked out, and the movie grossed just $4.6 million on opening weekend. Scarface made less than movies such as Flashdance and Risky Business, yet who today can remember a line from either of those movies?

Those are just a couple of questions explored by Ken Tucker, Entertainment Weekly's editor at large and a former Inquirer pop music and TV critic, in Scarface Nation: The Ultimate Gangster Movie and How It Changed America. In addition to offering a behind-the-scenes look at the making of Scarface, starring Pacino and relative newcomer Michelle Pfeiffer, Tucker looks at the film's 1932 predecessor, Scarface: The Shame of the Nation, starring Paul Muni, and at the 1930 novel behind that film, Armitage Trail's Scarface.

Tucker also asks why Pacino's version, written by Oliver Stone and directed by Philly-raised Brian De Palma, has remained popular and widely referenced a quarter-century later.

De Palma's Scarface portrays Tony Montana, a young Cuban who arrives in the United States as part of the Mariel boat lift. He enters the drug world; meets his boss, Frank, and Frank's wife, Elvira; and works his way up the ladder of the cocaine underworld, killing both enemies and allies along the way. Tucker writes that "Frank and Elvira give him a couple of rules to live by: 'Don't get high on your own supply' and 'Never underestimate the greed of the other guy.' "

Montana neglects these rules after a while, which results in his eventual downfall. But before that happens, those rules allow him to accumulate wealth, buy expensive cars and suits, and live in an enormous mansion - oh, and get the girl, Elvira.

Tucker is best when he discusses the making of the 1983 movie. Those parts read like an episode of E!'s True Hollywood Story. There are scandals, drug addiction (Oliver Stone's), recollections, and casting gossip. Tucker quotes the producer on Pacino's qualms about casting Pfeiffer as Elvira: "I knew it was going to be Michelle. . . . But it took a little time to convince Al. He was concerned that she was not experienced enough and that she didn't look right. She didn't fit the image of Elvira he had in his mind. But he was dead wrong." Whom did Pacino want? Oh, you'll be surprised.

You will learn how many suits were made for Pacino and why the filmmakers could not film in Miami, where the movie was set. You'll also learn about the director's fight with the Motion Picture Association of America on the film's rating. The center of that controversy was over the gory, violent chainsaw scene in the first half hour, a scene tame by today's standards. You'll also learn which scene diehard fans can pause and play in slow motion to catch a glimpse of the director.

The hip-hop and gangsta-rap industries have, Tucker writes, chosen "to interpret Scarface as an allegory for the way poor blacks, with no social entree into business or high society, project themselves onto a higher plane of status and success." And it is strange that a movie by a group of middle-aged white men in the 1980s remains so popular with young, predominantly black artists now. In attempting to explain, Tucker quotes Vincent Laresca of the TV show 24: "All these rappers that are out there rapping about how much money they got, and all the drugs they sell - that's who they're emulating: They're living their little Tony Montana dream."

Tucker introduces us to a variety of what he calls "Alterna-Scarfaces": versions of Pacino/Montana in movies, comic books, video games, etc. He even notes the scar placements in the various portrayals, and offers a theory as to what happens to Elvira after Scarface's death.

This book will make fans want to watch the movie again to look for the details Tucker reveals. And it is sure to create new fans, ensuring that Scarface will live on for at least another 25 years.