“By the expectations of the industry, [Scarface] was more of a flop than a success,” Stone concludes in his book, Chasing the Light: Writing, Directing, and Surviving Platoon, Midnight Express, Scarface, Salvador, and The Movie Game.
Initial reaction to the film seemed to confirm the industry’s skittishness to the new level of graphic extremes being opened to criminal-themed entertainment. “Believe me, you didn’t want to be around for the preview of Scarface,” De Palma remembered in Brian De Palma’s Split-Screen: A Life in Film by Douglas Keesey. “People were outraged—you saw people running up the aisle. I remember the opening night party. I thought they were going to skin me alive.”
The opinion was reflected by the critics. “Reviewers like Roger Ebert out of Chicago, and the quirky Vincent Canby of The New York Times were very positive,” Stone writes in Chasing the Light, “but most were generally negative and sometimes cruel.”
In The New Yorker, Pauline Kael titled her review “A De Palma Movie for People Who Don’t Like De Palma Movies.” Rex Reed deemed Scarface a “pointless bloodbath” in The New York Post. Andrew Sarris declared the film “camp for the coke crowd.” But since Sarris wrote for The Village Voice, that could also be taken as a positive assessment. Indeed, it aligned with Stone’s reaction.
“I saw the film for the first time in a packed theater on Broadway with a paying audience, mostly Latino and Black, which gave the film street cred, and right there I knew it was a better movie than the film crowd thought—and that it would last,” Stone remembers in Chasing the Light. “I knew it from riding the New York subways. I knew it from hearing people talk on the street. I knew it from the people who shouted back at the film, who’d repeat the lines and laugh on the playgrounds and in the parks. These people knew it in their gut. The War on Drugs was bullshit from beginning to end, a fraud sending them to prison in massive numbers.”
Most of the bile aimed at Scarface was directed specifically at “that violent writer,” as Stone calls himself in Chasing the Light. But he wasn’t wrong. The film presented an urban fantasy to the generation growing up when strict drug sentencing threatened what should have been easy take-home pay while also making it more violent. Sean Combs says he watched the film 63 times “for the lessons,” in Scarface: Origins of a Hip Hop Classic.