Analysing Brian De Palma’s seething cult masterpiece.
Scarface is about ambition in the wrong hands.
It is the story of Tony Montana, a self-proclaimed political refugee who claws his way from the gutters of Castro’s Cuba to conquer the American dream. But dreams can become nightmares, and men like Montana will always want more. For him, it is less about having, more about taking.
I always tell the truth. Even when I lie. – Tony Montana
When we meet Montana he is straight off the boat, a peasant with lofty aspirations and the guile to get there. In spite of his jail manners and straight-talking attitude, he is a man who retains something of a moral code in an environment devoid of morality. He is loyal, a quality that his American employers immediately look to exploit, a fact which Tony is willing to accept if it will get him to where he wants to be.
When initial contact Omar Suarez tries to underpay him for a job, Tony disputes his offer, confronting the armed gangster head-on. When that same snake sets him up and has his friend Angel Fernandez killed, Montana bites his tongue as he sets about getting close to Frank Lopez (Robert Loggia), a local drug king whose warnings about wanting too much inevitably fall on deaf ears. Tony watches and learns, and when he sees an opening he makes his move. In the end, Lopez doesn’t stand a chance.
Montana is not the kind of man who is fond of taking orders, and in best friend Manny Ribera (Steven Bauer) he has a partner who is happy to ride his coattails. America may be like ‘a giant pussy just waiting to get fucked’, but it comes with its own particular constraints, problems that are more bureaucracy than brutality.
On the surface of things, the likes of Montana may be deemed the scourge of a nation stripped of traditional moralities, but the real slime are those who shake your hand and smile. In America, criminals operate within the law. Characters like Jerry the banker – the kind of brash suit who enquires about your wife while increasing your interest rates, or Detective Mel Bernstein (Harris Yulin), a bottom feeder who will shill for the highest bidder, and who makes it his business to have the dirt on everyone. These are the people who Montana struggles to deal with, the ones who most contribute to his downfall. When you fly too close to the sun, you will inevitably get burned. Or in the case of Montana, burst into a dripping ball of flames and scorch everyone within your social radius.
You know what capitalism is? Getting fucked! – Tony Montana
The Miami underbelly Montana inhabits is a greedy, vacuous place built on drugs and violence, an intangible world where glitz and glam are punctuated by corruption and gang wars, a fact that De Palma juxtaposes beautifully during a grisly stand-off at the ironically named Sun Ray Hotel. The bosses are paranoid, the lax Miami streets are regularly blood-soaked, and the women, no more than accessories to the power plays and decadence, are there for the cash and the yeyo. The Scarface soundtrack, as shallow as some of its tracks may be, perfectly encapsulates a loveless environment of wraithlike disposability, while Giorgio Moroder‘s synth contributions saturate the movie with a detached sense of pseudo-emotion that is at once empty and emotionally devastating. Particularly effective is Gina’s Theme, a gut-wrenching ballad of faux-sentimentality.
That brings us to Montana’s most destructive crux: the issue of family. The bottom line is that Tony is a dangerous person to be around. He thinks with his heart, not with his head, and as the pressure mounts and his drug use spirals out of control the clouds grow ever thicker.
At the core of his familial difficulties, as with all his problems, are his notions of loyalty, emotions so fierce they inevitably lose their perspective. Tony wants to do right by his family, but he is never able to understand what doing right by them means. His mother is all too aware of her son’s destructive qualities and wants him nowhere near her youngest child Gina (Mary-Elizabeth Mastrantonio) a girl of simple ambitions who just wants to be reunited with her estranged brother, and who is immediately doomed as a consequence. Tony doesn’t want what’s best for Gina. He wants what is best for him. His sister shouldn’t have to work, not when her brother is such a success story, but when she takes his money and lives that life he is less than happy with the consequences. She should be spoiled, but pure; free to do as she pleases as long as she does what he tells her. As you might expect from a cold-blooded assassin with a moral code, Tony is a man mired in hypocrisy.
For a while, Tony has everything he has ever dreamed of, but it could never last. In no time at all he has vanquished his foes, has won the arm of trophy wife Elvira (Michelle Pfeiffer), and after getting in tight with international drug lord Alejandro Sosa (Paul Shenar), everything is roses. But with power comes politics, and not the kind that can be settled on the streets of Miami. Ultimately, Montana is a peasant in a kingdom of princes. He is a pit bull, fierce and loyal, but disposable in the eyes of political circles, a useful pawn straight off the banana boat. Tony is quietly aware of this, a fact that drives his ambition like a steam train careening along an unfinished track. He has climbed to the top of the mountain to find it inhabited. He shares their kingdom, but only as their jester.
In Montana’s mind, the American Dream is more than just wealth and power; it is about having the perfect family. Tony loves kids, but as with everything else in his life his idealism conflicts with the circumstances, a fact that skews his perception and leads him along a blind emotional alley that will prove detrimental. In Elvira, Tony sees only the external beauty and buys her affection the way Frank did. He doesn’t see the drug addict runaway living on the edge, nor does he hear her abject lethargy on the subject of having children, and their volatile relationship comes to a head in perhaps the movie’s most powerful scene, culminating in a very public confrontation in a soulless restaurant brimming with Miami’s wealthy elite.
Can’t you see what we’re becoming, Tony? We’re losers. We’re not winners, we’re losers. – Elvira Hancock
As he comes to accept his fate, Tony turns to his product. One time mentor Frank may have adopted less of a moral code, but he knew how to survive in his chosen environment, had learnt to be happy with what he had. Tony has no such limitations. He wants to operate on his own terms, and when Manny’s lax approach lands them in some federal hot soup, he is forced to make a deal with the devil, putting his fate in the hands of a giant who must never be stirred. In the end, it is Tony’s morality that proves his unravelling. Tony has never fucked anyone over in his life who didn’t have it coming, and when he is forced to assassinate a wife and her children, he refuses to bow to Sosa’s political demands and his fate is sealed.
Pacino delivers a frenzied tour de force as the irrepressible Tony Montana, his pint-sized ferocity eating up the frame like a man possessed. Gone are the foreboding subtleties of Michael Corleone, replaced instead by a ticking time-bomb of frightening potency. The role would prove something of a transition in the career of Pacino. This was a landmark performance, the style of which he seemed unable to shake throughout much of the ensuing period, and sometimes to his detriment. If nothing else, this is testament to the impact of the character itself. Writer Oliver Stone proclaimed Scarface to be his revenge against cocaine after struggling with addiction around the same period, and his leading man is able to translate those frustrations to the screen in a way that left an indelible mark not only on the actor himself, but on culture as a whole.
You think you can take me? You need a fucking army if you gonna take me! – Tony Montana
Right or wrong, for many Montana has become an iconic figure, a source of inspiration in their own pursuit of the American dream. Perhaps those people missed the point of the movie entirely, but what they surely understood was the honest nature that drove one of the most emblematic characters of the decade, and the moral code for which he was willing to pay the ultimate price.