Analysing the enigma that is Tony Montana: political refugee
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.
When we meet Montana he is straight off the ‘banana boat’, a peasant with lofty aspirations and the guile to get there. Despite his jail manners and straight-talking attitude, he 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. When initial contact Omar Suarez (F. Murray Abraham) tries to underpay him for a job, Tony disputes his offer, confronting the armed gangster with the kind of ferocity that belies his peasant status. 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.
Tony Montana: I always tell the truth. Even when I lie.
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. Montana is the foreign poster boy for 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 shills for the highest bidder and makes it his business to have the dirt on everyone. Those are the people who Montana struggles with; the ones who most contribute to his downfall. When you fly too close to the sun you inevitably get burnt, or in the case of Montana, burst into a dripping ball of flames and scorch everyone in your social radius.
The Miami underbelly Montana inhabits is a greedy, vacuous place built on drugs and violence, a world where glitz and glam are punctuated by corruption and gang warfare, a fact that De Palma beautifully juxtaposes during a grisly stand-off at the ironically named Sun Ray Hotel. The bosses are paranoid, the sun-kissed Miami streets are regularly bloodsoaked, and the women, no more than accessories to the power plays and decadence, are there for the cash and the yeyo. Scarface is remorselessly violent, particularly a scene involving a chainsaw and a man’s skull, an inhuman act committed with unflinching insouciance by Colombian cowboy Hector The Toad (Al Israel). De Palma pulls no punches with his framing of the act, indulging in an unbearable close-up of friend and victim Angel Fernandez as he feels the blade tearing through his brain. The director struggled to get the Motion Picture Association of America, then entering a period of censorship frenzy, to move on the dreaded X rating, thanks in no small part to warts and all scenes such as this.
An even bigger obstacle was the movie’s graphic depictions of drug use, which were absolutely startling back in 1984. After submitting three different versions to the MPAA they still wouldn’t budge. De Palma would take the drastic action of arranging a hearing along with producer Martin Bregman that warranted the presence of actual narcotics officers at a time when cocaine had begun to flood the streets of Miami, and it was their suggestion that Scarface was anti-drugs that convinced the MPAA to finally pass the movie with an R rating. Quite the ordeal, but an important one. Lord knows how many cuts the film would have been subjected to without their approval.
You know what capitalism is? Getting fucked! – Tony Montana
Scarface was released amid Ronald and Nancy Reagan’s infamous ‘War on Drugs’ campaign. Many of you will remember those ads of an egg sizzling and crackling in a frying pan — this is your brain; now this is your brain on drugs — and Scarface is fearlessly political, excelling in revealing the rotten innards of a society full on opulence, greed and gross immorality. It’s rare that you find anything as raw or as honest as Scarface in today’s user-friendly climate. The movie leaves no stone unturned in its quest to expose every grubby facet of modern American life. Tony and his criminal buddies are culpable, but so are the Mels and the Jerrys of the world, not to mention the politicians standing between Tony and a stint in the big house — the very parasites who use the media to victimise the likes of Montana while growing fat and wealthy on their ill-gotten gains. Back then, cocaine was the currency of the day. The criminals made the money and the bankers laundered it for a hefty piece of the pie, the very same who run the world and control politicians from upon high. Narcotics kickbacks are a nice, untraceable form of currency for anyone in a position of power, and the world will always need scapegoats like Montana.
De Palma glibly punctuates the gulf that exists in such a society, highlighting the thin line that separates success and failure, the glamour from the drudgery. The covert office of Frank’s dealership, a place marred by murder and shady dealings, is gaudily decorated with a neon landscape of silhouetted palm trees. An almost identical image adorns a billboard hanging above the Little Havana Restaurant, a greasy spoon where Montana begins his ill-fated American journey while awaiting more fruitful opportunities. At first, all we see is a close-up of that landscape, De Palma slowly zooming out to reveal the grim reality of the situation in one of many inspired shots that drip with cold-blooded irony. Like that image, the smiles are painted-on in the upper echelons of Miami, the dream is illusory. Crooks may surround themselves with palm trees, but they inhabit the shadows of their own paranoia. A scene in which a whacked-out Tony, momentarily unaware of his surroundings as an attempted assassination brews in the soulless Babylon Club, is a prime example of how heavy the crown lies, and how eager others are to take their seat at the throne.
The movie’s choice of music is another vital element in portraying such a lifeless environment. I’ve heard people criticise the soundtrack as one that is too of its time to prove timeless, but that’s like saying Saturday Night Fever is too 70s. The Scarface soundtrack, as shallow and as seemingly throwaway as some of its tracks are, perfectly encapsulates a loveless environment of wraithlike disposability, Giorgio Moroder’s synth contributions saturating the movie with a detached sense of pseudo-emotion that is at once empty and emotionally devastating. ‘Push it to the Limit’, written and produced by Moroder and performed by Paul Engemann, typifies Tony’s hollow pursuit. Tracks such as Elizibeth Daily’s ‘Shake It Up’ and Debbie Harry’s ‘Rush Rush’ smack of disco fatigue, of a generation of addicts who left the party behind. The original score is just as effective, from the wildly oppressive, military-tinged ‘Intro’ to the political and emotional void that it ‘Tony’s Theme’, a piece that threatens to swallow you whole, and, perhaps saddest of all, ‘Gina’s Theme’, a gut-wrenching ballad of faux-sentimentality that epitomises Tony’s doomed relationship with his ill-fated sister.
That brings us to Montana’s most destructive crux: the issue of family. 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 difficulties, as with everything in his life, are notions of loyalty, the kind so fierce they lose all 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 wants to be reunited with her estranged brother and is immediately spoiled as a consequence. Mastrantonio was 25 when the movie was shot, and she is prodigious as the tainted angel gone astray, delivering the kind of tour de force that became commonplace for one of the most talented and underappreciated actresses of her generation. Tony doesn’t want what is best for Gina, he wants what’s best for himself. 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. Gina should be spoiled, but pure; free to do as she pleases as long as she does as 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. 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 in his life his misguided sense of idealism conflicts with the circumstances. In Elvira, Tony sees only the external beauty and buys her affection the way Frank did. He doesn’t see the drug addict 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. Here, De Palma lets his cast do the work, and Pfeiffer is astonishingly assured as a whacked out runaway at the end of her emotional tether, her once luminous beauty dulled by neon nights and narcotics decadence. Her natural elegance flows through every frame, but her delivery crackles with acid contempt.
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 ultimately 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 Montana’s sense of morality, however tenuous, that proves his unravelling. Tony has never fucked anyone over in his life who didn’t have it coming, and when he’s 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 Montana, his pint-sized ferocity devouring every frame. Gone are the foreboding subtleties of Michael Corleone, replaced instead by a ticking time-bomb of frightening potency. Pacino is a method actor, and he throws himself headlong into the role, a fact that was criticised by those who saw him as going into business for himself and grasping for personal accolades, but how else did they expect him to play a character of Montana’s nature? For a man like Tony it’s all or nothing. All he has is his word and his balls, and he isn’t too keen on breaking either. The role would prove something of a turning point 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. Along the way, Pacino would develop a shouty, hoo-ha reputation that bordered on self-parody, but there’s nothing burlesque about Montana’s verbal explosions. When he goes, he is absolutely fearsome.
Tony Montana: You think you can take me? You need a fucking army if you gonna take me!
If nothing else, this is testament to the impact of the Montana character, as is the fact that, though he poisons every life he touches, killing his best friend in cold blood and dragging his sister through enough emotional turmoil to last ten lifetimes, we still root for him until the grisly end, willing on his one-man army in one of the most explosive, fist-pumping finales in all of cinema, one in which we discover, quite emphatically, that he still has one friend left. When Montana boasts you’d need an army to take him, he’s not kidding. This guy is fearless to the end.
Writer Oliver Stone would cite Scarface as his revenge against cocaine after struggling with addiction around the same time, and his leading man is able to translate those frustrations to the screen in a way that left an indelible mark on not only the actor himself, but on culture as a whole. They say write about what you know, and as a screenwriter this is arguably Stone’s greatest achievement. His exploration of how American society operated in these circles has a scholastic attention to detail. It is wretched, often defeatist, but completely on-point, and for such a sobering study the movie is endlessly quotable.
Not only is Montana the kind of antihero we get behind, we live and breathe this character; his words roll off our tongue as they do his own. He’s a criminal, but he’s honest about who he is, which is more than you can say for those criminals who operate from within the shadows. 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 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.