One of Roger Ebert’s “Great Movies”, Brian De Palma’s controversial Howard Hughes riff is a masterful dissection of 80s decadence
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 first 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 unmeasured ferocity that belies his lowly 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.
One of Frank’s principals for survival was to never underestimate the other guy’s greed, but unlike rival Nacho ‘El Gordo’ Contreras, Montana isn’t trying to ‘fuck you out of an extra dime’. Money is a means to an end, his ticket to the top, his immunity from servitude. ‘First you get the money, then you get the power,’ he tells partner Manny Ribera (Steven Bauer) after working his way up to Lopez associate. Later, when Tony is counting millions in unmarked bills with money launderer-come-undercover law enforcement officer Seidelbaum, he refuses to ‘keep the change’ when the sums don’t add up. Like Frank’s murder, it’s a matter of principal. Unlike Contreras and eventual turncoat Lopez, honour is a point of pride for Montana. He makes what he can on the side, but as proven in one of a plethora of wonderfully tense set-pieces at Lopez Motors, he looks a man in the eye before he has them killed. Frank is the pig who doesn’t fly straight.
Montana is not the kind of man who’s fond of taking orders, and in best friend Manny he has a confidante who is content 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 in devastatingly unscrupulous form), 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 contribute most 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.
I always tell the truth. Even when I lie.Tony Montana
The Miami underbelly that 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, and we the audience, almost feel the blade tearing through our collective brains. 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. All these years later, it’s still an excruciating experience to behold.
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, steadfast in the face of a high-profile talent who had already caused huge amounts of controversy with films such as the trans-insensitive thriller-come-slasher Dressed to Kill and critic-baiting Hitchcock pastiche Body Double, making a fair few enemies along the way. 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 in fact 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. Even after De Palma had forced the MPAA’s hand the film continued to carry a stigma, subsequent terrestrial screenings cut and dubbed beyond recognition. One particular TV edit had the aforementioned line, “This town is like a giant pussy waiting to get fucked” altered to, “This town is like a great big chicken just waiting to be plucked.” I’m not sure which is more obscene.
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, immorality, and, most scathingly, gross hypocrisy. 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. Thanks to unprecedented export operations from the likes of Pablo Escobar, aided by murdered drug runner and Government pawn Barry Seal and distributed throughout the US by criminals such as ‘Cocaine Cowboys’ Sal Magluta and Willy Falcon, coke became the currency of the day in the 1980s. The criminals made the money and the bankers laundered it for a hefty slice of the pie, the very same who run the world and control politicians from up on 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, a vision of paradise that looms ominously. 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 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.
You know what capitalism is? Getting fucked!Tony Montana
The movie’s choice of music is another vital element in portraying such a lifeless environment. I’ve heard people criticise the Scarface 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 Elizabeth 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 to chase an ever more ferocious and elusive dragon. 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.
Not content with offending on a violent, drug-fuelled level, De Palma’s Scarface even veers towards the incestuous as Montana’s life slips through his fingers, yet another depleting aberration that plays out like a Quaalude-infused fever dream. Of all the potential pitfalls that power brings, Montana’s most destructive crux is the issue of family. Tony is a dangerous person to be around. He thinks with his gut, not with his head, and as the pressure mounts and his drug use spirals, the bad judgement clouds grow 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 longs 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 nothing short of 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. It’s a tough role too, the icky brother/sister relationship, flitting from affection to oppression to the borderline perverse, a bitter and tasteless pill to swallow. It’s the one thing that stays with you amid the ceaseless amorality. 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, particularly her choice of men. 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.
The other woman in Tony’s life is the elegant, drug-addled, emotionally detached Elvira Hancock (Michelle Pfeiffer), a high school runaway who fled the family home for a life of freeloading decadence in the big city. We’re first introduced to Elvira, Frank’s other half, through Tony’s unflinching gaze, a recurring motif that typifies our protagonist’s single-minded ruthlessness. When he immediately makes a play for her as Frank concocts his own devious plans, his goal is shamelessly and abundantly clear. When Elvira claims that she wouldn’t sleep with Tony if she were blind, desperate, starved and begging for it on a desert island, he is distinctly unperturbed. To him, she is one more conquest, the crown to his burgeoning throne. This kind of ambition is attractive to a woman like Elvira. The eyes, Chico. They never lie.
In Montana’s mind, the American Dream is about more than just wealth and power, it’s about having the perfect family. Tony loves kids. They’re a moral beacon, however alien to his own lifestyle, in a world of unconscionable wickedness, but as with everything in his life his misguided sense of idealism conflicts with the reality of the situation. In Elvira, Tony sees only the external beauty, buying 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 the whacked-out runaway at the end of her emotional tether, her once luminous beauty dulled by endless neon nights and narcotics excess. 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
There’s a fine line between confidence and self-delusion, between winning and losing, and contrary to the ever cynical wisdoms of Bernstein, every day above ground isn’t necessarily a good day. 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 his trophy wife, 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. Despite his unwavering confidence and unapologetic fearlessness, 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.
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. Ultimately, 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 and refuses to bow to Sosa’s political demands, his fate as a major crime player and an unlikely cinematic antihero 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. The movie’s hyperbolic finale, a suitable end for one of modern cinema’s most iconic characters, has become the stuff of cinematic folklore, proving the perfect pay-off for a series of beautifully controlled, masterfully executed scenes that reveal Montana’s ferocious unravelling in gradual bursts. Despite its sordid flourishes, unrepentant violence, and nihilistic parting shot, it’s almost a popcorn scene, a fist-pumping send-off that proves a joyous experience. By this point, Montana has nothing left to lose, Pacino a frothing, drooling maelstrom of vengeance, the kind that almost turns inward. He may have destroyed everything that is dear to him, but as an audience it is impossible not to route for him. He dies as he lived, as an unflinching force of nature with balls of steel, as a man who isn’t afraid to face his enemies head-on. Say hello to my little friend!
You think you can take me? You need a fucking army if you gonna take me!Tony Montana
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? This is Howard Hughes for the 80s, a decade singularly personified by Wall Street excess. For a man like Tony it is 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 actor’s career. In many ways it was a landmark performance, the style of which he seemed unable to shake throughout much of the ensuing period – 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. It is one of modern cinema’s most iconic performances.
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. 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. In a hellhole of villainous distrust and shallow gratification, Montana is a breath of fresh air, a person we are somehow able to empathise with and admire.
In the ensuing years, the Montana character would become something of a cultural pariah, his adoption as the poster boy for mainstream hip-hop, a genre that wore greed and materialism like a diamond-studded gold tooth, cheapening the film’s message in the eyes of many. 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.