Monday, October 19, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Scarface (1983)

What does the American Dream mean to you, and how far would you go to pursue that dream? More to the point, when does someone else's relentless pursuit of the American Dream become a nightmare for the rest of us?

In other words, when does the personal journey from "rags to riches" become so consuming, so vital, so paramount that it actually destroys the social conrtact, threatens the larger sense of community, and leaves accepted morality shattered, in pieces on the ground?

And -- importantly -- have we reached that point in America yet? Or did we actually reach it decades ago, when Ronald Reagan assumed the Presidency and changed the way an entire nation conducts business? (By this, I mean de-fanging and eliminating business regulation, cutting taxes for the super rich, and reducing social services to a bare minimum).

These still-relevant questions beat restlessly inside the turbulent, angry heart of Brian De Palma's radical, firebrand gangster movie Scarface (1983), a film that today has become virtually synonymous with the excesses of the 1980s and, in particular, the beginning of the "greed is good" era in American culture. This De Palma film continues to be germane in 2009 because -- to a very large and therefor disturbing extent -- we still live in that culture. Only today the Boeskys and Milkens have morphed into Kenneth Lay, Bernard J. Ebbers, and Bernie Madoff.

In surface terms, Scarface is a remake of the beloved 1932 Howard Hawks film of the same name (though subtitled "The Shame of a Nation"). Yet De Palma and screenwriter Oliver Stone have not slavishly re-fashioned a classic film with their 1983 version of the material. Instead, they have created a fiery, subversive, original commentary on their times, the 1980s.

Although their title character is a gangster and drug dealer named Tony Montana (Al Pacino), De Palma and Stone take great pains to contextualize Montana as something else entirely: a modern, 1980s business man. Accordingly, Scarface is virtually brimming with pointed references to capitalism, communism, and the milieu of big business.

With capitalism-gone-wild as their deliberate subtext, De Palma and Stone reveal how excessive greed eventually separates the film's grasping protagonist from his friends, family, and from his culture, even. Tony Montana's excesses become so...excessive, in fact, that his gold-plate home decorations would likely cause even Tyco's Dennis Kozlowski to blush. The neon production design of the film is extraordinary and effective because it strengthens and supports the notion that Tony observes no limits. Not in his personal appetites, not in his material wants, and certainly not in his morality, though, in his defense, he does not allow an innocent child to die late in the film during a bombing mission. Perhaps because that child makes him think of the child he and Elvira have never been able to conceive.

But when one taboo is broken during the blazing rise to "success," the film seems to advise us, it's impossible to respect any significant boundary. Thus Tony exhibits and nurtures sexual longing for his own biological sister, Gina (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), and covets her to the point of murder. Nope, the boundary of family is not sacrosanct to Montana.

Tony also kills his boss, Lopez (Robert Loggia), essentially, for possession of his boss's girlfriend, Elvira (Michelle Pfeiffer). Montana eventually proves disloyal even to those who rose up with him to the top, like his doomed best friend Manny (Steven Bauer).

In the end, the film makes a literal comment about Tony's all-consuming selfishness and over-sized ego: Montana is shot and killed in his extravagant upstairs foyer because there is literally no one left to watch his back. His murderer -- a shadowy assassin in sun-glasses -- sneaks up behind him, unnoticed, undetected. The Mannys, the Elviras, the Ginas, the Angels, etc., are all long gone and can't warn him of the danger. Montana's desire to be the one on top has, in fact, left him dangerously vulnerable and alone.

De Palma's film, as critic Vincent Canby noted in The New York Times, "is a relentlessly bitter, satirical tale of greed, in which all supposedly decent emotions are sent up for the possible ways in which they can be perverted." Indeed, Tony's ego is the great destroyer here: ripping apart friendships; forever paranoid; always bullying and out sized. He thinks highly of himself and lowly of everybody else. All that matters is his self-glorification (and here, that glorification takes the form of material wealth).

"The Biggest Problem? What To Do With All The Fucking Cash"

is dominated by allusions and references to capitalism. First, Montana is introduced as a militant political refugee who fought against Castro in Cuba.

But in fact, he boasts no real political beliefs except he doesn't want "anyone" telling him "what to do," a quality of a communist state, he perceives. Tony even says he would "kill a communist for fun," when offered an "opportunity" to rise through the ranks while incarcerated in "Freedom town," a make-shift community for detainees from the Mariel Boat Lift in 1980. But again, Montana's views are convenient: he's against communism because it restricts his personal freedom to rise to the top. He wants to be rich, so it's a personal not ideological thing.

After leaving the camp, Montana takes a job as a dish-washer at a small food stand in Miami (underneath a sign for a fancy restaurant called Little Havana). From his perch at the kitchen sink, Tony watches gorgeous women and well-dressed men line up in expensive cars and attend a ritzy club. Right there and then, he settles on a life of crime. He wants the proverbial American Dream and he doesn't want to wait for it. He and Manny thus leave their "honest" but low-paying jobs to work for a cocaine dealer named Omar Suarez (F. Murray Abraham). In the world of drug dealing, says Omar's Boss, Frankie, the biggest problem is what to do with all the cash. And he's right. Once ensconced as a thug for Frank Lopez, Montana graduates to the glitzy world of 550 dollar suits ("so you can look real sharp") and 40,000 dollar Porsches. His appetites only grow and grow.

In particular, Montana has his eye on Elvira, Frankie's girlfriend (and a 24-hours-a-day coke whore...). But Tony knows he is not yet ready to claim his golden-haired trophy wife. "In this country, you gotta make the money first," he tells Manny. "Then when you get the money, you get the power. Then when you get the power, then you get the women." That's as terse and accurate a description, perhaps, of the the pathway to success in the contemporary U.S. as has yet been written.

At one point, Montana -- now a murderer for money and a purveyor of soul-stealing drugs -- makes a pilgrimage to the modest home of his honest, work-a-day mother. He brags to her "You son made it, Mama. He's a success." What's important to Tony is clear: his image: the car he drives, the suits he wears, the cash he can throw around (he gives Gina a thousand dollars...); even the fear he can engender in enemies and underlings. Tony knows he is a murderer, but lies to his mother and claims to be a political "organizer." Montana's mom sees through him quickly: "He's a bum. He was a bum then, and he's a bum now."

Also illuminating is the scene in which Tony and Elvira discuss what will be the terms of their marital union. It's a cold-hearted negotiation, not a romantic proposal. "You like children?" Tony asks. "As long as there's a nurse," she replies." It might as well be spelled out in contract boilerplate. There's no romance, no love, no joy in the courting: just an agreement for a mutually beneficial material partnership.

But Scarface finds its most critical voice of crony capitalism in the quick advancement by Tony to drug lord through --- essentially -- murderous attrition. Omar gets killed, and Tony moves up. Then Tony kills Frank, and he moves up again. All the while, Tony says things like "we gotta expand. The whole operation. Distribution." Or "Here's the Land of Opportunity." He's thus talking legitimate "business jargon" in an illegitimate, murderous business, but that's okay: America gives Tony its tacit permission to keep on climbing the business ladder. After killing Frank, Tony spies the Goodyear Blimp in the sky above. Emblazoned on the side, in huge letters is the legend "The World is Yours." This becomes Tony's mantra; his permission to take his personal quest for power and wealth far beyond "the limits" that most Americans observe. The slogan later appears in Tony's extravagant hall entrance, on a statue.

Amusingly, De Palma even stages a montage of Tony's monetary extravagance to the Paul Engemann-performed tune "Push it to the Limit." Again, that might as well be the mission statement of crony capitalism. Grab whatever you can get now, while the gettin's good. Or, as sung in the lyrics:
"Hit the wheel and double the stakes; throttle wide open like a bat out of hell and you crash the gates."

Interestingly, the police do almost nab Montana. Not on murder charges. Not on conspiracy to commit murder. And not on drug running. Nope, they nearly catch him on charges of tax evasion. What is it with some wealthy capitalists that they can't pay their fair share of taxes? It's laughable: the super rich complaining about paying taxes which benefit the community at large. Taxes pay for libraries, roads, social services, unemployment benefits, utilities, schools for children, firefighters and policemen...and for our standing army (support the troops, but not with your wallet!). Yet the super rich like Tony -- who may have acted unscrupulously (like Lay, Ebbers and the others) to get his money-- behave like they earned it merely by "hard work." That's one of the biggest unchallenged lies in the on-going argument for crony capitalism in this country. that rich got there honestly; and that the poor are somehow lazy or undeserving simply because they didn't "push it to the limit" the way execs at Enron did.

In an essay entitled "The American Dream in Film," author Ray Jones writes: "De Palma presents America as a corrupt and mercenary land in which opportunity is available to those who are prepared to go further for success. Go further in the sense that they, like Montana, are prepared to kill and literally dispose of the competition. De Palma was critical of America and presented the view that to be successful in a corrupt world, to fulfil their goals and manifest destiny, characters would have to become corrupt as well. This theme was presented to some extent in Hawks’ 1932 version of Scarface, which had the tagline “Shame of a Nation”. Yet, De Palma went further in his criticism and the tagline to the video of Scarface tellingly claims “He loved the American Dream with a vengeance.”

Don't Underestimate The Other Guy's Greed: Tony the Tiger

So what does "the limit" look like when you're in the drug-dealing/100-billion-dollar-a-year business? De Palma's Scarface shows us in gaudy, even lurid detal. In the neon and pastel pink Miami of the 1980s, it's a world of golden-plated bedrooms (with bubble baths built right into the floor), monogrammed leather chairs, wall-sized portraits of the happy Montanas...and piles and piles of snow white cocaine on demand.

Why, Tony has even captured a tiger and leashed it on his estate. The ultimate decadence. An animal leashed and trapped merely to prove a visual reminder of Tony's wealth and dominance. From exotic animals, it's just a small step to vodka- spewing ice sculptures and 6,000 dollar gold-and-burgundy floral-patterned shower curtains, no?

The tiger is an important symbol in Scarface. Historically, a tiger is s symbol of strength and power, inspiring respect and fear. That's what Tony is...a tiger. That's how he sees himself: Tony the Tiger. Unlike his pet, however, he is not caged or leashed by society's rules. He is the predator loosed in America, free to roam, to feed, to sate his material appetites. He doesn't believe he'll ever go down, but of course, he does. He makes enemies with people who are higher up the ladder than he is.

I don't know how well this comparison will hold up for you, but in the past I often found it illuminating. I sometimes term Scarface the Dawn of the Dead of gangster movies. By that I mean that both Dawn of the Dead and Scarface are epic master-works (clocking in at over two-hours, each), both are critical of the changes in the American pop culture -- towards overt, unbridled materialism in the late 1970s-early 1980s -- and both are extremely violent; though intelligently so. The violence in Scarface, like that featured in Dawn of the Dead, is brutal, gruesome, and hard-to-stomach in its first half, and then just rather numbing and de-sensitizing in the second half. In both films, the audience comes to view violence and death as part of the inevitable landscape of the characters, whether they are fighting zombies or drug dealers. Both are genre films that overturn genre conventions to make socially valuble points.

And there's one shot in Scarface, I believe, that best represents or symbolizes the film: a Colombian drug dealer opens a suitcase, and stashed inside are two bags of to a chain saw. Drugs and violence, side-by-side.

I think that perhaps the saddest thing about Scarface is that much of today's culture has taken on Tony Montana as some kind of hero or role model. Like the weirdos who get off on owning the shopping mall in Dawn of the Dead, these people seem to think that Tony's immoral quest for the American dream is something to be emulated and championed. They will tell you, in all sincerity, that it was the breaking of Tony's second rule ("don't get high on your own supply") that resulted in his downfall.

That's kind of ignoring the whole murdering-to-get-rich-quick thing, isn't it?

Watching Scarface, I can't help but wonder if maybe it's time we got a new American dream. How about this one: we all get ahead together and try to restore the shattered social contract. Or how about this post-Reagan/post-Bush thought, (as a person of some note said recently):

Grab a mop.


  1. Another excellent examination of a great De Palma film. Your analysis of its critique of American business/corporate culture and its impact from Reagan's presidency to present day is well done. I agree with you, too (sadly), that many of our youth see Montana as a hero of sorts, and do not distill the director/screenwriter's real meaning of the film, or of the character.

    When I saw this at the theater when it first came out, two things immediately were at the forefront. First, the controversy of the violent 'shower' scene, and the flamboyant $$ excess by Montana. For the former, the cuts made to the film so it wouldn't garner an X-rating was talked about in great detail, at the time. Though, it's not a big deal now, especially for those seeing the film on disc. The latter seems to have proven to be quite prophetic, especially when the corporate scoundrels have been caught and/or exposed.

    Illegal activities for those shutout of the American Dream / mainstream (due to their class or outsider status) is also clearly on display in the film. Since I''m reading more crime fiction of late (and it offers authors a wonderful avenue for critique of our culture), I think the filmmakers look at this was done entertainingly well, too. I don't recall where I read this, but it seems apropos for this film: (paraphrasing) Laws are for the middle class. The rich believe they are above them, and the poor will do anything to survive (including breaking them).

    This is a very timely review, JKM. Thanks for this.

  2. Le0pard13:

    Thanks for your comment, and for that great quote about laws, the middle class, the rich, and the poor. Indeed, this is an issue of real import today. We seem to have learned nothing from the end of the 1980s, the last era of corporate crooks, bail-outs and recession...


  3. Very good review/analysis! And interesting comparison to DAWN OF THE DEAD. I hadn't thought of that before and I've seen both films countless times.

    I find it rather amusing that the video game that came out which supposes that Tony survived the climactic shoot-out at the end of the film jettisons all of the subtext and critique is your basic smash and grab-type game as you try to rebuild Tony's empire. Not that it's not a fun game to play. It's is pretty hilarious to hear Tony cursing a blue streak as you're blowing away his enemies but it only further glamorizes this character as you point out towards the end of your post. It is also interesting how much Tony is championed among the rap culture. One could make a drinking game out of MTV CRIBS whenever they do a segment on a rapper as they all seem to have the obligatory SCARFACE poster in their home.

  4. Hey J.D.

    I haven't played the game -- but I'm interested in it -- and was kind of afraid it would do just that; glamorize the unglamorous world of Tony Montana.

    The film is fantastic, but it's not exactly a testament to human goodness. I don't think Michelle Pfeiffer has one pleasant moment or line of dialogue in the film. And Tony is really the most unsympathetic of heroes...

    Thanks for the comment!


  5. I think the chain saw scene in 'Scarface' is another homage to DePalma's greatest influence in his professional life...Hitchcock. It is Hitchcockian in that it takes place in a shower and it is really not that violent. Not once do you see limbs cut off, as you never saw the knife penetrate Janet Leigh in 'Psycho'. But the impression you have is one of the most violent scenes captured on film. Great scene!!

    On the 25th anniversary 2nd disc of special features, 'Scarface' is the favorite movie of all the rap stars. And you are right on that point JKW, the selling of drugs and the killing of people was not seen as the sin. What was seen as the sin of all sins was 1) Getting high on the supply, and 2)killing his right-hand man Manny played by Steven Baeur. DePalma is a master filmmaker.