Pillbox

AN ANALYSIS AND REVIEW OF SCARFACE (1983)

Credit: Soomin Kong/ Credit: Soomin Kong/

(Disclaimer: Spoilers, naturally.)

“They just don’t make 'em like they used to.” No, they sure do not.

It is arduous to render the totality of the masterfulness that is Brian DePalma’s "Scarface." It amazes me that a movie is capable of presenting so satisfyingly the rise of Tony Montana (played expertly by Al Pacino), from a three-bit gangster into a drug lord kingpin, and then handing a brutal reprimanding to the viewer for wanting to see the extent of his lavish, stylized crime lifestyle, with an ultra-violent recoil against him. The picture serves as an interesting view on the
common person’s mind. It’s our guilty pleasure to keep watching, almost cheering on Tony’s rise through the narco-empire, and NO, that doesn’t make us terrible people. It means we are human. It is a part of us that wants to see the extent of Tony’s ambition and the movie knows. It plays on that fact well, teaching us a lesson on passing judgment and how fast everything can come crashing down.

When we meet Montana, he’s living through the Mariel Boatlift of 1980. Reagan is president; Castro’s Cuba is injecting criminals and innocents alike into the United States. Tony is a mere pawn in two nations’ game, but he has ambitions greater than being a puppet. In the first scene with him, when he is getting questioned by Floridian immigration police, we get to see the first of the fantastic acting by Pacino. He hooks us in, appeasing to our American sentimentalism: He is poisoned with hatred against communism; he abhors when people try to control him and what he can say or think. It is this which makes us root for Montana, a man willing to do anything to get ahead. The difference between the common person and Montana
however is that he is willing to do whatever it takes to get whatever he wants.

I believe this is a fantasy that everyone has had at some point in time, however silly and naïve. Perhaps that is why we love to indulge in romanticized gangster flicks. We want to see a rise to power staged as a revolt against common life, miserable commutes to work, waiting in line like every person, and most of all, having to be bootlickers to people higher in status than us. There is a reason why we smirk and guffaw when Frank (Robert Loggia) tells Montana, “You’re gonna find out your biggest problem won’t be bringing in the [drugs] but what to do with all the cash!” THE MONEY, THE CARS, THE WOMEN, THE HOUSES, THE SUITS, THE POWER. Tony is our guilty fantasy of being able to have anything you want at a moment’s notice. Not to the extent of becoming a drug lord (I hope not anyways), but at least in our day to day lives. We all have those moments when we could say something, do something. We think of what we could do but we choose to stay put, stay silent. It makes us ponder, what would happen if, out of the blue, we stood up to the drivel we put up with everyday and made our presence known to our burdens.

One of the recurring messages that we see throughout the movie is “THE WORLD IS YOURS.” It is a calling to the audience. “Look what you can have if you just take the chance to get it.” Power and Greed sits on his shoulder like the devil and tempts Tony, and it is due to this indulgence that we witness the slow decline of Tony. I do not believe that Tony is naturally sin-seeking and maliciously evildoing for fun. He has some sense of morality. A horribly balanced and broken moral compass, sure, but he has his moments.

He is, at least at first, not a complete monster. He does want to better his family. He wants to see his mother stop slaving away in some factory and he wants to see his little sister, Gina (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), stay out of the broken world of drugs, sex and vice he perpetuates. The latter, unfortunately, to a point of abusive over-protectionism, shown when he castigates his best friend, Manny (Steven Bauer) for even mentioning his sister's attractiveness. While he plans to blow up a political figure's car, he refuses to kill the guy's wife and two daughters. Hell, he even looks down on those who do, calling them cockroaches, as if he is
any better than them. It’s a very strange dichotomy. Montana is not completely separated from emotions and feelings and a sense of wickedness. It pokes at the fact that we love to judge people so much, as if we are saints, free from shortcomings, but when was the last time we looked upon ourselves and criticized our features and ideals? It is so much easier to steal things than earn them. Lying to make us seem more ideal to others is easier than chiseling ourselves into better people. Montana, or what he embodies, is closer to us than we think, and one of Scarface’s best features as a gangster film is that it puts us in front of such a mirror. It grabs all of us, the sinners and saints, and sits us down for a judgment of our true selves. Bringing us on this journey, it shows the end of what a life of brutality and vile aggression gets you: a glorified bloodbath of steel, smoke and death.

The rise and death of Tony Montana clearly has a Shakespearean influence. I think that it lies somewhere between “The Tragedy of Macbeth” and “The Tragedy of King Richard III.” The ambitions of Macbeth ring akin to Tony’s. He, too, both faces paranoia and dethrones a king-like drug baron. Like near the end of King Richard III, he is haunted by the killings he has committed. Pushing away his friends and his family, he is nothing but an ugly, broken husk of a human being. In ultimate anger, he takes on a small army and in a blaze of glory, he dies full of bullet holes (I know, King Richard III got stabbed, but it’s basically the same death scene). It’s a fantastic scene and one which went down as one of the best shootouts in cinema. I know because some people have never seen "Scarface," yet know the quote “Say hello to my little friend.” It’s a very height-of-the-war-on-drugs-moral-of-the-story ending: If you put yourself in a life of crime and drugs, you’ll ruin your life and everyone around you until you are dead or wish you were dead. I have no doubt in my mind it was designed that way. I have no doubt you couldn’t make that the point of the movie. I’m not accusing the movie of being propaganda, as it would be silly to bottle up the whole film into a single political talking point on narcotics, but the message is clear here.

The best scene in the entire movie, however, isn’t some shootout, and no, it’s not a person getting tortured with a chainsaw. It’s the dinner scene where Elvira (played by a then-unknown Michelle Pfeiffer) leaves Tony at the fancy restaurant after having it with his constant belittling. They were, from the beginning, two broken people in a marriage set to fail. Tony only saw Elvira as a trophy to obtain, to have his kids, and to serve no other purpose than cheap late-night
pleasures. Elvira was already herself in a broken marriage, so from one boring narco to another, chasing coke and pleasure, she fell for Tony. When Tony reveals to Manny and the audience that Elvira is infertile, implicitly due to the constant drugs which she consumes all the time, making her useless to him, there is no reason for Tony to continue being with Elvira. To him, she’s just a drug addict, one who will smoke and drink and snort themselves to a young grave. After Tony physically attacks her and she leaves him, he gives a broken monologue to the people around him.

These lines are perhaps the most important lines of the film, where he says that “everyone wishes they were him.” He states that we, the audience and the common people of society, wish that we were willing to break the rules, do what we want whenever, with whatever, with whoever. It’s ironic that he puts on a show of what such a life would get you. A childish temper tantrum of arrogance, macho-ism, and narcissism. The scene ends quietly with patrons returning to eating, living their lives. It’s an emotional performance with meaning that shouldn’t be overlooked, and shines as fantastic acting by Pacino and direction by DePalma, truly a great scene.

The last thing that I think I should touch upon is, of course, the soundtrack of the movie. To explain the effect of the music from this movie on our perception of the 80s as a significant part of the era would extend this analysis much further than it already is. The synth-y city pop and electronic post-disco songs give an unmatched vibe of what that era was like. The lyrics' references to coke, materialism and ambition are infamously good. The soundtrack album is truly something which both soundtrack savvy and general music lovers need to check out.

In conclusion, watch "Scarface." I understand that some people are hesitant to watch “old movies,” but from a modern perspective, there is nothing that makes this movie not hold up. There is a difference between art that’s timeless and art that’s outdated. Timeless art doesn’t lose its charm. It stands the test of time, and is significant enough to continually examine, even after its popularity fades. People listen to Chopin, read Shakespeare, watch “old movies” because classical music, classic literature, and classic movies alike are all significant enough that they can be appreciated forever, beyond their creators’ days. Naturally, outdated art is the complete opposite. They are fads, gimmicks, shocks in the market, and will be one day forgotten. There is only so much time to spend, so might as well make it something good, so try on this movie and you might gain an appreciation for the yesteryears of generations prior.

TL;DR, "Scarface" makes you question your judgment on others when your actions committed aren’t exactly saint-like either. It stands to show what happens when one relies on unchecked ambition, blithe
morality, and tries to solve everything through aggression and violence, and its consequences. Definitely a must watch. 8.75 out of 10