Scarface (1983): A Twisted Version of the American Dream

In 1983, Brian De Palma went about remaking the gangster movie Scarface from 1932. The original was directed by Howard Hawks and was based on the life of Al Capone, its name even coming from Capone’s moniker of ‘Scarface’. The difference being instead of the rise of an immigrant through the Italian Mafia, which Hawks had focused on, De Palma would stray from the Chicago setting, modernizing the story of Scarface for the 1980s. This time the spotlight would be shone on the rise and proliferation of the Latino gangs. De Palma wanted to show the transformation of these criminals from street gangs into the narcotics dealing powerhouses that would later rule and influence much of America throughout the decade.

Set against the backdrop of 1980s Miami, and the aftermath of the Muriel Boatlift, De Palma took a perfect snapshot of the era. De Palma’s Scarface not only takes a look at the world of narcotics but also the effects of Fidel Castro’s mass exodus of all of his detractors and anyone that he saw as a drain on his communist regime. This act put immense pressure on not just President Carter’s administration but also American society as a whole, the after-effects would be felt for years across the country, with areas such as Miami being the worst affected by Castro’s decision.

Although De Palma focuses on Tony Montana’s story, it is a story like so many others, the tale of an immigrant that came to the land of milk and honey, in the pursuit of happiness. These types of rags to riches story have always been the thrall of America since its discovery. Its shores seem ever bountiful, a land where the only thing that seems as plentiful as the opportunities are the riches that those said opportunities allow one access to. When you’re on the outside of such a place, looking in can be every bit as painful as it is lustful, to look upon such a place is almost mesmeric. This is what draws people in their droves to America, but it wasn’t that wanderlust that brought Tony Montana to the American shores, it was actually something far more nefarious.

When Fidel Castro decided to banish anyone who would not align themselves with his and Cuba’s communist ways he would take the opportunity to empty his country of all the “dregs” of Cuban society. This term “dreg” was a large generalization used to describe the emptying of not just the Cuban prison system, but also its sanitariums and its institutes that homed its mentally ill. It was a horrific strategy by a callous ruler. It was this act of cruelty by Castro that began the story of not just Tony Montana but many other immigrants into the criminal underworld in an era where the violence and lawlessness were unlike anything that had been seen since the days of prohibition.

Tony and Manny stand in front of a tent in Freedom Town, under an over pass with a large group of people behind them
Tony (Al Pacino) and Manny (Steven Bauer) in Freedom Town

In the prohibition-era, gangland justice was rife but even that time paled in comparison to the level of criminality that ravaged America during the 1980s. This violence was brought on by the ungodly sums of money that were to be made from the sale and distribution of cocaine. Now the immigrant experience changed for many from the prospect of milk and honey, instead, it became more about the prospect of shirts made of silk and stacks of money. Although the aims of success remained the same, the means in which to acquire it changed drastically.

The grind was no longer with the aim of climbing the legitimate ladder, in its place were the ambitions to gain power and reputation on the streets. These ambitions where oftentimes paired with acts of vicious brutality, committed by people who have so little to lose but so much to gain. This is the allure of this kind of criminal world. The trappings and temptations are oh so hard to resist, especially for people who have been cast aside by their own nation, left to drift alone along treacherous waters.

It is only human nature if a person finds themself cast adrift, then the first thing they do is grab hold of something safe, something familiar, this is what so many of these Cuban immigrants did. The honest hard-working Cuban immigrants went to work in factories or other jobs they had previous experience in like Tony’s mother. This was the same for the criminal element that joined the mass exodus to America they too gravitated to what they knew, and that was a life of crime, a life of violence, and the rewards it brings. They arrived in the United States, they bore witness to the riches that were just spilling out onto the streets, just waiting for someone to reach out and pick them up.

The money was not the only thing that was spilling on the streets, they were also awash with blood, the era of the cocaine cowboy was well and truly on its way, and just like many people before or since Tony Montana was a product of his time. He was an ex-convict who had previously served in the Cuban military, so violence is all he knew, it was the only thing he was ever rewarded for. The only reason Tony and Manny were even able to gain entry into the U.S was that they agreed to assassinate a former member of Castro’s regime who was responsible for the death of Frank Lopez’s brother back in Cuba.

Ttony is bound and held a gunpoint, while Angel is tied to a shower curtainrail while a man points a machine gun at him, another man threatens Tony with a chainsaw.
Tony is bound and held at gunpoint in the Sun Ray Motel

Tony Montana’s story is definitely a case of starting as one means to carry on. He begins his journey by spilling blood and this is just a portent for what is to come. Just like its beginnings the rest of Tony’s story is soaked in blood, his rise is as brutal as it is swift. Tony’s introduction to the criminal world of Miami is as vicious as it comes, having to watch on as your friend is hacked to pieces by a chainsaw-wielding maniac is likely to have an effect on how someone views the world around them. Tony is taught from minute one that there can be no room for error in this world that he now finds himself smack dab in the middle of.

It is this encounter with the Colombians at the Sun Ray Motel that acts as the catalyst for everything that comes after. It not only colored Tony’s perception of the underworld but it was also his gateway into the higher echelons of the gang that had just recently joined; this moment is so pivotal in Tony’s journey. The brutality that he witnessed on his very first drug deal shows him the cost of this kind of living. This event is the main driving force behind him being in such a hurry to make a success out of himself within the Lopez gang. Tony was made all too aware of his own mortality, at this moment he comes to terms with the immediacy of life and the ever-looming presence of death.

This fear of dying, especially without leaving a legacy, ignites Tony’s ambitions and love of the fast-paced lifestyle. This is the cause of all the friction between him and his boss Frank Lopez. Tony was so hungry for success that he made deals behind Frank’s back, as well as making advances on his girlfriend Elvira, but throughout all of this Tony never betrayed Frank. This is the first sign of Tony Montana’s unique code of honor that he lives by. Even though he saw Frank as soft, he never turned on him, on the contrary, he constantly looked to grow Franks’s business in terms of scale and territory, it was actually Frank who betrayed Tony, which is what led to Tony ordering his execution.

Tony sits at a table with one arm in a sling and another armed with with a handgun
Tony points his gun at Frank

This is something of a reoccurring theme in Scarface, Tony comes across as trigger happy but he only ever seems to resort to the most extreme measures when he feels like he has been betrayed or that he has to break the code he lives his life by. Tony only killed Frank after he had betrayed him, as I mentioned previously. This was the same with Mel, Tony was willing to work with the corrupt detective, even though it was begrudgingly, Tony only turned on him after he had a hand in his attempted assassination.

It is the same when he kills Manny, of course, Tony is in the wrong here, but in his mind, Manny broke the code, he betrayed him by going behind his back and starting a relationship with his sister Gina, who he had previously warned him away from. It was not like Tony didn’t have reason to kill Manny before this, it was Manny’s botched deal that saw Tony arrested for money laundering and tax evasion but Tony gave him a pass. These are the risks they take in this line of business but when he broke his code that was too much for Tony, thus leading to Manny’s execution.

The ramifications of the botched deal led to Tony having to agree to commit the assassination of an outspoken journalist. It was during this attempted assassination where Tony kills Sosa’s henchman Alberto, but only after he too broke his code and tried to get to him to kill the journalist’s family, who were also in the car with him. This is more evidence that Tony only ever kills someone when he feels as though they have betrayed him on a personal level, business is business to Tony but to betray his loyalty to him is unforgivable.

Tony stands in the doorway over Manny's, who is lying motionless on the ground mortally wounded
Tony stands over Manny’s lifeless body.

Tony is an extremely complex character, it is these complexities every bit as much as his rags to riches story and lavish lifestyle that makes him so intriguing. This enables Scarface and Tony Montana to resonate to this very day with so many people that feel as though they are in a similar situation, so many people look to the tale of Tony Montana and Scarface as a benchmark to aspire to, but that was never meant to be Brian De Palma’s intention. They see themselves in Tony, not knowing that Brian De Palma wasn’t trying to glorify this style of life. With Scarface, De Palma was actually attempting to do the exact opposite.

He wanted to show the evilness of greed, the dangers of the criminal lifestyle, the problems with a life of excess, and ill-gotten gains. How it poisons the mind as much as it poisons the heart, and soul of a person. De Palma went out of his way to show the immorality of such a lifestyle and the ramifications that are caused by it, that everyone that it touches is eventually left either dead or scarred by it, that there will be no happy ending to this American dream. Make no mistake about it, Scarface is a cautionary tale.

De Palma wanted to show that with power comes isolation, the more powerful Tony becomes they more alone he is. Tony pushed everyone away from him and became increasingly paranoid about not just his enemies but also his friends. Manny even mentions the extent of Tony’s paranoia, saying that 12% of their profit was going on counter-surveillance—this is another sign of Tony being a product of his times, Fidel Castro and Cuba are famed for their counter-surveillance tactics—In many ways, Tony had become everything he hated, he sought to escape the paranoid oppressive rule of Fidel Castro but in the end, he became the paranoid oppressor.

This is something De Palma went through great pains to show with Scarface. De Palma wanted to show us that when you are consumed by the need for power that you yourself are the one that becomes consumed by it. De Palma used Scarface to show that power or extravagance is no replacement for human relationships, that the true riches in Tony’s life were his friends and family, that without his loved ones around that Tony’s life was hollow. He was consumed with greed and control, this cost Tony every relationship he ever valued, leaving him on his own at the end to face his demise. This is what De Palma was portraying with Tony’s story, that if you allow yourself to be consumed by materialism, you will push away the ones you love and you will end up all alone.

Written by Vincent Greene


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  1. I was born in the 70s and seen this movie as a teenager, I’ve never understood much about it however I find this movie one of the best of its era and after reading this article made it all sense to me thanks!

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