Scarface, starring Al Pacino, is an essential part of any film noir/crime drama list. Volumes have already been written about it, so I’ll avoid summarizing its plot or ranting about its genius. If you’re looking for a summary, check here. If you’re interested in how Scarface performs as a piece of noir defined media, read on.
1) The Seedy Underworld
The seedy underworld of Scarface is primarily the sun-drenched beaches, gaudy manors, and hedonistic night clubs of Florida. The film noir dips down to South America twice, where we’re shown a factory FILLED with thousands of kilos of cocaine, and there’s a trip to New York City as well. Other settings include car dealerships, taco stands, and huge bathtubs. Scarface set the standard for tropical noir, and these settings have influenced dozens of other works.
2) The Anti-Hero
Tony Montana (Al Pacino) is the anti-hero of Scarface. A recently naturalized Cuban refugee, he’s headstrong, arrogant, and egotistical to a fault. Yet, overall, he’s unbelievably ambitious. Tony walks a maddening line between decency and depravity, causing audiences to simultaneously love and hate him. This balance is what every anti-hero strives for, and Tony nails it. Pacino’s role has become an iconic mainstay of American cinema, no other actor will ever be able to pick it up again.
3) The Femme Fatale
Two women qualify as femme fatales in Scarface. First, Elvira Hancock (Michelle Pfeiffer) is an excellent example because she represents the unobtainable. As the boss’ wife, she is the angelic symbol of Tony’s aspirations. She becomes the embodiment of success and achievement, and Tony believes that he can have her (and must have her). Her presence in the story drives him to absurd lengths, and sets him on his final fatal trajectory.
Second, Tony’s sister Gina Montana (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) is also a femme fatale because she also lends to his downfall. She represents the only pure thing left in his life, and his powerful desire to protect her becomes a stumbling block late in the film. It leads to his irrational slaughter of her husband (and his best friend) Manny Ribera (Steven Bauer), and his failure to halt the impending demise of his empire.
Misogyny plays a definite role in the way that Tony Montana’s world is interpreted. His interactions with the opposite gender border on domination, and even though his behaviors seem influenced by love, they are ultimately misogynistic. His utter disrespect and disregard for Gina’s agency is the most potent witness of this theme (see above). With his own wife, misogyny takes on a different form. He has a list of ideals that he expects her to be, and then he verbally berates her when she fails to meet his standard. Both relationships are unhealthy, and each are fraught with masculine oppression of the feminine.
The redemption theme in Scarface is subtle. This subtlety is a result of the lack Tony Montana’s background story. We learn that his father was American (at least Tony says so), but no further details are given. Additionally, the setting in which he reveals this does not inspire belief (he’s being interrogated by US Customs). It appears that the ambitious fabric of Tony’s character is based upon some past failure that is never shown, or some embarrassment that he is over-compensating for. We’re never given the full story, but he seems driven for a redemption that we cannot understand. (Anyone interested in seeing a Scarface prequel? I am).
“What you lookin’ at? You all a bunch of f***in’ a**holes. You know why? You don’t have the guts to be what you wanna be. You need people like me. You need people like me so you can point your f***in’ fingers and say, “That’s the bad guy.” So… what that make you? Good? You’re not good. You just know how to hide, how to lie. Me, I don’t have that problem. Me, I always tell the truth. Even when I lie. So say good night to the bad guy! Come on. The last time you gonna see a bad guy like this again, let me tell you. Come on. Make way for the bad guy. There’s a bad guy comin’ through! Better get outta his way!”
The theme of eroticism also plays an important role in the film noir Scarface. It revolves almost entirely around Manny’s character, because sex seems to be one of his central motivations. He’s constantly in pursuit of it, and we see him frequently indulging his carnal appetite. Alternately, Tony sets his sights early upon Elvira, and all other women fade from his view. To him, it’s not so much that she’s beautiful as she’s untouchable. Her unavailability is erotic to him.
7) Loss of Innocence
Probably the most memorable scene involves a horrific display of violence and a resulting loss of innocence for Tony. His first real chance to prove himself in Frank Lopez’s (Robert Loggia) organization is during a drug exchange. He’s given money to purchase cocaine from a group of Columbians and the swap turns violent. Tony watches his friend Angel (Pepe Serna) get cut to pieces with a chainsaw. The effect on this event has on him is interesting, because instead of frightening him away from the drug-lord lifestyle it encourages him. He seems to reverence the memory of Angel by striving to make his death count for something.
8 ) Racism
The only racism in the film is delivered by a stand-up comedian (Richard Belzer), who makes several jabs at Cubans right before the famous night club shoot-out.
Cubans with Cuban cigars throughout the film prove that Scarface appreciates its noir roots.
Tony Montana is completely driven by the fear of emasculation. This fear helps us to understand his trigger-happy reaction to Manny and Gina’s marriage. Having previously warned Manny to stay away from her, he was humiliated when he found out that they had gone behind his back. To Tony, his only means of salvaging his manhood was through violence. Throughout the film, he won’t allow himself to be belittled or bullied in any way. This theme rears itself again in New York City when Sosa’s (Paul Shenar) organization expects him to car bomb a man, his wife, and children. Tony becomes angry and shoots Sosa’s representative. The apex of his masculinity reached at the top of the grand staircase in his house, where he guns down dozens of Sosa’s assassins while taunting them. Here are the final lines of the film, the testament to his ego:
Who you think you f***ing with?
I’m Tony Montana!
You f*** with me,
you f***ing with the best!
I’m still standing.
Come on! I take your f***ing bullet!
Come on! I take your f***ing bullet!
You think you kill me with bullets?
I take your f***ing bullets! Go ahead!
Thank you Brian De Palma (Director) and Oliver Stone (Writer) for this exquisite film noir.
TRIVIA From IMDB:
“F” word used 226 times
Oliver Stone wrote this film while fighting a cocaine addiction
The Spanish title of the film, “El Precio del Poder”, literally translates to “The Price of Power”.
The word “yeyo” is used by Tony Montana (Al Pacino) as a slang word for cocaine. This word was not in the script, and was ad-libbed by Pacino during the first drug deal scene (chainsaw scene), and Brian De Palma liked it enough to keep using it throughout the film. Pacino learned the word while learning the Cuban accent.
Scarface earned Brian De Palma the Razzie nomination”Worst Director”
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