Miami. 1980. Al Pacino is a Cuban refugee looking to make it big in the land of opportunity. Enticed? You should be. Scarface, Brian De Palma’s 1980 three-hour thriller, begins rather ominously; the credits inform us that of the 125,000 Cuban refugees that arrived in Florida, 25,000 of them had criminal records. A rom-com this shall not be.
In the film’s first scene we are introduced to Antonio “Tony” Montana in a Florida immigration office. The sheer weight of Montana’s personality is immediately felt and the scene serves as an early hint that Pacino is about to give you another masterful performance that will go down in cinematic history. Tony and his sidekick Manny’s opportunity to escape the detention centre they’re put into comes in the form of a hit on fellow inmate, Rebenga, a former aide to Castro. Tony’s response to the offer, that he “kills communists for fun”, seems to put him ideologically and spiritually at one the neoliberal ascendancy that’s coming in the America of the mid-1980s.
Despite the bravado, what transpires very quickly in Scarface, and what sets Tony apart from the countless other crime bosses of lesser films, is that he is very relatable. We all know someone a bit like Tony: loud, proud, impulsive; someone who finds it impossible not to say the first thing that pops into their head. And there is ultimately something inherently attractive about an individual that refuses to conform to societal norms, who has no problem turning right while everyone else moves left. Montana’s chutzpah, however, is truly something to behold. Even in the bombastic realm of motion pictures, there are very few characters who when defenceless and with a gun pointed at their throat, see it fit to query their assailant: “Why don’t you try sticking your head up your ass? See if it fits.”
The true thing makes Scarface a cult classic, and not just another gangster film in which the body-bags pile up and the f-word is used liberally — a full 218 times in Scarface’s case — is that the film isn’t really about the crime or the guns or the drugs, even if they do make for great viewing. Scratch beneath the surface and it becomes clear that Scarface, like The Great Gatsby, is at its heart a criticism of the idea of the American dream. Through the medium of Tony Montana, the film showcases the fallacy at the heart of the American Dream: that the accumulation of more and more wealth is the key to greater happiness and fulfilment.
In what must go down as one of Pacino’s finest scenes in his stellar career, a drug and alcohol-fuelled Tony goes on a rant, lashing out in turn at his wife Elvira, his partner Manny, and by the end, virtually everyone in the high-end restaurant he is dining in. Tony at this point has come to the realisation that he’s been sold a lie, and that all the crimes he has committed have been for nothing. The accumulation of vast wealth has not yielded him happiness; all it has given him is a wife who doesn’t love him, a partner who no longer trusts him and no real friends that he can rely on. Tony’s American dream has turned into a nightmare.
Unfortunately for Tony, he comes to this realisation far too late and is in way too deep to do anything about the perilous position he finds himself in. Hemmed in on all sides, he ultimately responds in the only way he knows how. Scarface, therefore, is a cautionary tale. In his self-reflection Tony Montana, in repudiation of the mantra of the decade, arrives at the crushing conclusion that greed, in fact, is not always good. It is ultimately this tough lesson about what we should prioritise in life, and what we shouldn’t, that makes a viewing of Scarface so worth your while.
Illustration by Katie Moore