Deconstructing Scarface (1983): Challenging Its Cultural Perception

Scarface has become legendary in popular culture for its memorable lines while serving as inspiration for numerous rappers, where Tony Montana’s rags to riches story is a blueprint for their careers. They have dedicated rap lyrics to Tony such as “I take over the streets fresh off the banana boat. I come straight from the east, where niggas split your cantaloupe” [1] and “born alone, die alone, no crew to keep my crown or throne. I’m deep by sound alone, caved inside, 1,000 miles from home” [2]. It is clear rappers like Future, who stated he simply wanted “to be respected out of the game” [3], and Nas’ influence from ‘growing up in the inner city’ [4] have been inspired by Tony’s forthright and determined demeanor. Future and Nas clearly felt their own rags to riches story connected to Tony’s. Scarface as a result can be observed as a glorification of the criminal lifestyle, where acts of murder, drug-taking and materialistic desire are glamourised. However, the idea that Scarface glorifies a criminal lifestyle can be seen as a misperception; Tony Montana fell as quickly as he rose in his quest to dominate Miami’s underworld with horrific consequences. Scarface is a morality tale, instead of the rise and fall of an ambitious immigrant wanting his part of the American dream. Scarface is more closely related to its 1932 predecessor of the same name, which criticised American gangsters who dominated the nation’s media and called for the American legal system to respond with justice. Scarface contained themes of immorality and corrupted individuals from its predecessor. Scarface should be interpreted in relation to themes of immorality, horrific repercussions of a criminal lifestyle, excessive and materialistic desires.

Tony Montana’s Deceitful Characteristics

Tony Montana lying to Immigration Officials to gain entry to America.
Tony Montana lying to Immigration Officials to gain entry in America.

Tony Montana, according to Curtis Marez, was a ‘common source of inspiration’ [5] for rappers who idolise him in popular culture. Tony came from a poor background to stake his claim in the American dream, where his determination resulted in vast riches and power. This would have been inspirational if not for Tony’s criminal lifestyle being fueled by deceit and greed. Scarface‘s opening scene showed Tony being interrogated by Immigration Officials, to check for any criminality in his past. Tony is quickly revealed to be lying in his answers firmly establishing his deceitful characteristics. This was a pivotal scene as it not only established Tony’s deceitful characteristics, it also indicated his criminality as entering America through deceit helped Tony’s violent rise to power. This is where Scarface took inspiration from its predecessor, as its protagonist behaved callously which served as an inspiration for Montana’s characteristics. This clearly is not what can be defined as an inspiration character, rather an immoral one.

Once Tony became established in Miami’s underworld, his deceitful behavior became more shameless by flirting with Elvira, his Bosses’ girlfriend. This aspect to Scarface follows its predecessor as its protagonist was also deceitful with others emphasising his immorality. This is significant to Tony’s deceitful characteristics as he showed no remorse for others’ emotions, making him immoral. Tony’s lack of remorse not only emphasised his immorality but also reflected why he could be a criminal, not caring whose life or lives he ruined. Tony’s deceitful characteristics reached a pivotal moment when visiting his mother and sister. Whilst his sister was naive to Tony’s intentions, his mother could see through Tony’s deceit. “Who did you kill for this, Antonio?”, his mother immediately asked, as she proceeded to criticise Tony. If Tony is seen as an inspiration for some, then why do they not take into account his deceitful behavior making him increasingly immoral and a shame upon his family? If they did then maybe Tony’s admirers might understand the darker side which dominated his personality.

The Horrific Realities of a Criminal Lifestyle

Horrific repercussions for Tony Montana as a criminal in Miami's underworld.
Horrific repercussions for Tony Montana as a criminal in Miami’s underworld.

Scarface, as well as being regarded as an inspirational rags to riches story, is also accused of exploiting crime for action-filled entertainment. Ken Tucker noted ‘thinking broadly about how to drive that story line to new story lines, and thinking about the content as part of a new entertainment’ [6]. Therefore Scarface is referenced through its scenes of violence as if it is an action-based film. However, Scarface followed its predecessor in reflecting horrific realities of a criminal lifestyle. Scarface‘s predecessor was made to condemn gang rule in America and the Government’s indifference. This was depicted by gangsters going on murderous rampages with horrific results. It was this moral standing which Scarface was influenced by, reflecting the horrific repercussions of a criminal lifestyle. The infamous decapitation scene of Tony’s associate Angel underlined such horrific realities. These scene made use of close-ups, emphasising the chainsaw and suspenseful music to convey terror within Tony seeing Angel brutally murdered and potentially suffering the same fate. This scene contradicts Scarface‘s reputation in exploiting action and glorifying criminality. Tony’s horrified reactions and fear of decapitation should have indicated to audiences horrific repercussions rather than a celebration of a criminal lifestyle.

A similar infamous scene of Omar, an police informant, being hung from an helicopter as a message for Tony to keep in line with business associates. Scarface was not exploiting or glorifying crime, instead it was reflecting crime’s brutal reality. This brutal reality in Scarface always represented crime’s consequences as disturbingly violent, there were no redeeming values as a criminal in Miami’s underworld. Despite Tony’s deceitful characteristics, eventually he became disillusioned with his criminality when asked to take part in an assassination. Tony questioned the assassination taking place knowing innocent children would be killed. Tony stood out of his criminality to compromise the assassination attempt, which triggered his own death. Tony’s realisation of his criminal lifestyle took influence from its predecessor, where its protagonist becomes increasingly dazed as his life drastically changed. Scarface has become misinterpreted in glamourising criminality and instead should be seen as conveying horrific realities of a criminal lifestyle with no positives.

Excess and Materialistic Environment

Club Babylon
Club Babylon, a frequent place for the characters in Scarface. It personifies lust for excess and shallow materialism felt within the characters.

The argument for Scarface being seen as glamourising Tony’s lifestyle can be further diminished in portraying its environment in an excessive and materialistic manner. Scarface might be seen as incorporating 1980s styles since it was the time period. However, this incorporation can be interpreted as representing tackiness. This style reflected materialistic shallowness, coinciding with the characters’ excessive nature. Club Babylon is a frequent location where Tony visits for business and pleasure. Every time Tony entered Club Babylon, a piece of crass pop music would play. Wherever it was Debbie Harry’s Rush Rush, Amy Holland’s She’s on Fire or Daily’s I’m Hot Tonight, they were representations of cheaply-produced pop songs which lacked ingenuity only offering a quick rush with no substance, symbolising the characters’ lives. When Tony became established in Miami’s underground, he was surrounded by contemporary styles within modern apartments and flash clothing. The lavish surroundings and clothing from an aesthetic perspective were the characters’ representing themselves as prominent individuals. Yet deep down it all equated to a shallow existence leaving Tony and his acquaintances increasingly void of emotion.

Tony’s relationship with Elvira conveyed this shallow existence when she told him, “I have enough friends, I don’t need another one”. Elvira’s quote can be interpreted as an emptiness incorporated into the excessive and shallow reality of their materialism. Tony’s materialistic urges increased as he became bigger in Miami’s underworld. Tony purchased a Cadillac with leopard-skinned interiors. He proudly presented the Cadillac to Elvira, not realising how crass he looked. Once Tony became Miami’s underworld’s most prominent drug dealer, his excessive and materialistic behavior reached consuming highs. Tony was shown modifying his mansion with lavish portraits of himself and Elvira, surrounding himself with drugs which he takes on a regular basis and even kept a tiger chained in his back yard. Whereas some see this as Scarface making Tony’s lifestyle glamorous, it should be read as excessive and materialistic behavior on Tony’s part. Tony became less disciplined, losing control of his life when he has all the material riches. Scarface was conveying the repercussions of Tony’s excessive and materialistic lifestyle. It was not a glorious existence filled with comfortable surroundings, rather a soulless existence which could not satisfy Tony.

Scarface in representing Tony Montana as a deceitful character, showing horrific repercussions of a criminal lifestyle and the characters’ excessive, materialistic desires established itself criticising rather than exploiting crime. Tony Montana only cared for himself regardless of the consequences or feelings of others. Tony’s selfishness counters arguments of his position as an inspirational character for those willing to succeed. This extends into horrific repercussions of a criminal lifestyle, where Tony’s selfishness was equaled by the brutal violence and immorality he encountered. Scarface portrayed countless acts of brutality as a consequence of pursuing a criminal lifestyle, it was never meant to be seen as entertaining or part of a glorious rise to power. The excessive, materialistic desires emphasised by Tony’s crass taste reveal further flaws in arguments of Tony as an inspiration. These aspects of Scarface show why it should not be seen as elevating Tony Montana as an inspiration or glorifying criminality. Scarface should be seen as a cautionary tale of immorality and greed leading to disastrous consequences.

Works Cited

1. Future. 2012. ‘Tony Montana’. Rap-Genius.com. [Online]. Available From: http://rap.genius.com/Future-tony-montana-lyrics

2. Nas. 1994. ‘The World Is Yours’. Rap-Genius.com. [Online]. Available From: http://rap.genius.com/Nas-the-world-is-yours-lyrics

3. Langhorne., C. 2012. ‘Drake, T.I. & Ludacris See The Future, Pack Bags For Future’. Sohh.com. [Online]. Available From: http://www.sohh.com/2012/03/drake_ti_ludacris_see_the_future_pack_ba.html

4. Anonymous., N/A. ‘The World Is Yours by Nas’. Songfacts.com. [Online]. Available From: http://www.songfacts.com/detail.php?id=7849

5. Marez., C. 2004. Drug Wars: The Political Economy of Narcotics. University of Minnesota Press.

6. Tucker., K. 2008. Scarface Nation: The Ultimate Gangster Movie and How It Changed America. St. Martin’s Griffin.

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20 Comments

  1. i think its a decent movie
    but over all its way overrated for sure it is a fairly vague look into that kind of business and life style focusing on the money and dramatic aspects while missing a lot of detail.

  2. Valentine
    0

    Lets not forget the over all message of Scarface and why its do popular: Greed and Selfishness took him to the top and gave him everything he thought that he wanted, but in the end he was alone and left with nothing but a heaping pile of cocaine!

  3. For some reason, I had it pinned down as a film where Al Pacino get to be Al Pacino, with his over the top acting and the film being everything about Al Pacino being Al Pacino and that had put me off from seeing it for a long time. Till last night actually and I was mistaken about the film. Its a great bit of work.

    The film really develops well, and has many layers underneath, and is much more than just Al Pacino being Al Pacino. The plot develops fast but develops well, and is more multilayered than I would have thought. Al Pacino is still central to the whole thing of course, and he does the role brilliantly. That scene when he is leaving at the restaurant will stay with you long after the film is done. There is no doubt that Al Pacino totally steals the show, but he is very firmly backed by a solid script and gripping plot.

    The central message of the film is still that the life of quick money and crime is one heading for destruction, and Al Pacino plays the role brilliantly. The climax is sure a little too over the top, but then that what makes the film so memorable and really does drive home the message of the film, having the gangster go in a fiery shoot out kind of symbolises that the lifestyle of crime when it bites you the fall is the most memorable part of it all.

    A super film, that should really have gotten Al Pacino an Oscar.

    • Ryan Errington

      I agree with you. Whilst Scarface was well made and had a great ability of contextualising its themes, there has been a misunderstanding regarding Montana’s characterisation.

  4. Bill Hardison
    0

    I was a teacher in East LA at Garfield High School. Tony Montana was a hero to alot of the kids, and they would were Scarface T -Shirts. When I ask one of them if they good tell me something good about the character, they mentioned the scene where Montana doesn’t go through with the hit, because the target has their family with them. I went on to explain that Montana kills his best friend, gets his sister (Who he want to have sex with possibly) killed, his wife leaves him, and he dies alone like a dog. They still wanted to be Tony Montana.

    • Ryan Errington

      I can understand your bemusement at your students’ responses. The cult following Scarface has gained over the years has propelled Tony Montana to status of beloved anti-hero.

    • No, they don’t want to be Tony Montana (even if they say they do), they want his guts and what he accomplished. A lot of these kids come from poor homes and feel they have little opportunity in life so when they see someone over come all of that with sheer force of will – that’s exciting and inspiring. They are not as obsessed with the criminal aspect of it as you may think – they want the success, drama, exciting life and ability to overcome their obstacles. They need something to look forward to and someone to look up to. Just calling Tony Montana “an evil person” doesn’t help them much.

  5. I always felt uneasy about that chainsaw scene. I always felt it could be seen as foreshadowing Tony’s fate or possible consequence of his actions. The movie also shows Tony luck, a lot. He avoid’s death so much he believe’s himself to be invincible.

  6. S.A. Takacs

    I particularly enjoyed your section on materialism and excess. The violence in Scarface is never underrated, but I’ll have to watch the movie again and take special note of the excess.

  7. Helen Parshall

    I really enjoyed reading your article. Scarface is definitely something that I’ve stayed away from because I’ve always been suspicious that it’s horridly overrated, but perhaps I’ll have to come at it with fresh eyes. thanks for writing!

  8. I would agree that Scarface seems to be more of a cautionary tale about immorality because it culminates in Tony’s violent and meaningless death. However, I can also see the appeal of such a story, especially in what could be considered “counter cultures,” because he is an outsider who rises through the ranks and takes what he wants. Tony is, in a sense, empowered and that is appealing. Perhaps, however, due to the nature in which he rises–littered with ethics violations, law breaking, and moral corruption–he can never really be seen as legitimate and therefore, still remains an outsider despite the status he provides himself with. I imagine, though, that due to the film’s violent style that audiences mostly remember the brutality of the film and not its potentially valuable moral lessons.

    • Ryan Errington

      Scarface’s violence and action sequences most likely obscure its moral lessons. Though it is subjective if one sees Montana as an admirable outsider or not.

  9. Spearman
    0

    Scarface is my favorite movie!! I love it even more than the godfather which is also a brilliant classic. Fell in love with the movie, and have watched it probably more than 100 times since then!!! Here’s a topic for discussion, what if Tony montana hadn’t shot Manny, would tony have survived sosa’s attack?

    • venommob108
      0

      Tony still would die, and Manny would have died with him, or killed slightly before Tony elsewhere in the compound. However, Tonys’ sister would be alive, by not having a reason for coming to Tonys’ house to try and kill Tony.

  10. Venus Echos

    Thanks for putting this together. I don’t listen to Rap so I did not know that this film has an influnce on some of the lyrics. With these types of films and the reality of the news it is unfortunate that is part of our society.

  11. Nathan X Bowden
    0

    No matter the look on the film these are all true, but it’s ironic how once he did what many may feel was right; he got executed. Saying no to killing the wife and children, but all the people he had or killed affected someone anyways. So if you choose to be a Beasty Ass Drug Lord Assassin be ready to eliminate all barriers; Like a solider in any military….American Sniper kind of

  12. There always has to be some hipser shitting on this film or calling it “overrated”. I watched it about half year ago for the first time, I’m 22, and I thought it was good. Same with “The Untouchables”, even there I saw some people crying it was overrated and stuff. What is with people hating on Brian De Palma’s GOOD movies? Is this some stupid meme or something? I can’t take these people seriously.

    Still, “Scarface” is an interesting beast. Sure all the swearing was fun and the quotes were very memorable, but it was also very visceral, tragic and I didn’t feel like it glorified the criminal lifestyle. This movie is the tragedy of Tony Montana and perhaps people just ignore the negative side of the coin and focus on the ‘cool’ aspect more. But that’s just how people see it, the movie actually knows what it’s doing.
    Personally I can’t find a reason to remake this, it already updated the themes of the original film and added more bite to the story, the remake would be just capitalizing on a known title and get your money and leave, like the Magnificent 7 remake.

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