Paradise Lost: The Rise and Fall of Tony Montana in ‘Scarface’ (1983)

This film analysis was written for Flip Screen about one of film world’s most famous anti-heroes. The original post can be found here.

Matthew 16:26 asks the question “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?”. Strangely enough, Scarface has the answer.

Scarface has been dubbed a ‘dudebro’ favorite for its iconic dialogue, tropical aesthetic, and excessive ultraviolence. While this reputation intimidates many moviegoers from Brian De Palma’s film, the powerful tale of a man’s rise and fall should not be ignored. De Palma found his inspiration from Howard Hawks’s 1932 version, which originally took place during Prohibition when people turned to organized crime as a way to survive unemployment and applied it to contemporary problems.

De Palma’s adaptation was conceptualized during the Reagan era: a time when the business philosophy assumed that “greed is good” and abundant consumerism was the norm. Tony Montana (Al Pacino) is even warned by Frank Lopez (Robert Loggia), the first drug lord who provides him with work, that he should never “underestimate the other guy’s greed” when making business deals.

Scarface indulges mostly in the falseness of the American Dream: the glamourous transition from rags to riches. Tony arrives to the United States after the harbor opens in Mariel under the supposed promise that Fidel Castro wants Cubans to meet up with their relatives on the mainland. When interrogated by immigration officers, Tony explains that he considers himself to be a political prisoner, claiming that he doesn’t agree with the politics of his country and owns nothing under communism. He’s willing to do anything to escape the poverty and trauma, jumping at the chance to assassinate the Former Cuban General in exchange for a Green Card. In Tony’s mind, organized crime is the easiest way towards reaching the top. He doesn’t want to waste time getting into an honest business and an innocent man loses his life for this decision.

After Tony relocates to Miami, he becomes dissatisfied with working in a kitchen. He seizes another opportunity to make some big money, at the expense of his friend’s life, proving his dedication to the crime bosses. Tony’s cultivation of this badass persona is softened by his deep protectiveness towards his sister Gina (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio); he wants to give her money, so she doesn’t waste her time studying or struggling at a part-time job. Gina represents the innocence that Tony has to sacrifice for the sake of reaching the American Dream, not wanting her to experience his kind of hell. At the same time, Tony’s mother rejects his involvement in organized crime and claims that he gives a bad image to honest and hardworking Cubans. Tony loses the chance to maintain a relationship with her for the sake of pursuing his monetary greed.

Alejandro Sosa (Paul Shenar) warns Tony not to betray him as he agrees to supply cocaine from Bolivia independently from the other drug lords. This conversation signals when Tony’s rise begins, and foreshadows the cause of his eventual fall. Frank warns Tony to not bite off more than he can chew, saying: “the guys who last in this business are the guys who fly straight, lowkey, quiet, and the guys who want it all….they don’t last…”. Tony doesn’t want to believe that he can’t reach the American Dream, or else his ambition would have been for nothing, immediately deciding to kill Frank anyway and become the sole provider of Sosa’s products.

Within a few years, Tony starts earning enough money that he eventually finds trouble with the federal government over tax evasion. He feels lonely at the top, becoming dissatisfied with the lifestyle. The metaphor transcends into reality during the bathroom scene, in which Tony insults his best friend Manny (Steven Bauer) and his own wife Elvira (Michelle Pfeiffer) for the sake of maintaining his ego. Once they leave him alone in the room, the audience knows that Tony is beginning his descent. Elvira leaves him after he reveals that she can’t have children after her excessive drug use. The conversation snaps him back to reality when she openly wonders if he would even be alive in the next few years to raise their child. She is never seen in the movie again.

Tony’s strict protectiveness of Gina speeds up his downfall, especially after he discovers that Manny has dated Gina without his permission, and he murders Manny as a punishment to them both. Gina meets her own end when she is shot by Sosa’s men at Tony’s mansion. The two most important people of Tony’s life are now gone forever. Tony defends himself against the assassins for a while, but eventually falls into his living room’s fountain from a shotgun in the back.

Scarface is filled with many brilliant ironies but the fountain’s message of “The World is Yours” reigns over them all. It’s the philosophy that motivated Tony towards achieving the American Dream but also the same mindset that would eventually kill him. The audience knows in this scene that the world truly isn’t yours, especially after death. Everything that Tony seemed to own during his life was only part of a grand illusion perpetrated by capitalism and greed.

Even if Tony had survived the last assassination attempt, every important person in his life is gone. Sosa’s men would always be hunting Tony, so he would have no security. Scarface needed its anti-hero to die right then and there. Tony’s story wouldn’t be his story if it ended any other way.