Scarface — both the 1932 and the 1983 versions — is a crime classic. With their swaggering, violent and yet charismatic and endearing criminal protagonists, they entrance us and make finger waggers wag their fingers and talk about the glorification of criminality. That, by the way, is a load of hooey. Just look at the ends of these movies. The protagonist ends up dead, shot to pieces and gaping up at the ironic message of ‘The World is Yours.’ All their friends are dead (perhaps at their hands) or have abandoned them. Their family hates them. Their wealth doesn’t bring them happiness or even safety. The films clearly states that crime does not pay. However I think that Tony Camonte and all his followers represent something that is quite different — but as just as subversive as glorifying the criminal lifestyle. They’ve got plenty of other messages, changing slightly depending on the times, but a lot of them either dance around or directly state that the American Dream — pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, coming from nothing and becoming something, starting from the bottom and being here — is a big fat lie. I suppose The Great Gatsby, with its criminal protagonist finding only alienation and sadness in the upper class, is the Ur-Scarface — but I think that’s another article.
So join me as we take a trip down the ages and look at Scarface and all the heirs to Scarface — like the countless movies and TV shows which feature their characters watching Scarface — and see just how the American Dream continues to decay down the ages.
The Howard Hawks classic is, for the most part, an exact copy of the familiar Brian De Palma version that we all know and love. There are still some differences, like the cops instead of rival gangsters, gunning Tony down at the end. Also, “Monkeys” is apparently the 1930s version of “cockroaches.” But Scarface, written by the socially conscious Ben Hecht, is also a social problem film that borrows a great deal from the life and times of the real Scarface — Chicago’s famed Al Capone. Hecht is tackling the social problem of crime and he dramatically point the finger at the viewer and asks for a change. For a modern audience, some of his supposed solutions — like regulating dangerous firearms — seem like a great idea. But deporting illegal Italian immigrants? Not so much. The film does suffer from an unfortunate anti-Italian bias, with a silly illiterate secretary as ‘comic relief.’ But it also presents a very dark and lawless version of America. Tony Camonte — and most of the characters — are not exactly sympathetic. Even the cops seem determined to beat up and kill Camonte and they’re probably intended to be heroes. It’s a brutal, violent film from a brutal and violent time. The closing, where Tony dies while staring at the ‘World is Yours’ sign, is a cold end to even his villainous hopes. I think it took the theme of American law as a failure about as far as you could in the 1930s and subsequent movies would take it further.
Jump forward a couple decades and you have the Oliver Stone/Brain De Palma/Al Pacino Scarface. Now, instead of iron shutters you have grenade launchers and instead of Italians you have Cubans — but it’s still the same story. Stone’s script and Pacino’s performance make Tony Montana more sympathetic than Tony Camonte ever was. Stone is also more harsh about capitalism in general. All the cool montages, fancy cars and pet tigers fail to bring you happiness — especially when you start getting high on your own supply. Scarface has plenty more nasty things to say about America — like Tony declaring that capitalism is ‘getting fucked’ and his impassioned restaurant speech to the wealthy hypocrites who perpetuate crime and sin but stay above it all because of their class. It’s more nuanced than the 1933 version — but shares the same bombastic, ironic ending. The message is clear — in America, you’re either honest, poor and pathetic or you break the rules, become a criminal and then die horribly. Nowhere is there an opportunity for happiness.
1991 New Jack City
I think New Jack City might have started what is now a major trend in crime movies — watching the 1983 Scarface and using that to, perhaps ironically, comment on the action. New Jack City follows the tradition of the 1933 in being a social problem film. This time, the social problem is the Reagan Era Crack Epidemic. New Jack City presents it as an American problem, with Wesley Snipes’ charismatic Nino Brown all but telling the audience that Reagan is responsible for the poverty of the poor. The film also shows the human cost of drugs and violence in some wrenching scenes that both Scarfaces would never visit. And like the 1933 Scarface, New Jack City presents answers to the problem — however in a much more nuanced way. Nino Brown points out that legalization of drugs would end his business completely and the movie closely with a message to the audience saying that simple slogans — doubtlessly referring to the ‘Just Say No’ program — aren’t going to work and that America needs to think of serious solutions. Perhaps New Jack City precedes The Wire in pointing out the failure of the War on Drugs as well as the American Dream. And rest assured, it does attack the failure of the American Dream, with Nino Brown coming from nothing, bursting up into conspicuous consumption — and then getting gunned down by the old man whose community he ruined with drugs. Also? This movie probably features the biggest ‘massive gold chain to actor’ ratio in the history of cinema.
2012 Spring Breakers
I, uh, haven’t actually seen Spring Breakers — so this is all based from reviews I’ve read — but apparently, they watch Scarface too. From what I know of the story, it seems like the Gatsby/American Dream has been changed from becoming a wealthy kingpin and living large to simply having an awesome, beer-spewing sex-charged party. Temporary hedonism is now the end goal. I’ll have to see Spring Breakers (I really liked Harmony Korine’s Gummo, so I have high hopes) to be sure, but so far, it seems to be the conspicuous consumption of Scarface slipping down to a natural low.
2008-Present Breaking Bad
They watched the 1983 Scarface in a recent episode of Breaking Bad and I think Walter White (who has been described as going from Mr. Chips to Scarface) represents a uniquely modern version of Tony Camonte/Montana. His American dream wasn’t to live large. When the show starts, he doesn’t want a mansion or a pet tiger. Instead, all he wants is a normal, middle class life. But, like everyone in a capitalist system, a little bad luck, some bad decisions and maybe a disease are enough to ruin that. And how does he provide for his family? Turning to criminality and realizing that the underworld is a dark mirror to the ‘normal’ world, with the same investments, petty tyrants, luck and victory available only at the price of your soul and the alienation of your friends and family. White damns himself many times over the course of the show, always trying to rationalize his greed while innocents pay the price. In that regard, maybe Walter White is a fitting Scarface for the modern day and age. Capitalism makes even normal life into an endless series of trials based on the destruction of others — and crime is capitalism at its most basic. Breaking Bad is more of a character piece than a social problem picture, but it’s main character is an everyman and perhaps that is why its commentary on America seems just as harsh today as Ben Hirsch’s picture did in 1933. Times change but crime remains constant and the world will never be ours.