Scarface (1983): A Cross-genre Creation
The image of a man riddled with bullets, in the last scene of Scarface (1983), screaming in agony creates a rush of adrenalin felt by the audience. Next, the sequence shows, an army of assassins showering bullets at the already fallen body, when the bullet-ridden man miraculously fights back and takes in more bullets than is humanly possible until a lone shooter emerges firing a single bullet, almost mercifully, killing the man at last. His dead body tumbles from the veranda that has been a symbol of his reign and falls face down in the pool.
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This is how Tony Montana meets death in Brian DePalma’s Scarface (1983). The end of Tony is not just the end of the gangster but also that of the whole idea of gangsters swarming the streets of America. Tony represents the man unwanted and undesired by society, yet required as a source of its hedonistic pleasures. The bloody final sequence of the film resembles that belonging to another genre, the horror film. In retrospect, the scene could have been from a monster movie where the climax calls for a persistent herculean gust of energy. Finally, all the forces of the universe bring the monster to its knees. The similarity between the downfall of the monster and Tony’s death is uncanny. I believe the element of tension is infused in the final scenes of Scarface by employing cross-generic sequences (in this case a hybrid of gangster and horror film).
Before discussing cross-genre, it is important to understand what genre means. According to Daniel Chandler, the word genre is derived from the French word ‘class’ or ‘kind’ that is distinct (Chandler, na). However, some scholars believe that any form can appear in any genre (Welsch, 1997). In other words, the possibility of a cross-genre leaves an immense vacuum that filmmakers can utilize to stylize their films. DePalma’s Scarface (1983) goes beyond the gangster genre and creates something that many of the gangster movies followed during the time. Even 1932 original by Howard Hawks show some adherence to the horror genre (Hawks, 1932). However, the adoption of a hybrid genre that fused two intense forms into one helped DePalma create a larger than life in Tony Montana. This helped create the cult status of the film. Traditionally, gangster movies follow conventional and traditional structures and provide temporary resolutions adhering to the law. However, DePalma’s Scarface (1983) creates a new gangster genre reorganizes the problems faced by earlier gangster movies and create a larger than life depiction of the issue.
Race and Ethnicity in Scarface
Traditionally, gangster movies made until the 1980s have shown criminals as social aliens. The gangsters of the 1930s cinema were undesirable immigrants with no money and job. Often such gangsters were dubbed as “social problems” rather than humans (Welsch, 1997, p. 39). For instance, the 1932 Scarface shows that the main concern of the New York administrators was to act severely towards these criminals and deport them as these films vehemently argue that the opportunities in America were for those who adapted with the culture immediately. Therefore, cultural difference was shown through these vicious criminals in these movies. Therefore, ethnicity played an important role in gangster films as they showed an aberration from the normal course of life. The gangster movies of the 1980s had become the operating theatre for race, gender, and ethnicity where they were scrutinized, controlled, or eradicated. Further, the incorporation of cross-generic elements in the movies was an analogous representation of the acceptance of the social differences.
Scarface (1983) was one of the most prominent films in the gangster genre as it was a successor to Coppola’s The Godfather made in the sixties. The movie created a space for itself, as the latter’s successor. The film was distinctly different from its precursor, creating a genre of its own. DePalma was best known for his horror and blood-spattered movies directed in the seventies and early eighties like Carrie (1976) and Dressed to Kill (1980). Though his work had not attracted equal attention as that of Coppola and Scorsese, nonetheless he created a classic gangster film with explicit viciousness and avaricious profligacy. Further, the idea of the immigrant had changed in the 1980s where the immigrant was alien but was not deported but was incorporated in the society.
The film was a reference to its precursors and a tribute to the 1930s namesake film. The movie recreates Tony Montana, played by Al Pacino, a Cuban immigrant to the US seeking political asylum in the mid-seventies. Montana is shown to be crafty and ambitious. A Miami drug lord, Frank Lopez, enlists him, along with his friend Manny. The maiden job that was given to Montana turned to become a chain-saw massacre from which he survived victoriously. Montana officially gains entry into the gang with this heroic act and lusts after his boss’s wife Elvira. On his road to success, Montana murders his boss and takes his wife as a trophy, and becomes the ruler of the drug mafia. However, more successful Tony becomes a gang leader, his personal life is shattered into a messy joke.
The primary plot of the movie revolves around the power struggle of the illegal immigrant and the American way of life. The fight is to gain control of space where Montana is a legal alien. Montana tries to gain control of his life and the space around him to make his presence felt in American society. The movie did not receive critical acclaim like its predecessors belonging to the genre (Larke-Walsh, 2010). However, it gained cult status by truthfully depicting the excess of the seventies society.
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The movie shows an abundant excess of the seventies. It showed smuggling of drugs, extravagant show of money, non-existing loyalties, and excess of violence. Scarface became a “cult classic” and hence assumed great importance from the audience (Larke-Walsh, 2010, p. 36).
Mise en scène
The soundtrack of DePalma’s Scarface (1983) is distinctly different from that of Hawke’s Scarface (1932). The aural quality presented by DePalma accentuates the hedonism that becomes the central theme of the movie. The use of a subwoofer and the pumping soundtrack of the disco music is distinctly different from its predecessors. The use of this kind of music is believed to be symbolically important for the enhancement of the performances and the plot. The deliberate use of synth-string and drums create the appropriate atmosphere of a seventies nightclub that sears the eardrums of the audience. The music is a representation of Montana’s super-human world of consuming power and addiction. The music almost transcends the viewers inside Montana’s head showing the party that is going on inside it. The music used in the film is unworldly and deliberately loud symbolizing the bizarreness and excess of Montana’s world.
The movie has long intense scenes depicting violence and excess of Montana’s life. In an interview, Bill Pankow, the editor of Scarface (1983), states that as an editor the most important tool that he used in the movie was to use the “audience’s imagination” (Oldham, 1992, p. 182). The editor uses implied suggestions that can transport the image to the mind of the audience. In other words, suggestive sequences help the audience to garner their imagination. Therefore, in Scarface (1983) the editor tried to show stylized versions of the violence wherein he chooses either not to show any violence or to show fragments of it. For instance, in Scarface (1983) the protagonist’s state of mind is demonstrated by his excessive desire to consume cocaine. Further, in Montana DePalma creates the postmodern hybrid of a monster and a criminal.
DePalma is known for his long uncut shots. However, Pankow points out that such long shots were edited even when the audiences were not aware of it. One of the uncut scenes of the film was the chainsaw murder of Angel, Montana’s friend, by the Columbian drug lords. Angel was cut into pieces with a saw. DePalma included the scene in the movie, as he believed it dramatized the violence generated in the scene. However, in the movie, DePalma does not show the actual cutting of Angel. Instead, it is skillfully and ingeniously designed and edited in such a way that it elicited outrage among the film critics. In this scene, Montana is chained to the bathroom rod, while Angel is cut into pieces. The scene was intense in savagery and energy, coupled with the political showcase of the drug smuggling racket that made it a memorable scene, even though DePalma did not show any bloodshed. Thus, the editing of this particular scene was so beautifully done that it makes one of the most memorable scenes in the movie even though it shows no explicit violence.
The lighting technique used in the scene typifies the gangster genre. The lighting in the chainsaw scene is ingenious. DePalma used two different types of lighting. When the drug trade was going wrong in the chainsaw murder scene, DePalma uses a three-pronged light, probably placed from the front such that the lights can fall on the object at which the camera focuses. This light accentuated the show of horror and violence of the scene. This light helped to show the beads of sweat that gathered on Montana’s forehead as he watched his friend being butchered. The creation of fear and revulsion at the same time is observed in the scene where Montana has to watch his friend’s brutal death (Goodykoontz & Jacobs, 2014).
Further De Palam abundantly uses natural sunlight, lights from lampshades, chandeliers, room light, etc. Done adhering to the classic film noir tradition, such lighting increased the perception of horror in the scenes. The lighting in the film shows a serious or sinister side of the gangster’s’ life with its play with shadow. The use of two lights helps the audience to connect more with the scene as it makes the character appear more real. Further, the use of high and low key lights in the apartment scene helped to demonstrate the mood of the actors. In the apartment scene, which is tragic, bright lights would not have suited the mood. However, high-key lighting helped to demonstrate the scene graphically and seriously. However, in the disco sequences, colorful rotating lights create happy patterns. DePalma uses appropriate lighting to show the mood of the scene.
The movie uses tracking shots that make the viewers feel a part of the scene. Further, the use of black and white in the poster and the beginning of the film indicate the presence of binary opposition in the film. In the scene where the immigration officers interrogate Montana, the former is asked many questions of his criminal background. Montana gives a negative answer to almost all of their questions. Nevertheless, his smug facial expression makes it abundantly clear to the audience that he was being untruthful. This scene is particularly interesting as it was taken in one single shot, for almost a minute, with the camera circling Montana in close-up. This showed Montana from the perspective of the immigration officers. The mise en scène is particularly important as it shows Montana sitting in the center of the room with the immigration officers surrounding him. As the officers are shown standing, the sitting-figure of Montana looks small, indicating that the officers suspect him to be a criminal. This also indicates to the audience that the film is a crime drama. Further, the use of close-up shots indicates that Montana is the central character of the film. This scene is particularly important as it gives a glimpse into Montana’s true character and the nature of the film.
The costume used in the film is a good depiction of the time. Glamorous nightclubs of the seventies with lithe glitter clad women and Al Pacino are short-sleeved shirts that depict the style of the age. In one of the scenes, Al Pacino sits drunk in a restaurant, dressed in a tuxedo and other actors in the scene dressed in a suit. In this scene, DePalma tried to replicate the attire of the high-class society on their evening out. In other instances, the costume of the characters was suitably planned and depicted the time properly.
The performance of the actors, especially that of Al Pacino is commendable. He performed exceedingly well in the role of a cocaine addict, a hedonistic villain. The repeated use of foul language in the scenes has been performed convincingly.
Scarface (1983) by Brian DePalma has created a genre of its own, deviating to a great extend from its predecessors Scarface (1932) and The Godfather. I enjoyed watching the movie, as it is a bold retelling of the Al Capone story but with significant alteration in the plot. For instance, in most of the gangster films, the protagonist who ultimately becomes the leader has Italian roots while Tony Montana is from Cuba. Further, criminal leaders showed in gangster movies become criminals because that was a way for their survival in America. However, Montana becomes a criminal by choice. In other words, he wanted to become a criminal while Vito Corleone in The Godfather had to become a criminal.
DePalma used various techniques to accentuate the presence of crime in the film. For instance, DePalma used slow-motion shots that helped accentuate the bloody scenes. Further, the heightened depiction of color in the shots shows that the film has violent content. Although repeated use of tracking shots is sometimes distracting. A repeated showcase of dripping blood and sweat makes the viewer realize the bloody content of the movie.
DePalma created a genre of a film. The music used in Scarface (1983) was completely different from that of The Godfather. The use of disco music instead of western classical pieces used by Coppola shows the difference in the aural treatment of the movies.
The social impact of the film is immense as it had a significant impact on the hip-hop and rap culture. The cultural influence of Scarface was evident when many rap artists in the eighties started calling themselves Scarface. The movie had a significant influence on the gangsta rap genre with its patriarchal superiority and racial ethnicity. Tony Montana became a symbol of the non-white immigrant community who believed to be the second-class citizens of the US. The gangsta raps that developed in the eighties had been strongly influenced by the villain hero of Scarface.
Chandler, D. (na). Introduction to Genre Theory. Web.
DePalma, B. (Director). (1983). Scarface [DVD]. USA: Universal Pictures.
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Goodykoontz, B., & Jacobs, C. (2014). Film: From watching to seeing. San Diego, CA: Bridgepoint Education.
Hawks, H. (Director). (1932). Scarface [DVD]. USA: The Caddo Company.
Larke-Walsh, G. S. (2010). Screening the Mafia: Masculinity, Ethnicity and Mobsters from The Godfather. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland.
Oldham, G. (1992). First Cut: Conversations with Film Editors. Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press.
Welsch, T. (1997). At work in the genre laboratory: Brian DePalma’s Scarface. Journal of Film and Video, 49 (1/2), 39-51.