Cult Series: Shakespeare's Scarface

*Warning: contains spoilers*

Scarface’s reputation precedes it like no other, a cult classic bathing in the same prominence as Shakespeare’s greatest works. Just as Hamlet hangs latent in the air with every literary discussion, Tony Montana’s famous lines and legacy haunt cinema. Although the scope of influence might be different (Hamlet has had more time to oxygenate, to be fair) 'Scarface' has no doubt made a dent in our cultural vernacular as well as in the western societal mindset.

Credit: allocine.fr

'Scarface' tells of a Cuban man, Tony Montana (Al Pacino), who is shipped to the US during the Mariel boatlift. He is the first person we see after the credits, and we are instantly made aware that he is a smooth talker. A disagreeable, morally devious man who has a chip on his shoulder the size and shape of Cuban communism. Tony’s motivations are clear. He craves power, success, and everything that he felt was robbed of him by political extremism. Ironically, but not unlike Shakespeare’s Macbeth, it is exactly this extremism and brutality that Tony uses to obtain what he desires.

Because Tony is above all an ambitious man, and I mean ambition in the British sense, slightly derogatory, dangerous even. Ambition with all the nuance that Macbeth, Iago and the likes have coloured our understanding with. It is this ambition that Tony utilises to quickly climb his own Wheel of Fortune. It is this ambition that propels him into his ill-fated and tragic narrative. Aristotelian? Perhaps. Shakespearean? Definitely.

It is Frank (Robert Loggia), Tony’s boss, rather than any witches, that prophesies Tony’s fate. Early on in the film he warns Tony of ‘Chazzers’ – “a man who wants more than he needs and so doesn’t fly straight”. When Tony becomes vindictive later in the film, and ravenous for more power, he accuses Frank of being a chazzer, of being someone who “doesn’t fly straight”. There is a latent sense of horror in this moment, as Tony points his gun at Frank’s head, because Tony seems to have made a syntactical mistake. A chazzer is not just someone who doesn’t fly straight. It is specifically someone who wants too much and therefore doesn’t fly straight. Frank isn’t the chazzer in this moment – Tony is. Tony wants the whole world. He believes that the world really is his.

Enter Elvira (Michelle Pfeiffer), Frank’s Desdemona, the personification of the American dream – a blonde WASP with an attitude that one can only develop through a life of immense financial comfort. Tony has never seen anything so American before. After his usurpation of Frank, his newfound access to money and to power, he marries her. Tony wins her through transgression, through murder, just as Macbeth gets King Duncan’s bloodied crown. His brutality has secured him the power he craves, all the money he could want, and the woman he desires. He has reached the zenith of his narrative and we all know that there is only one way down.

Credit: allocine.fr

Tony’s relationship with his family is particularly interesting. His sister, Gina (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), admires and loves him. But his mother sees right through his arrogance the moment he steps back into their lives, and casts him out. Just as with Gina, Tony’s best friend Manny (Steven Bauer) grounds him just within our range of empathy. Manny opposes Tony as a character, simple, loyal, with nothing of the aggressive drive that the latter possesses. This is the seedling of sympathy for Tony that we, as the audience, needed for the tragedy. His relationships with his loved ones act as King Hamlet’s or Banquo’s ghosts do – their goodness haunts him. It is through them, both Gina and Manny, that we get a glimpse of what will push Tony face first into his fated outcome. Because shockingly, it is love that does it.

Tony refuses to kill a mother and child, at the expense of his own benefit. It’s this one glimmer of moral integrity, the first and last we see in Tony, that seals his fate and practically shoves him, dead, into his fountain with the words ‘The world is yours’ gleaming emphatically behind him. It is at this point, just like the last act of any Shakespearean drama, that shit hits the fan.

A paranoid, panicked Tony shoots Manny in a rage, under another fundamental misapprehension, a moment mapped out centuries before by Hamlet’s rash murder of Polonius. The tragedy is not exactly subtle here, and neither are the consequences. Gina becomes the Ophelia of the film. She is driven insane by the death of Manny, and stumbles through the last act of the film in a state of medical madness, undressed and with a sordid smile. She might as well have been singing limericks and handing out flowers in her petite-coat, for she ends up dying like a martyr to Tony’s cause – exposed and pre-Raphaelite in the stark light of everything Tony has done.

Credit: allocine.fr

There is immense catharsis when Tony finally dies. The film inverses the anatomy of Aristotle’s tragic hero in a way that seems so heavy with significance. Instead of a morally good man who dies at the fault of a fatal flaw, Tony is a morally devious man who dies because of the one good thing he did. This is the real tragedy.

Tony is a Frankenstein’s monster of everything we value in a character, a summation of history’s most prominent literary figures stitched together and brought to life by the lightning strike that is Al Pacino. 'Scarface' is like a twisted distillation of all of Shakespeare’s works, and frankly, I’m not convinced that “say goodnight to the bad guy” didn’t appear in at least one of Shakespeare’s drafts.

Edited by Juliette Howard, Film Editor

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