Having recently read Armitage Trail’s 1930 novel of the same name, which kick-started the big screen spin-offs, I thought I’d take a look at De Palma’s version again, not having watched it for a good twenty years.
All Tony Montana has at the start of his Miami life is his balls and his word, and as he says, he ‘don’t break them for no one’. Well this ball-bustin’, X-rated macho fest has fuelled many a male fantasy in the subsequent years. The poster’s a best-seller, and boys can get their photos taken to look like Montana, would you believe. Why anyone would want to be this archetypal model of self-destruction is beyond me, but as Tony tells the diners in a restaurant, ‘You need people like me’, and viewers have wanted, if not exactly needed, big screen gangsters since the roaring twenties.
Tony’s off the boat from Cuba along with all the other exiles. Is this really a communist propaganda film? I’m sure Castro would love it. ‘You know what capitalism is?’ Tony asks at one point. ‘Getting fucked’. And if The Man doesn’t fuck you, do it yourself by OD-ing on ill-gotten wealth and cocaine.
‘We’re losers, not winners,’ says Montana’s wife during the powerful restaurant scene. She lives in a kind of coked-out coma; isolated, alienated not only from Tony, but the world. Tony, meanwhile, is bloated from all the power and wealth he’s accumulated. His dinner table speech is a brilliant expression of disillusionment from the pen of Oliver Stone. Perhaps only Stone could match the excess of an era with such a manifesto against greed and capital(ist) gains. His talent and De Palma’s ability to depict vulgar grandeur and set-piece slaughter create a delirious portrayal of the American Dream as nightmare.
Much of Scorsese’s romancing of the gangster looks like the work of a Mob groupie compared to this film. The appeal of Marty’s anti-heroes is understandable, to a degree, especially when sexed up by choice cuts of hip music and smart clobber. But Montana? For all his swagger, he remains a little man, plagued by insecurity, rampant egotism and paranoia as he roars down the road to Hell.
Crucial colours here seem to be red and white; the blood that boils in Tony and bursts out of all those bullet wounds, and the mountains of coke inhaled by him and his wife. By consuming so much of what has made him rich he is, of course, devouring himself.
De Palma and Stone pump up the self-loathing and decay to such a level that it can only explode, as it does, in a climax of emotional agony before a spectacular flood of blood and guts.