Academic journal article Journal of Film and Video

At Work in the Genre Laboratory: Brian DePalma's Scarface

Academic journal article Journal of Film and Video

At Work in the Genre Laboratory: Brian DePalma's Scarface

Article excerpt

Fade in on the death throes of a man, his body riddled with bullets, screaming with anguish and adrenaline. An army of assassins in camouflage garb attacks from all sides. Impossibly, the man continues to fight back. After his agonized body has absorbed many more bullets than seems humanly possible, a lone gunman-finally, almost mercifully appears and fires a single shot. The man topples from the balcony he has commanded and falls into a decorative pool of water far below. The last image we see is of his spread-eagled form, face down in the water.

This is the death of Tony Montana, which concludes Brian DePalma's Scarface (1983). What is striking about this sequence is not the defeat of the gangster but the way his final appearance persistently evokes associations with a film genre supposed to inhabit different territory altogether, that is, the horror film. The scene could easily be taken from a monster movie in which the culmination demands a prolonged, superhuman burst of energy from the creature before the assembled forces of civilization (as variously defined) bring the monster to its knees. In fact, the final image in Scarface employs cross-generic conventions to create a tense but lively interplay of forms that typifies both this film and other 1980s gangster films.

Robin Wood has argued, "One of the greatest obstacles to any fruitful theory of genre has been the tendency to treat the genres as discrete," and the exchange between DePalma's Scarface, a direct descendent of the gangster line through its parent film, Howard Hawks's 1932 Scarface, and the horror genre helps explain the resistance of some critics and audiences to this film, as well as its cult status among others ("Ideology" 62). More important, by acknowledging the "interaction and multiple determinacy" within American film, Wood's approach offers a way to accommodate generic change (72). If, as many scholars have proposed, genres serve as problem-solving constructs for the cultures they reflect and are fundamentally conservative structures, committed to (inevitably) temporary resolutions of the hopeless contradictions that produce their dramas, then DePalma's Scarface exemplifies the ways gangster films of the 1980s redefined generic solutions by reconfiguring the problems the gangster film traditionally posed.

Specifically, the 1980s gangster film extends the treatment of the criminal as ethnic alien found in the early genre pictures. The crime film of the 1930s presents the mobster as a recent and unwelcome immigrant to this country. The earliest genre exemplars customarily offer warnings (gangsters are not "men" but social problems) and strongly worded recommendations that citizens should "do something" about these intruders preferably evict them. The 1932 Scarface, for example, features additional footage exhorting citizens to "put teeth in the Deportation Act."1 Anyone who deserves the opportunities available in the New World, these films urge, will assimilate himself as quickly as possible. To rub out cultural difference is to rub out the violent criminal.

The gangsters' ethnicity in these films tends to function more as a colorful aberration, however, than as an area of difference to be investigated. In the 1980s gangster film, ethnic, racial, and gender differences have moved to center stage, where they can be examined before they are managed or eliminated. Further, by introducing elements from supposedly alien film genres, the 1980s gangster films pose a cinematic analogue for the mechanisms of social accommodation.

The suturing of conventions from screwball comedies (in Married to the Mob), musicals (The Cotton Club), and film noir (Prizzi's Honor) to the gangster formula has created an amorphous, aesthetically daring, and often compelling body of work. But whether in the anarchic chaos of some of these hybrids or in the near-seamless matches, they often disguise a conservative treatment of ethnicity, race, and gender that resembles the xenophobia espoused in films made 50 years before. …

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