Scarface, Brian De Palma

Getting High on Your Own Supply: ‘Scarface’ as an Allegory of Capitalism

Scarface implies that under capitalism, “getting high on your own supply” is inevitable, as the system is based on the exploitation of dissatisfaction.

Brian De Palma
Universal Pictures
1 December 1983 (US)

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the release of Brian De Palma’s Scarface, a film that updated Howard Hawks’ classic gangster flick for the cocaine-fueled excesses of the 1980s. References to Al Pacino’s iconic role in the film have been central to pop culture since the early ’90s and are arguably better known than the content of the film itself, making it ripe for reconsideration.

Scarface is, of course, the tragic story of one Tony Montana (Pacino), a Cuban refugee who arrives in Miami during the Mariel boatlift in 1980 and quickly scales the ladder of success in the cocaine trade, only to fall victim to his own greed and hubris and be killed by gunmen sent by his South American suppliers. In Drug Wars, cultural studies scholar Curtis Márez argues that Scarface is an ur-text of drug war culture that establishes many of its representational conventions, notably the allegorical portrayal of militarization (“Say hello to my little friend!”), the movement of narcocapital (images of physical currency being counted), mass media and state surveillance (scenes with CCTVs), and the exploitation of subaltern workers in the industry (all those disposable South American extras killed by Tony in the final shootout). Following critic and philosopher Fredric Jameson’s readings of contemporary cinema, Márez argues that these aspects of the film figuratively represent “dominant and insurgent ideas about the role of the US in the global political economy,” and remarks how Scarface seems to reiterate establishment perspectives of the drug war, to the point that it was widely supported and praised by law enforcement officials at the time of its release. 

In his recently published study, Narcomedia, American Studies professor Jason Ruiz also sees Scarfac as transmitting an essentially conservative message, one linking Latin American immigration and drug trafficking as dual threats to US society. From his perspective, which is informed by Latinx identity politics, Ruiz highlights how the film contributes to early ’80s discourses that defined Miami as a dangerous and “foreign” city within the US, noting that it seems to echo conservative US views of the Marielitos as dangerous criminals. He wonders why Oliver Stone, of all people, would have written the Scarface character in this way. It might have something to do with the fact that the narrative of Marielitos as criminals was not only a conservative US viewpoint—it was also the official line from Cuban Prime Minister Fidel Castro. At any rate, “Pacino’s over-the-top performance of Cuban-ness,” Ruiz argues, also contributes to this overall portrayal of Latinidad, or “Latino-ness”, as a threat to Anglo-American sensibilities linked to drug trafficking and consumption. 

While both interpretations are valuable, these scholars have overlooked an important reading of Scarface’s plot as an allegorical critique of late capitalism itself and the place of subaltern Latin American subjects in it. The trajectory of Tony Montana implies that under capitalism, “getting high on your own supply” is inevitable since the system is based on the ever-expanding exploitation of universal human dissatisfaction, figuratively portrayed here through Tony’s compulsive consumption of cocaine and luxury products that his own sale of a valuable commodity permits. Furthermore, while Pacino’s arguably racist performance certainly reiterates Anglo-American prejudices about Latin Americans, the character’s trajectory also enacts the systematic exclusion of Third World subjects from the spoils of globalization.

As the theorist Sayak Valencia argues with reference to Mexican drug cartels in Gore Capitalism, subaltern men in Latin America often find that the only route to a “decent” life defined through consumption is the use of spectacular violence. Tony Montana prefigures such “monstrous subjects”, as Valencia calls them, in his tragic attempt to use violence to achieve the impossible goal of satisfaction and social ascendance through consumption.

In Scarface, Tony’s trajectory begins with his arrival in Miami, where he is stuck in an internment camp located under a highway overpass with the rest of the refugees. His friend Manny (Steven Bauer) arrives with a job that he claims will get them out of the camp and secure their green cards. All they have to do is murder a former high-level Communist Party official who has just arrived from Cuba. Tony tells Manny to relay his response: “I kill a communist for fun…But for a green card, I gonna carve him up real nice.” After inciting a riot, Tony takes advantage of the chaos to stab the man, thus murdering communism and earning his entrance into the capitalist society.

In Scarface‘s next scene, we see Tony and Manny washing dishes in a restaurant, dissatisfied with their earning potential and social status. Thanks to Tony’s insistence, they are soon offered a job by the same gang that hired them to take out the communist. They must purchase two kilos of cocaine from Colombian smugglers and transport it safely to the boss to earn $5k. After nearly being murdered with a chainsaw, Tony takes the coke to boss Frank López (Robert Loggia) and meets Frank’s girlfriend, Elvira Hancock (Michelle Pfeiffer), the blonde gangster’s moll who embodies the social capital to which both Frank and Tony aspire. Impressed with Tony’s work, Frank invites him to The Babylon Club, a paradigmatic late-’70s disco, to show him the “good life” to which work in the cocaine business offers access. 

Sitting in a booth and smoking a cigar—a luxury product and a symbol of Cubanidad—Tony listens as Frank offers a crash course on capitalism. He illustrates lesson number one, “Don’t underestimate the other guy’s greed,” with another gangster he refers to as a chazer, explaining to Tony that this is a Yiddish term for a pig, a guy who “wants more than what he needs” and “don’t fly straight”. Presumably, this vort is explained to Tony, a character whose backstory makes his knowledge of the mere existence of the Yiddish language highly unlikely, to indicate Frank’s connection to the US underworld, but also so that Tony can throw it back in his face later before he kills him.

Wanting more than you need is, of course, the cornerstone of a consumption-based economy, as well as a reasonable definition of addiction. The specter of this illness arises when Elvira interrupts to tell Tony lesson number two: “Don’t get high on your own supply.” Frank, clearly annoyed, seconds this and adds, with a hard look at Elvira, “Of course, not everybody follows that rule.” 

In the logic of Scarface, no one follows this rule because no one can. If Tony can be called a tragic figure, this is his hamartia, as inevitable as Oedipus marrying his mother. This is because Tony’s addiction to cocaine, modeled by Elvira, does not simply undermine his rational business acumen. Rather, it represents the very essence of business, the point of doing it in the first place: Tony sells to consumers so that he, in turn, may himself consume.

In his study of Latin American narcoliterature Drugs, Violence and Latin America, professor Joseph Patteson describes Western addiction to cocaine as a parody of capitalism—it shores up a solipsistic sense of self closed off to identification with the other and oriented towards consumption and domination, a state of affairs that leaves the addict perpetually unsatisfied. This is not due to any inherent quality of the drug itself. Indigenous peoples of South America who ingest relatively high amounts of cocaine through traditional coca chewing do not suffer from what we in the West call “addiction”. Tony, however, embodies the transformation of coca into cocaine, that is, the process of commodification under capitalism. The more he consumes, the more dissatisfied he becomes, as he systematically alienates everyone around him through his selfishness. 

Frank’s final lesson, though not part of his list, is imparted when the waiter brings them a bottle of 1964 Dom Pérignon: “five hundred and fifty dollars…for a bunch a fucking grapes!” When asked how he likes it Tony responds, “Woah, that’s good, Frank!” Thus is commodity fetishism demonstrated, though not critiqued. The wine’s exchange value is based on its function as a status symbol, which also makes it taste very, very good. This lesson is put into practice when Tony makes his first major purchase, a Porsche he hopes will impress Elvira (it does), and later, as Tony steals her from Frank, kills him, and takes over his business.

The ensuing montage, cited by Márez as an allegory of the movement of narcocapital through the modern financial system, with bills riffling through counting machines and sacks of money being taken to a bank, also includes a portrayal of consumption. We see Tony marry Elvira at his new mansion, unveil a portrait of them, show guests his pet tiger, and buy his sister a designer dress. It ends with a shot of Elvira sitting in front of a mirror with a far-away look in her eyes, taking cocaine with a small spoon, sipping from an old-fashioned glass, and anxiously taking a drag from a cigarette. In the very next scene, we see Tony in his office, garishly decorated in black and gold and with a bank of CCTV screens, negotiating with the financier who launders his money as he mirrors Elvira’s consumption in a less elegant fashion, slamming down his glass, chomping a cigar and noisily snorting lines off of a mirror. 

The dissatisfaction inherent to the search for the “good life” under capitalism is put front and center in Scarface‘s very next scene, which features Tony sitting in a huge jacuzzi filled with bubbles, smoking a cigar, and watching TV as Elvira does her toilette behind him and Manny, his right-hand man, attempts to convince him to talk to a new money launderer. While ranting at the news, Tony ironically criticizes the very thing that enabled his acquisition of wealth, arguing that bankers and politicians maintain drug prohibition to enrich themselves at the expense of people like him. His complaints even have a tinge of nostalgia for socialism: “You know what capitalism is? Gettin’ fucked!” Elvira responds sarcastically: “true capitalist if ever I met one.”

When Tony then criticizes her for doing too much coke, she replies, “Nothing exceeds like excess. You should know that, Tony.” As he continues to complain about how much money he is losing, she attacks him by pointing out his inability to acquire the cultural capital necessary to become part of the elite in the US: “You know what you’re becoming Tony? You’re an immigrant spic millionaire who can’t stop talking about money.” While Tony’s failure to successfully imitate the cultural codes of the social stratum to which he aspires is a leitmotif of Scarface, it is perhaps most memorably portrayed in a later scene where he creates a scandal in an upscale restaurant, drunkenly insulting Elvira and yelling at the high-class patrons to “say goodnight to the bad guy!”

Ironically, it is Tony’s attempt to be something other than a completely bad guy that finally costs him his life. When his Bolivian suppliers charge him with helping to assassinate a political enemy in New York, he blocks the hit to avoid killing the man’s family as well. Of course, it would be a mistake to consider this the hamartia of Tony’s tragic character. As I mentioned above, his error took place much earlier, when he assumed that he could participate in the drug trade (that is, capitalism) without “getting high on his own supply.” The spectacularly violent final shootout sequence makes this point forcefully, with an exhausted and isolated Tony messily snorting from a mountain of cocaine on his desk, his congested nose unable to absorb any more of the drug, his consumption having long ago far outstripped the pleasure principle.

After using his grenade launcher and dispatching several anonymous South American hitmen, Tony is finally gunned down and falls dramatically into a fountain at the base of his foyer. A crane shot shows Tony surrounded by dead extras. His lifeless body floats in the water next to a sculpture of three nymphs bearing a globe encircled, in neon letters, with his motto, seen originally on a blimp advertising Pan American Airlines—“The World Is Yours.” The final scene thus establishes an equivalence between Tony and the other subaltern Latin American subjects involved in the drug trade, prefiguring the “monstrous subjects” who take lives and whose own lives are taken by the machinery of what Sayak Valencia calls “gore capitalism”, the current neoliberal world order in which the social effects of both legitimate and illegitimate business are one and the same. 

Works Cited

Márez, Curtis. Drug Wars: The Political Economy of Narcotics. University of Minnesota Press. May 2004.

Patteson, Joseph. Drugs, Violence and Latin America: Global Psychotropy and Culture. Palgrave Macmillan. November 2021.

Ruiz, Jason. Narcomedia: Latinidad, Popular Culture, and America’s War on Drugs. University of Texas Press. October 2023.

Valencia, Sayak. Gore Capitalism. MIT Press. April 2018.