Brian de Palma’s Scarface (1983) adopts and adapts several conventions of the gangster genre that feature prominently as icons on posters and in trailers for the film.
These conventions constitute and perpetuate the narrative image of “gangster” that audiences have come to expect from gangster films. Big guns, flashy jewels, impeccable suits, sexy women—these are the signifiers de Palma employs as semantics of the gangster genre. They summon forth ideas of “the gangster” before audiences ever see the film.
Scarface is a remake of another gangster film. Viewers who are unaware of this fact will nevertheless recognize the gangster signs and symbols used to market it. Tony Montana’s image remains popular today, some twenty-seven years after the film’s production. Scarface has become a lasting contribution to our national culture.
Poster A below never declares that Scarface is a “gangster film,” but viewers will recognize the gangster genre in it. The image of Tony split in half—black and white, good and evil—recalls the Jekyll-and-Hyde, romanticized gangster, a man at once decent and tragically flawed, a renegade tough guy with a soft spot and a sense of loyalty.
The poster is modeled on film noir, that cinematic genre known for black-and-white images, silhouettes, shadows, and low-key lighting. French gangster films such as Jacques Becker’s Touchez Paz au Grisbi (1954), Jules Dassin’s Riffifi (1955), and Jean-Pierre Melville’s Bob le Flambeur (1956) present the noir style that became a convention of gangster films. American filmmakers also experimented with noirish visuals. Consider Henry Hathaway’s Kiss of Death (1947) and John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950).
Signaling noir means assembling visual and stylistic elements attributable to the gangster genre. Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972) borrowed from noir. He and his public relations team used noir not only in the film but also in posters and trailers for the film.
Following the lead of Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai (1967), The Godfather demonstrated that noir could be modernized and modified and was not merely the product of an age of black-and-white motion pictures. It became a form of “neo-noir,” a name for a modified noir style.
Because of The Godfather’s enduring popularity, de Palma could not ignore it. The black-and-white silhouette of Tony in Poster A may represent a copy of Vito Corleone:
De Palma chose Al Pacino—who played in The Godfather and became associated with the gangster stock-type—to play Tony. Pacino’s gangster image was well established by the making of Scarface.
Poster A recalls Pacino’s gangster persona from The Godfather through associative images: a fancy suit, a big ring, a phallic gun. These patterned images enable predictions of the subsequent story conveyed through and with other visual elements (e.g., the frames within the film). The poster signals images and patterns from earlier gangster films and projects and defines audience expectation.
The icon of the long-barreled gun features prominently in Poster A. The gun is a predictable semantic of the gangster genre; a film without a gun cannot be a gangster film. For decades movie posters propagated images of guns to promote a particular film as “gangster.” Nearly all commercial images of Tony include guns. Posters B and C are but two representative samples:
Poster B features three guns: two pistols and Tony’s “little friend,” an M16 assault rifle. Poster C displays the M16, which enables and affirms the expectation that the gangster genre is involved.
These posters play up Tony’s extravagance and recall the American-Dream, rags-to-riches narrative that’s codified as part of the gangster genre. The American Dream typically involves immigrants overcoming the odds, navigating cultural barriers, and becoming successful despite or in some cases because of outsider status.
The trailer to Scarface speaks of “Little Havana”—an immigrant haven in Miami where the “American Dream had a price tag”—and of the “Land of Opportunity.” Crucial to both narratives is the recycled idea that immigrants who come to America elevate their social standing through hard work and tenacity.
Poster B tells this story as well: from top to bottom frame, Tony transitions from Cuban immigrant to successful capitalist to disenchanted egomaniac and at last to tragic hero.
Anyone familiar with the rise-and-fall convention of gangster film should recognize how Poster B participates with the gangster genre. The film’s trailer likewise replicates the conventional gangster plot, beginning with images of Tony in an immigration office and transitioning to images of Tony in nightclubs, fancy cars, swimming pools, and alas to the mansion in which “enemies” gun him down.
With all of this self-referentiality, it is no wonder that the trailer also has Tony mention Humphrey Bogart, who was known for his roles as a gangster.
Other interactive signals and images supplement an iconography suggestive of the gangster genre: women and “the femme fatale” figure prominently as memetic icons on Tony t-shirts that are available for purchase on the Internet.
Semantic elements of the gangster genre mean nothing by themselves; in the aggregate, however, they cultivate meaning and conjure up associations. They create a notion of “gangster” and condition audience expectations. Trained through iconography and symbology, viewers develop syntactic expectations of the gangster genre.