There are many parallels in the gangster film to Greek mythology and drama. In the 70s, Robert Warshow pioneered this perspective on the genre in his now famous essay The Gangster as Tragic Hero. Since most gangster films follow a single character who rises to a place of power only to lose it in the end, Warshow concluded that these films were reminiscent of Greek tragedy.
By the 80s, we have Scarface. A film which is as close to Greek myth as O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Screen writer Oliver Stone, who went on to direct Alexander, took this underlying parallel to Greek tragedy and brought it to a new level. Stone deliberately incorporates every archetype of Greek tragedy into the story. And, just in case we miss the subtext, director Brian De Palma includes Grecian art and sculpture in the background of nearly every shot in the final sequence.
Even the title “scarface” draws a parallel to the Oedipus myth. In Greek, Oedipus means “clubbed foot” on account of the injury he incurred as baby.
The Child Oedipus
Both characters are recognized by a physical deformity, and the stories in which they star are named after this deformity. Oedipus for his crippled feat and Tony for his scared face.
Tony Montana is a modern Oedipus. He is guilty of hubris and slowly alienates everyone around him. He is able to solve the riddle of the American Dream, but, in the end, he is destroyed by his own success. He discovers that he has laid the foundation of his life on diseased and infertile ground. “Her womb is…polluted” (1983) Tony tells Manny about his coke addicted wife, Elvira.
“Nothing exceeds like excess…”
Elvira personifies the corrupt side of the American Dream, thus Tony’s instant infatuation with her. Through the lens of the Oedipus myth, she is the Sphinx.
Oedipus and the Sphinx
Her lines are full of double meanings and vicious sarcasm. She fits Dr. Elizabeth Vandiver’s classification of, what she calls, a “monstrous female” (2002) in Greek mythology. She is impossible to please and threatens masculine power.
The “pollution” that Tony talks about also explains the theme of incest which is not made apparent until the film’s conclusion. The idea of pollution is central to Greek tragedy, and especially Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. The entire play deals with the discovery that an unnatural relationship has caused plague ravage Thebes.
In the final scene, Tony’s murderous rage over his sister Gina’s secret marriage is revealed as sexual jealousy. Tony is in love with his own sister.
Shortly after, he is attacked by an angry mob and defends himself to the death on the edge of a balcony. This image evokes scenes where the Chorus persecutes the main actor in a Greek tragedy. Tony stands and fights back, from a position of power, but is inevitably gunned down by his fate.
Recently, I’ve started really getting into gangster movies. I was never really interested in the genre before because, like a close-minded-jackass, I didn’t think they had much substance. This could not be further from the truth. Unlike similar crime genres, such as the heist film, these films deal with more emotional and psychological drama than the average tear-jerking woman’s film—a genre with a whole set of problem I won’t go into here. Issues of family, society, and spirituality are all explored to the highest emotional degree.
There is also a mythic quality to these films. American ideology is captured and put to the test. Characters like Rocky Sullivan, Michael Corleone, and Tony Montana both undermine and solidify what it means to be an American.
They represent the best and the worst in us. In the gangster film our national psyche battles with itself before our eyes. And, being that the gangster genre has remained popular since the 1930s, we don’t seem to be able to look away.