Scarface

The World is Yours:
Scarface and the Art of Swagger 

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How do you make a memorable character? Is it through catchy dialogue? Good looks? Heroic deeds or dastardly plots? What about body language?

Since the film Scarface arrived in 1983, Tony Montana has swaggered through our memories. Empire Magazine lists him in the top 30 film characters of all time.

What makes Montana such a memorable character?

tony montanaIt’s all in the way he moves. We remember Tony Montana because of that swagger. Even in the end he strutted towards death.
Montana arrives in the United States from Cuba. He’s interrogated by immigration officials, revealing his desire for freedom, his dislike of conformity and constant monitoring, and of imprisonment. His hands and arms dance through the air, his body twists in strange angles, swatting and dodging any potential problem the officials sling his way. Nothing can touch Tony Montana.

Montana’s gestures and posture grow to represent different phases of his life as the film progresses. Look at Montana when he meets crime lord Frank Lopez. He’s offered a seat on the couch and drops to the sofa like it belongs to him. His slouching pose shows a lack of respect towards his host. Montana is a man who is very comfortable—more comfortable than he should be—in a mobster’s home. His body language says that he is on equal terms with Lopez, even if that is far from the truth. At this point he’s just a grunt who does the dirty work for the big man. But Tony exudes confidence. He struts through the world because he believes it’s all his for the taking.

But success brings paranoia. He has cameras watching all over his mansion and monitors inside each room so he can keep watch over everything that happens around him. Montana says it makes him sleep well at night. He has enemies everywhere. He’s watching them and they are watching him. He’s imprisoned again, this time in a cell of his own making.

Contrast Tony’s movements in that early introduction to Frank Lopez to those during a meeting with a group of drug lords. Montana drops onto a new couch, but this time he’s deflated. He looks the weakest man in the room, afraid, not someone poised to own the world. Later, he’s slouched down into his seat at a fancy restaurant, so small he’s almost not present. This is a defeated man.

How does Tony become this defeated man?

His own hubris—the very belief the world is his. He has simultaneously become like the Cuban communists he escaped from at the beginning of the film—always watching and ordering those around him, and the prisoner he was in Cuba—now trapped by success and monitored by the law and his enemies. While Montana’s refusal to temporarily give up power and follow through with an assassination ultimately does him in, the labours of success and wanting more wear him down throughout the film. He must build and maintain his empire, making enemies along the way. He controls his sister’s life. He longs for a family but his wife is unable to have children. Both he and his wife become addicts of the very product that made him a success. The threat of prison looms.

Inside Montana’s mansion is a statue with neon pink letters reminding him “the world is yours”. But the world doesn’t belong to Montana;SCARFACE-KINGPINS-OF-DESIGN he is just another human being worn down by the rigours of living in it. He is confined once again, his mansion now his cell. It’s only when an assault team comes to take him down that he springs back to life, his limbs swinging, his strut demanding attention. As he clamours for his enemies’ bullets we once again believe he’s invincible. Tony feels alive right when he is about to die.

As writers, it’s easy to forget our characters are meant to be living beings who do more than talk. And sometimes it’s not very fun to write about a character walking across a room or picking up a coffee cup. There’s an urge to bypass the simple things and get to the meat of the story.

But body language can speak louder than some of the best dialogue written. Would we remember “say hello to my little friend” if the phrase wasn’t accompanied by Tony Montana finally bouncing back, moving with confidence, crouching low and hoisting his M-16A1 machine gun, fuelled by manic power?

What will your characters do?

We remember Tony Montana not because he tells us to, but because his presence demands it of us. What will your characters do that will root them in our imaginations as firmly as Tony Montana has been for 30 years?

Writing exercise: Watch your favourite film or television show. Take notes on how characters move and physically present themselves during key scenes. Write a sentence for each scene describing the character’s presence.

 

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A writer and journalist, Josh Flynn is Mash Stories’s official journalist and one of the main blog writers. His essays, stories, and articles have appeared in The Indianapolis Star, Nuvo Newsweekly, Slam Magazine, genesisNerdSpan, and Punchnel’s. You can follow him on Twitter at @joshflynn.