The title pretty much says it all. I've watched Scarface (1983) probably 100 times, and I never understood what Tony Montana meant by the line
I always tell the truth, even when I lie.
Can anyone shed some light on it for me?
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We should first acknowledge that Tony is massively drunk when he delivers the line. Many statements uttered in such a condition simply don't measure up to normal logical standards. It's possible he's rambling.
Still, through several viewings of the movie, I have always felt that Tony did have a point with that line:
Tony is talking to the other rich, powerful people in the restaurant. Like them, Tony has done what he had to do -- including getting ruthless -- to establish himself in a place of privilege. As Honore de Balzac said, "Beneath every great fortune lies a crime"...
But unlike the others in the restaurant, Tony comes from extreme poverty and can't even begin to hide behind the trappings of the upper class. Tony's ambition is naked, his ruthlessness is not even thinly veiled, his desperate greed is plain for all to see.
That's what Tony is referring to when he says "I always tell the truth, even when I lie." As Tony sees it, the restaurant's patrons are all liars and crooks, one way or another -- but at least in his case, his nature is obvious, while the others in the room all pretend to be saints as they live like devils.
Think of Tony's earlier line to Manny: "in America, first you get the money, then you get the power, then you get the woman." That's in the beginning, and the restaurant scene is much later, after Tony and Manny have reached the top.
The restaurant is filled with other rich, powerful men and their elegant wives. And when Tony says "I always tell the truth, even when I lie," he is talking about what he has in common with these men, and also what separates him from them.
That could be an abbreviated way of acknowledging that things are hardly ever completely true -- especially when you factor in how people perceive what you say. Maybe in his world, there is never 100% truth and 100% lie when you speak to someone. There are always shades in between.
I think Robert A. Heinlein may have said it best:
It’s not enough to be able to lie with a straight face; anybody with enough gall to raise on a busted flush can do that. The first way to lie artistically is to tell the truth — but not all of it. The second way involves telling the truth, too, but is harder: Tell the exact truth and maybe all of it…but tell it so unconvincingly that your listener is sure you are lying.
Here is another one of his quotes that I like.
The slickest way in the world to lie is to tell the right amount of truth at the right time-and then shut up.
If you like his quotes, here are more of them.
It was Tony's self-identity.
The first key to understanding the meaning of this line is to understand that Tony was a literal guy. Tony always said what he meant, directly. He always spoke his mind, he never minced his words and he never hid his feelings. There was not an ounce of subtlety or nuance in him.
The second key is to realize that "telling the truth" was a recurring theme of the movie. It comes up three times.
When Tony gains the confidence of cartel boss, Alejandro Sosa. Just before Sosa unmasks and kills the informant Sosa says to Tony: "I like you, Tony. You always tell the truth."
When Tony is in the hot tub after the banker informs Tony he has to increase the bank's fees for laundering. Tony is watching the news and complains, "They never tell the truth."
When Tony delivers the famous line in the restaurant.
It's easy to imagine this recurring motif was deliberate film-writing by Oliver Stone.
It's worth noting that the restaurant scene in question also marked an inflection point in the downward descent of Tony's character in the plot. After Tony says in the same restaurant scene: "Say goodnight to the bad guy." From that point forward, it was all downhill for Tony Montana. The very next scene Tony kills Alberto (to save the wife and kids of their hit target)— the indelible act which seals Tony's fate with the cartel. And only four short scenes later, Tony kills his partner Manny which sets up the finale.
All that to say this. There is no hidden meaning to Tony's words. Tony was deceptive at multiple points throughout the film. But he never actually lied in a strict technical sense. So from Tony's perspective, he always told the truth. His truth-telling was crucial to Tony's self-identity. Always telling the truth was how Tony distinguished himself from everyone else in the world (the world that was his): the other bad guys, the wealthy restaurant patrons and even the bankers and lawyers Tony associated with. And, it was in this "truth telling," or, rather, Tony's inability to control his visceral impulses (e.g., killing Alberto and later, Manny) that lead to his ultimate downfall and execution.
I think the fact that Tony was from communist Cuba explains this. In communism free thought, speech is restricted. From the first scene it depicts this mindset.
How'd you like it? They tell you all the time what to do, what to think, what to feel. You wanna be a sheep baaa! You work aye? 10 fucking hours. You know nothing! You got nothing!
I think because of this cultural control he feels obligated to tell the truth as he feels it when he arrives in America. Now that he won't be punished for his opinions or views he understands freedom better than those who have taken it for granted. When you're forced by a system like communism to refrain from wanting your own destiny it creates a complex in people.
The fact is Tony and most other Cubans have been forced to lie to themselves because of political oppression but part of him wants to say the truth constantly. So when arriving in America and he discovers lying is everywhere but not forced onto people by politics, it must seem strange.
For example at the beginning of the scene he says:
Youre all a bunch of fucking arseholes. Wou know why? Cos you ain't got the guts to be what you wanna be!
I think because of the fact that he left a place that forced people to lie to themselves in order for the bigger picture, the wealthy Americans' mindset angers him! Their freedom is taken for granted and still they lie.
Example of Tony telling the truth, even when he lies: Detective Bernstein confronts Tony at the Babylon about past murders of Emilio Rebenga and the Colombians at the Sun-Ray Motel. Tony says: "Mel, whoever is giving you that information is taking you for a long ride." Literally, that is a lie, because of course Tony did kill these people. But Bernstein doesn't believe him, and Tony knows Bernstein doesn't believe him or doesn't care, so Tony is not trying to deceive Bernstein. He is just denying it out loud because if he admits it he goes to prison. Tony's denial is stated in kind of a sarcastic, taunting tone, as if he is really saying: "Yes, I did kill them, now let's see you try to pin it on me."
In other words, even if he states something that literally isn't true, it's not meant to deceive, and it's delivered with directness and sincerity. It sets him apart from the hypocrites at the restaurant, the so-called legitimate wealthy who are afraid to be who they want to be, and in so doing can't even be honest with themselves.
This was an interesting quote. What Tony was implying when he said this was that, even if he told a lie, it wasn't told just for the sake of lying. When he lied, he did it truthfully - meaning if he's going to lie, he's not going to make it seem like he's telling the truth. If he lies, you'll know it.
While it may seem a little complex to wrap your head around, this is actually in line with his actions and lines throughout the movie. He doesn't try to deny any of his mistakes when they are pointed out, and doesn't seem to be affected when someone finds out the truth about him. If he wanted to lie to someone, he'd rather do it with everyone knowing he's lying than being dishonest and trying to make it seem like what he's saying is actually believable. So, in a way, he's "lying" without actually lying, per se. Because of this, his only motivation for lying would be to make it look like a joke, than try to benefit anything from it. As a result, he probably sees lying as pointless and a waste of time. He's open with his strengths and his weaknesses, he has nothing to hide, and quite frankly doesn't feel the need to anyhow. A man with no concrete insecurities has absolutely no reason to lie whatsoever, about himself or about anyone else. Tony is someone who respects himself, and therefore sees lying as an escape route for the cowardly rather than a tactic used by the manipulative.
There is more that can be elaborated on this. Being from Cuba, the only traditionally communist country within Latin America, Tony undeniably has a great deal of experience with the treatment from his oppressive country's government. He understands how the system worked, how rampant corruption was, and how only an honest and courageous individual could manage to rise over the rest of everyone else. His description of life in Cuba at the very beginning of the film when he's in custody in Florida definitely gives some pointers on how hard it would be to get away with "lying" and secretive behavior in Cuba during the time Castro was in full power. "Chivato on every corner, looking after you? They tell you what to think, what to feel? Work eight, ten hours a day? You own nothing, you got nothing?" Knowing how hard his life must have been, having honesty as the most important virtue was crucial to Tony because he knew from a young age that the world was a tough and cruel place and you had to protect yourself at all costs.
People who are spoonfed everything from childbirth are more inclined to think that they can get away with many things especially with the use of lying. Tony is an example of how such morals are affected greatly by one's upbringing and one's experiences. That is the true meaning of said quote.