Friday, August 28, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Carlito's Way (1993)

"The Street is watching. She is watching all the time."

-Carlito (Al Pacino), in Brian De Palma's Carlito's Way (1993)

Al Pacino has portrayed more than his share of cinematic gangsters over the years, from Michael Corleone in Coppola's classic Godfather trilogy to the cocaine-addled Tony Montana in De Palma's own incendiary (and brilliant...) Scarface (1983).

Yet it is Pacino's Carlito Brigante, in Carlito's Way (1993), whom I personally find the most haunting. Perhaps that's because Montana was but a despicable thug who spiraled into utter madness and self-destructive violence. And the powerful Corleone was a man who had everything...but nonetheless permitted his paranoia, secrecy and quest for legitimacy to destroy the things (and people) he valued most.

Or perhaps it is because, of all of these flawed individuals -- Carlito Brigante remains the one man who came nearest to authentic redemption; to escape. To a throwing off of the role destiny had so cruelly carved out for him.

Viewing De Palma's Carlito's Way again last evening, I realized that my enduring identification with Carlito or "Charlie" was no mere accident or happenstance. Director Brian De Palma has fashioned not simply another crime drama nor film noir here, but rather -- as he did in the example of The Untouchables (1987) -- a film of authentic mythic quality: a modern day variation on the Greek Tragedy, specifically as that term is defined by Aristotle in The Poetics.

And -- since this is De Palma we're talking about -- the director vets his tragedy with dynamic, canny and meaningful imagery. Consider that Carlito Brigante dwells in a world of illusions and dreams -- the world where he miraculously "gets out" and "escapes to paradise." Accordingly, in many important shots, De Palma utilizes reflections in mirrors to indicate that Carlito is no longer entirely part of the sleazy world he inhabits...but rather the world he dreams about. He is half-in and half-out of "the Street," and as we see, that's not a good place to dwell. Not until the end -- and his tragic death -- is escape actually tangible for Carlito; is paradise a colorful, living thing where he can, finally, truly, let down.

Once more, I appear to be in a small (if vocal...) minority in my appreciation for a sterling De Palma film. Regarding Carlito's Way, Rolling Stone complained, for instance, that "there's a secondhand feel to the way this gangster movie delivers the goods."
The Washington Post lamented: "Watching "Carlito's Way," all you can think is, "Brian, why aren't you over this gangsters and guns and blood stuff yet?"

Imagine -- just imagine for one second -- a film critic suggesting the same thing to director Martin Scorsese after Mean Streets, Good Fellas and Casino. Come on Marty, what's with all the gangsters, huh? Grow up, Scorsese, why don't you?

In my opinion, many critics missed the boat with Carlito's Way. If viewed within the framework of Greek Tragedy -- the film emerges as one of the best and most affecting gangster films ever produced. It concerns, literally, the full breadth of a gangster's "way." And how that "way" -- ultimately -- proves a fatal trap.

This Dream of Mine is So Close I Can Touch It
In accordance with film noir tradition, Carlito's Way commences with a voice-over narration. It is spoken by Carlito himself (Pacino) -- our main character -- as he flashes back from his death bed (a paramedic's stretcher rolling through Grand Central Station...) to describe for the audience how he came to his untimely demise.

The legendary Latino gangster reflects on the final year of his life: 1975. He was unexpectedly released from a prison sentence of thirty years duration due to prosecutorial malfeasance. His feisty, corrupt lawyer, David Kleinfeld (Sean Penn), was the man who arranged his freedom. And because Kleinfeld "saved" him in this fashion, Carlito feels he owes the slick attorney a huge debt.

Yet after five years in prison, Carlito no longer desires to return to the mean streets of the city as an "assassin" and "purveyor of Narcotics." He has gone straight...retired, and wants to chart a new, clean path. Among other things, he re-establishes his relationship with an aspiring dancer: the beautiful and sexy Gail (Penelope Anne Miller).

But fate has plans for Carlito. Soon after Brigante's release, David asks Carlito to oversee one of his floundering investments, a disco club called "El Paraiso," where the owner, Ron Saso is skimming money. Meanwhile, another thug -- the up-and-coming Benny Blanco (John Leguizamo) -- is desperate for Carlito's approbation. But after a violent altercation between Kleinfeld and Blanco, Carlito makes a mistake. Instead f killing the trouble-making Blanco, Carlito lets him go.

And then, finally, Kleinfeld manipulates Carlito into a half-backed scheme to exact revenge against a Mafia, family, the Taglialuccis. When that scheme turns to bloody, brutal murder, Carlito realizes his only chance for survival is escape. "You killed us," he tells David, realizing that the mob will now hunt him down.

With $75,000 dollars in savings, a desperate Carlito arranges to meet the pregnant Gail at Grand Central Station, where -- God willing -- they will board a train bound for Miami. From there, it's the Bahamas...and a new life. But en route to the train station, Carlito must contend with betrayal, theft, vicious pursuit, the Taglialuccis and an unseen enemy he had not counted on...

Everything I Hoped For. Everything I Need

Aristotle defined "tragedy" as the tale of a great person who undergoes a dramatic reversal of fortune. In undergoing that reversal, that character's dilemma (and fate) evokes pity (meaning sympathy) and fear on the part of the audience until finally -- following the denouement -- there emerges a feeling of "cleansing" or catharsis.

And importantly, the all-important reversal of fortune is affected by something called "hamartia," a Greek word meaning a character flaw or foible. This is a critical distinction: a hero's sad fate is rendered not because of the character's intrinsic moral defects, but because of a mistake, because of some wrong action undertaken.

Eventually, in a good tragedy, the affected character comes to a final recognition about this wrong action, and experiences an epiphany about his existence; about destiny...and fate.

Let's consider Carlito's Way in light of Aristotle's definition of tragedy. Carlito is a "great person" indeed, especially in 20th century terms. He's a legendary gangster who once knew power, riches and fame. Carlito's reversal of fortune involves his arrest and incarceration. Going to jail changes Carlito in a critical way, and he loses a taste for the life that gave him "honor" and "glory" on the Street. When he is released from jail, Carlito notes that he has been "re-born" (like the Watergaters, he says...) and that he desires to start fresh.

This is not a con, nor a lie...but fact. And yet trouble finds Carlito, first in a pool hall shoot out, and then in his old associations coming back to haunt him. Still, in every meaningful way Carlito attempts to escape the pull of crime, the pull of the Street. But then, one day, Carlito -- now half-out of the "streets" -- makes a fatal mistake. He disrespects young Benny Blanco, a man described to Carlito (by Saso) as "you, twenty years ago." Then Carlito compounds that mistake by letting Blanco live following an altercation in the disco. At that moment (which De Palma's reveals in telling close-up), Blanco understands that Carlito's killer instinct is gone, and that he is ripe for the picking-off. Carlito is-- in the lingo of Blanco -- "over."

This mistake leads to Carlito's downfall and death. And certainly, this is where "fear" and "pity" both come into the picture. Let's tackle "pity" first. Gail is pregnant with Carlito's child. Carlito and Gail just want to escape the city with enough money to start a car rental business in the Bahamas. Yet Carlito can't let go of another mistake
: repaying his "debt" to Kleinfeld. Gail notes in one scene that she knows exactly how this story will end, "how the dream will end:" With Carlito dead in an emergency room while she weeps over his lifeless body. Carlito's tragic end is thus predicted, and so we fear that the prophecy will come true.

De Palma generates "pity" or sympathy by devoting special care to the love story between Carlito and Gail. Critic Janet Maslin termed it "grandiose romanticism." And Zach Campbell at Slant Magazine noted that "the scenes between Carlito (Al Pacino) and Gail (Penelope Ann Miller) are touching and expertly calculated illustrations of deep-seated romantic feeling: rainy streets, late night coffee shops, dim apartments." In other words, we are meant to feel that this is more than a simple romance, but a love story for the ages. The love story befitting a "great person" like Carlito, king of thieves, and, in his own words, "The Last of the Mohicans."

The "fear" part of this Tragedy equation arrives in what is surely the greatest climactic set-piece of any De Palma film (and that's saying something, given the Odessa Steps in The Untouchables or the split-screen Prom massacre in Carrie [1976]). To the tune of "Lady Marmalade" first, -- and then some anxiety-provoking follow-up compositions from Patrick Doyle -- De Palma arranges a sustained, fever-pitched chase sequence. This set-piece takes Carlito from his bar to a train, to Grand Central Station, down an escalator, and onto a train platform.

During this sequence, the camera is continually in motion, Carlito is constantly in motion, and even the trains are in continuous motion. Carlito grapples with the Taglialuccis, Saso's surprise theft of his money, a betrayal by Pachanga, and even an obese mafioso who functions as a kind of wild card; always lagging behind the other crooks as an unwitting but dangerous rear guard.

Carlito attempts to elude his enemies at the train station, and De Palma artfully takes up his hero's stance with the camera: dodging, lunging, retreating, trailing, and cornering in what amounts to a breathless, nail-biting race. Carlito informs the audience in his voice over narration that he "is angling all over," and the same is undeniably true of De Palma's is sterling, gorgeous and, indeed, fear-provoking. It's angling all over, lifting us like a tide into waves of tension and suspension.

This electrifying denouement is so brilliantly staged that, at first, we don't even recognize the looming danger (Benny Blanco) until it's too late. Like Carlito, we're sprinting to that finish Gail -- in the distance -- waiting by the train. The first time we watch the film, we don't even notice that danger (Blanco...) runs hand-in-hand with Carlito right up until shots are fired. And again, this is form deliberately echoing content. Carlito's tragic mistake was writing off Blanco; was not seeing and sensing the danger the young hood represented. De Palma grants us a deliberate visualization of that mistake in the seconds leading up to Carlito's shooting.

In the end, after Carlito is shot, Gail's prophecy of doom is proved accurate, but in his dying instants, Carlito finds some small peace; the catharsis or cleansing of Aristotle's definition. A son (or daughter) will succeed Carlito, and -- hell -- he lasted longer than any of his colleagues thought possible. In this fateful moment, De Palma allows Carlito (and the audience), to catch a small glimpse of that evasive, elusive paradise: a travel poster hanging on the wall of Grand Central Station. The poster reads "Escape in Paradise" and it is the only image in the frame to be shot in living, vibrant color. Everything else is gloomy black and white.

Suddenly, the dancer rendered on that travel poster becomes Gail -- in Carlito's eyes -- and begins to She starts to dance. A gorgeous sunset looms behind her...and as the movie ends, the lovers' theme song ("You Are So Beautiful") underscores the feeling that all is not lost, or hopeless. Gail (and her child) will go on with the $75,000.00 dollars. Carlito didn't escape the streets, but his child will. The cycle of poverty and violence that gave rise to Carlito and his mistakes will, finally, be shattered, in his progeny.

Didn't You Ever Have a Dream? If You Can't Get In, You Don't Get In...

De Palma provides us a number of visual indicators that Carlito dwells in a different world than the criminal associates who interact with him.

For instance, as Carlito confronts the corrupt Saso early in the film, we see Carlito framed inside a mirror. And when Carlito deals with the treacherous Lalin (Viggo Mortensen) in his office -- again -- we see Carlito positioned inside the confines of mirror. This is a pervasive visual indicator that Carlito is "through walking on the wild side," just as he claims; that he is different from those men he still associates with. He is noble...they are not.

Finally, when Carlito allows his sense of "debt" to Kleinfeld to get the better of him, we again view Carlito framed in the mirror -- alongside Gail -- staring at himself. Angry over Gail's prediction of doom, he shatters the mirror with his fist. Carlito's destruction of the mirror (and his reflected image there) suggests that Carlito is no longer separate from the corruption of the Street (and from men like Lalin and Saso); that this venture with David (a prison break involving the Taglialucci's) will make him, again, a criminal. It will be his undoing.

In other words, the "mirror" image represents the good world -- the place Carlito wishes to dwell...but can't. When Carlito visits Gail in her apartment, he gazes at her -- the madonna -- in a mirror too, meaning that she is part and parcel of that world he can't attain or keep. He is separated from Gail and that world, incidentally, by a door and a chain too...another obstacle blocking his entry to "paradise."

Carlito's Way is dominated by brilliant and subtle visual touches such as these. For instance, on your next viewing pay attention to Benny Blanco's wardrobe and the way in which it changes and evolves each time he re-appears. At first, Benny seems a pretentious, unimportant clown (especially with the alliteration of his name: Benny Blanco from the Bronx!). Later, his wardrobe grows his threat to Carlito turns serious. And I also admire the way the film sets up Kleinfeld and Carlito on opposite/mirrr reflection paths. Carlito is the gangster trying to go straight; Kleinfeld is the "straight" man (an attorney) becoming a gangster.

It's impossible not to be swept away in Carlito's tragedy. Even though his fateful ending is a foregone conclusion, you still find yourself rooting for his success. The most admirable quality about Carlito, perhaps, is that he never stops reaching for that better life. Unlike Montana or Corleone, Carlito's "way" doesn't involve killing people, peddling drugs or broaching robbery. His "way" to a better future is closer to our way -- keeping his nose clean, minding his own business and working hard. That's the American dream and that Carlito's dream. In the end, that dream is something he's denied, and one composition in the film captures that failure. It features Carlito at war with gangsters, the American flag perched behind him on the wall. A study in contrasts: violence in the foreground; beauty and liberty in the background.

I suppose I identify with Carlito because he doesn't seek fame or power...he just wants to pursue personal happiness. De Palma's success in Carlito's Way is that he makes the audience identify with this gangster and his dream in a way uncommon for the bloody genre. Even Carlito's death brings about the pity of Aristotle's tragedy. "Sorry boys," Carlito tells the paramedics (in his mind), "all the stitches in the world can't sew me together again. Lay down... lay down."

And then, finally, Carlito contemplates Gail, the woman left behind. "No room in this city for big hearts like hers... Sorry baby, I tried the best I could, honest... Can't come with me on this trip."

It seems to me that carping movie critics could have made room in this city for a De Palma film like Carlito's Way.

One with a big heart.


  1. Another wonderful examination of an underrated film by De Palma. I very much agree, recalling watching this many years ago, how much I (and the audience) grew to care so much for this character (and compared to his other gangsters, I think people found they had more in common). Critics at the time seem to give more kudos to Penn at the expense of recognizing how great Pacino is here. And that chase sequence in Grand Central Station doesn't seem to get the recognition it deserves - and that may be because we (the audience) really wants Carlito to make it. It's a brilliant, modern day tragedy. This is great post, JKM.

  2. Hey Le0pard13,

    Thanks for the comment! I think you are right: Penn got most of the (positive) attention from critics, whereas they complained about Pacino's accent. Also, De Palma still wasn't forgiven for Bonfire of the Vanities at this point, I guess, so critics may have been reluctant to champion Carlito's Way.

    But time has proven, I think, what a dynamite film this is.


  3. Yes, this film has aged very well and I think it has undergone somewhat of a reappraisal. At least, among film buffs it is highly regarded and very quotable ("Here comes the pain!!").

    I like Pacino's portrayal of Carlito as a smart guy who cannot escape what he is no matter how hard he tries. Pacino conveys the melancholy that lurks behind the bravado of his character.

    However, it has be said that Sean Penn’s sleazy, coked-up lawyer steals every scene. He is just os much fun to watch. And to think that Penn reportedly did the film to help finance his directorial debut, THE CROSSING GUARD. For a paycheck role, Penn does a great job as he disappears into the character. It’s almost as if Pacino’s presence inspired Penn to step up his game.

    I haven't watch the film in a few years but I always felt that Penelope Ann Miller was miscast. She just seems to lightweight and wishwashy, performance-wise and I could never see what Carlito saw in her character.

    Another excellent post/take on a De Palma film. This is definitely one of my fave films of his and your review really makes me want to check this film out again... esp. for the train sequence/showdown. I had forgotten how amazing that one was!

  4. John, very nicely done! I am a huge De Palma fan, and am glad you're revisiting his films. I'd love to hear what you have to say about The Black Dahlia.


  5. Al Pacino as Carlito was awesome , he just made it look so easy , it was not acting but some kind of reality . i loved this movie 100/10 for this one ... :)

  6. Jeff Wilder12:34 AM

    Missed Carlito's Way during its theatrical run. Later saw it on TV and found it to be pretty good. Rented it about a year ago from Netflix and re-watched it and considered ti to be indisputably great. Enough that when I came across a double DVD of it and Casino I grabbed it.

    It's appropriate that both movies were bundled together. Both are by master directors and both exist in the shadow of a more famous predecessor.

    Casino, while undeniably great, falls just short of the full fledged masterpiece status that Goodfellas easily attains.

    Carlito's Way, on the other hand, in some ways has aged better than Scarface. It doesn't veer into camp as the earlier film often does and there's more depth to the overall story. Plus Carlito Brigante is slightly more developed and definitely more sympathetic than Tony Montana.


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