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.
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.
Viewing De Palma's Carlito's Way again, 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.
Once more, I appear to be in a small if vocal minority in my appreciation for a sterling De Palma film.
Imagine -- just imagine for one second -- a film critic suggesting the same thing to director Martin Scorsese after Mean Streets, Good Fellas and Casino.
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."
This Dream of Mine is So Close I Can Touch It
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."
But fate has plans for Carlito.
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.
Everything I Hoped For. Everything I Need
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.
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.
This mistake leads to Carlito's downfall and death. And certainly, this is where "fear" and "pity" both come into the picture.
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 .
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 direction:.it 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 we don't even recognize the looming danger (Benny Blanco) until it's too late.
Like Carlito, we're sprinting to that finish line...to 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 fatal 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 measure of 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 spin...free.
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 serious, as his threat to Carlito turns serious. And I also admire the way the film sets up Kleinfeld and Carlito on opposite/mirror 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's 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 more movie critics could have made room for a De Palma film like Carlito's Way.
One with a big heart.