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Days of De Palma (Part 12): Carlito’s Way (1993)

Slowly but surely, my journey through the films of Brian De Palma continues!  (If you scroll down to the bottom of this post, you’ll find links to all the other Brian De Palma films I have watched!)

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As I have discovered, Brian De Palma’s career seems to unfold in waves.  He hits big with some great films, then sinks back into the depths with some bad films, then he rises again.  After the stinkers of The Bonfire of the Vanities (a huge flop) and Raising Cain, the great De Palma of old returns with a vengeance in Carlito’s Way, one of his very strongest films.  I’d only seen this film once before, about two decades ago.  I remembered enjoying it, and I was pleased on this re-watch that it was even better than I’d remembered.

Based on the novels Carlito’s Way and After Hours by Judge Edwin Torres, the film tells the story of Carlito, a Puerto Rican criminal played by Al Pacino.  After having been released from prison, Carlito attempts to stay on the straight and narrow but finds himself increasingly drawn back into the world of crime.  The slow dissolution of his relationship with his lawyer and former best-friend, David Kleinfeld (Sean Penn) leads to a turning point in Carlito’s life.

While the idea of Al Pacino as a Puerto Rican is a little silly, I absolutely adore Mr. Pacino in this sort of epic crime story.  It’s a genre that well-suits Mr. De Palma as well.  And while this film doesn’t quite reach the heights of the two men’s previous collaboration, Scarface, Carlito’s Way is a terrific crime saga, with a wonderful cast and some iconic set-pieces.  David Koepp’s screenplay is terrific.  It’s clear that De Palma is at his best with a strong screenwriter.  In a film like this, Mr. De Palma’s striking visual style is able to elevate a great story to create a compelling, top-notch film.

The film kicks off with a striking opening as we see, in black-and-white, that Pacino’s Carlito has been shot.  The music is a bit overwrought but it gives the introduction a suitably epic feel.  This feels like the follow-up to The Untouchables.  Forget those terrible movies in between!!

There are so many sequences in the film that are elevated by Mr. De Palma’s cinematic style.  I love the tense shoot-out in the bar, early in the film, after Carlito accompanies his young nephew (played by John Ortiz, who was so great last year in The Drop) to a drug-deal that goes wrong.  This is a great sequence because there is very little cinematic trickery.  It’s just A-level filmmaking, as Mr. De Palma slowly and carefully sets up the geography of the underground bar, setting up all the characters and locations, building the tension until finally the shooting begins.  A lesser filmmaker would have rushed through this sequence, but Mr. De Palma takes his time and the result is a terrific pay-off and a highlight sequence of the film.

I love the steadi-cam shot the first time we walk through fat Saso’s nightclub.  There’s a great use of split-focus when Carlito negotiates with Saso, with Saso on the right-hand side of the screen and Pacino, seen in the mirror’s reflection but also in-focus, on the left-hand side of the screen.

Mr. De Palma loves to have a few sequences in his films in which the camera acts as the P.O.V. of a character, and so I was happy to see that device used in this film when Carlito enters the strip-club for the first-time, looking for his former flame Gail (Penelope Ann Miller).

The music gets a little too melodramatic when Carlito first reunites with Gail.  And when “You Are So Beautiful” plays on the soundtrack when Carlito & Gail make love?  BLEECH!!  It’s a rare mis-step in the film.

I do, though, like the way that Gail is introduced as an innocent angel, which at first seems very cliche, but then we discover that she’s not an angel at all.  She’s just as flawed as Carlito.  I liked their relationship in the film.  It’s important that this romance works and is interesting.  Nice job by screenwriter David Koepp and the actors.

It really is remarkable seeing how De Palma’s work is elevated by a great script.  I guess that’s not a rocket-science-level deduction!  There are some great speeches and some great scenes in the film.  I love Carlito’s speech in bed with Gail when she asks him if he’s ever killed a man.  It’s a wonderfully-written speech, and Pacino underplays the moment nicely with his quiet delivery.  I also love Gail’s line, later, when she tells Carlito: “I had a dream, Charlie.  But I’m awake and I hate my dream.”  It’s such a heartbreaking moment.

The entire last act of the film is a wonderful display of escalating suspense.  I love the whole boat sequence as things start to go dramatically wrong.  I love De Palma’s spinning the camera around the table as Carlito gets cornered by some made men in his club.

And then there is the tour de force climactic chase through Grand Central Station, as Carlito is being pursued by the Italians.  I was staggered by the complexity of the long, continuous shot as Carlito runs through the station, dodging the mob goons.  I kept waiting for a cot but the shot just goes on and on.  It’s hugely impressive.  Here is a moment in which De Palma’s stylistic camera-work perfectly serves the story.  By shooting that chase in one long, unbroken shot, De Palma not only expertly builds the tension of the scene but also makes the geography of who is where in Grand Central perfectly clear to the audience.  It’s really amazing.  This train station climax is FAR better than the much-more-famous train station climax in The Untouchables!!

I love the full-circle ending in which we return to the scenes that opened the movie, only this time in color.  Has the entire film been a flashback inside Carlito’s mind in that one moment in which the gurney is jostled on a step??  That’s so brilliant!

The whole cast is great.  Pacino is a powerhouse, hugely fun to watch.  He gets to cut loose in some scenes but for the most part this is a far more restrained performance than that of Scarface.  That’s a fun surprise for later-career Pacino, in which his tendencies to chew the scenery often seemed to take over.

Penelope Ann Miller is solid as Gail, the love of Carlito’s life.  The role of the criminal’s true love in this sort of movie can be somewhat thankless, but David Koepp wrote Gail some interesting scenes, and Ms. Miller isn’t afraid to show us Gail’s flaws.  I liked that.

I loved seeing Viggo Mortensen (Aragorn from The Lord of the Rings!) who is terrific in his one scene.  John Leguizamo is also great as Benny Blanco, a young tough who reminds Carlito uncomfortably of himself in his youth.  Mr. Leguizamo is full of energy and charisma and danger.  I only wish we’d seen a little more of him in the film.  I also enjoyed seeing Adrian Pasdar and Luis Guzman in their small roles.

Then there is Sean Penn, absolutely fantastic as Carlito’s best friend David Kleinfeld.  Seeing Mr. Penn and Mr. Pacino on-screen together is a delight.  The two actors have such different energies, but there is fire there when they are together in a scene.  This relationship is at the core of the film — far more than Carlito’s relationship with Gail.  Sean Penn knocks the role out of the park.  And let me just say that his permed “Jew-fro” is a thing of glory.

My only complaint about the film is that I would have liked to have seen a flashback to Carlito’s life before prison.  It would have helped establish Carlito’s character and back-story had we actually seen some of the terrible stuff he did as a younger man.  Without that, I found the criminal Carlito wound up being a little too heroic in the film.  I think his character could have used a little more gray areas for the audience, to remind us that even as we’re rooting for him, this man has done some very bad things.

What a delight to watch this film again.  Carlito’s Way is definitely one of Brian De Palma’s strongest films.

I’ll be back soon with a look at the De Palma film that I have seen the most of all of his films: Mission: Impossible!  See you then.

Days of De Palma: Part 1 — Carrie (1976); Part 2 — The Fury (1978); Part 3 — Dressed to Kill (1980); Part 4 — Blow Out (1981); Part 5 – Scarface (1983); Part 6 – Body Double (1984); Part 7 – Wise Guys (1986); Part 8 — The Untouchables (1987); Part 9 — Casualties of War (1989); Part 10 — The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990); Part 11 — Raising Cain (1992).

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