Carlito’s Wayrecommended viewing

A favor will kill you faster than a bullet
Brian De Palma
Al Pacino, Sean Penn, Penelope Ann Miller, John Leguizamo
The Setup: 
Gangster tries to lead a straight life once released from prison, but finds himself drawn back into crime.

I’m running out of De Palma films I haven’t seen. In fact, barring some of his obscure early work [Dionysus in ‘69], I think now I’ve seen everything at least once. What a depressing thought. Luckily Brian did me proud with this solid film.

We open with Carlito getting shot. He falls, the camera flips on its side, and we see various people slide past. We see fluorescent lights pass overhead—we’re just seeing what Carlito sees as he dies. While this is going on we’re hearing a typically lush, aching score, this time supplied by Patrick Doyle, who jumps right into the De Palma mood without a misstep. We introduce the voice-over by Carlito, and flash back to the beginning of the story, by entering a color poster [the rest of the shot is black and white] showing a beach scene, and reading “Escape to Paradise.”

Pacino is Carlos Brigante, familiarly called Carlito, who was a big-time gangster and drug dealer. He was sent to jail for 30 years, but the fact that the cops got their evidence by illegally taping him gets him released after just five years. His close friend Dave Kleinfeld, played by Sean Penn with a balding scalp and big, Art Garfunkel-type fro, is also his lawyer and is credited with working to get him out. Carlito makes a big speech about how he is “born again,” and is determined to lead a crime-free life now. He is trying to use big words and important-sounding speech, and one notices that he includes several malapropisms in his quest to sound really meaningful.

We get a healthy dash of homoerotic spice as Dave and Carlito celebrate at a nightclub that night, pointedly showing how they ignore the women they’re with and getting drunk with their arms around each other, and later dancing together. At one point Dave ask Carlito to “say you love me” and Carlito responds “Love you? If you was a broad I’d marry you.” It is used well, just to show their affection and attachment to each other. Carlito has a plan to raise some cash to buy into a car rental place down in the Bahamas. Dave laughs at him—this big gangster is going to rent cars?—but Carlito says “Hey, I have a dream.”

Many De Palma films have major setpieces. So does this one, but it also has, more than most, a ton of other, smaller setpieces and astonishing displays of technique. But anyway, here comes one of the major ones. Carlito’s cousin is dealing, and asks him to come along on a deal, as backup. He says Carlito is a “legend” and talks about how impressive it would be to have him show up as backup. One of the undercurrents of the film is that anyone who kills this “legend” would come way up in status himself. Anyway, the sequence is wonderful as Carlito walks in, and we see him sizing the place up, and sense his uneasiness, yet also see him trying to remain outwardly cool. I don’t think it’ll surprise you to hear that violence erupts, but the buildup to that explosion is so tense, I was tempted to fast-forward a bit, just to dissipate the suspense. There’s a sudden gunfight, and Carlito finds himself in a bathroom with no bullets in his gun, numerous gangsters outside. He gives a huge grandstanding speech to bluff to the fellows outside, simultaneously talking to them and to himself, and amazed that, just a few days after his release from prison, here he is, right back in the game. This moment is so key that this image was adapted for the poster.

Carlito agrees, as a favor to Dave, to be security at a nightclub. He gives a narration about how things have changed in the five years he’s been away, that the entire scene has become more brutal and honor is going the way of the dodo, personified by John Leguiziamo as Benny Blanco from the Bronx. Carlito takes a visceral dislike to Blanco, and feels a compulsion to assert his own difference from him. In a later incident Carlito again lets his contempt of Blanco out—during a sticky situation created by Dave—and violence quickly escalates to the point where Carlito is expected to kill Blanco. It’s kind of astounding, from an outsider’s perspective, that he should be expected to kill him over such a minor conflict. Carlito declines to kill him, a decision that may come back to haunt him later.

Threading through all this is Carlito’s reunion with Penelope Ann Miller as Gail. He was involved with her before, but dumped her for her own sake when he went into prison—as he thought he would be there for 30 years. Now he’s out, and he wants to be back with her. He ascends to the roof of a building across from her dance studio and watches her dance, in a scene I now realize influenced an analogous scene in Wicker Park. Gail tells Carlito that she dances on Broadway, but leaves out that it’s at a strip club. Miller has a good moment when Carlito catches her there while performing and she is embarrassed, then seems to say “Fuck it!” and not only continues her show, but gives it a special zest just for him. She’s also the only character that calls Carlito “Charlie.”

Ah yes, but what of Dave? He is going further and further off the deep end. He has ambitions of being a gangster, just like his buddy Carlito, a badass like that. He likes the fantasy and ignores the reality, and is becoming more and more a danger to himself and others. Penn has several great scenes that illustrate how reckless and desperate he’s getting, Pacino reacts to them beautifully, and they’re very tense. I would love to tell you more of the plot, but I’m but I’m beginning to realize that I need to keep some secrets from you.

I’m sorry that we’ve come to this point in our relationship.

Everyone was darn good. This movie was adapted from two novels by Edwin Torres, who wrote them based on his time in law enforcement. The script by David Koepp is quite good. One’s only restraint is that certain aspects of the story and presentation tend toward the sentimental, but one forgives them because they seem authentic to the voice of the novel, and it gives Carlito’s character a specific dimension—and dovetails nicely into De Palma’s own sentimental streak.

Pacino is better than I recall ever seeing him be, and although you can kind of see him acting in many sequences, it works because he expresses a great deal of turnings of mind without words. Sean Penn is very convincing and very consistent, and really transforms into this different person. Viggo Mortensen shows up for one small but great scene in which he, to say the least, appears as a character we wouldn’t expect of him. Which brings us to the odd issue of Penelope Ann Miller. I have seen her be perfectly dreadful in other movies, like The Shadow, but with such a vitality that you kind of root for her. So here I couldn’t tell if she was genuinely good or she just worked really well with the part, but her Gail was very, very effective. That very distance and scared quality she has worked well with her character, and gave her a vulnerability that added a great deal.

And now to De Palma! I have to take back something I said about The Black Dahlia being his most accomplished film, because this is it by a mile. Everything here WORKS—as it doesn’t always in his movies—and he is able to apply his technique throughout in a way that amplifies the ambiguous ties between all the layers of the story. Instead of two major showpieces and a lot of good stuff in between, we have the showpieces broken down into smaller chunks and deftly woven through the entire movie. You’ll be midway through a shot before you realize it’s been one of his masterful tracking shots—maybe only two minutes, but hey, two minutes! De Palma’s expressive, sometimes operatic style is also very well suited to the material, and you sense a real affinity for the emotions and crush of loyalties taking place.

There are, nevertheless, two major setpieces. The first is the aforementioned shootout at the drug deal. The only thing I have to add about that is that usually I watch De Palma’s setpieces in technical admiration more than really getting wrapped up in the story, but this one had me gripped to the point where, as I said, I was tempted to move ahead to dissipate the tension. The second is a stalking through the New York subway and then a shootout at Grand Central.

The Subway stalking is extremely clever and true to life in New York. Carlito gets on one second ahead of the mobsters pursuing him, and all looks fine—BUT! Some people are have their hands in the doors and demanding to get on the train. Carlito would have escaped cleanly if not for them. They stand around stupidly in the way as he tries to flee. That’s why they say please don’t hold the doors! I was impressed by how real this was, and it occurred to me [though it’s fairly obvious] that the RANDOM has quite a prominent place in De Palma’s works. It’s a regular occurrence that someone’s carefully plans are endangered by some random element that threatens to derail it all for the simplest and most stupid of reasons.

This all leads into the showstopper Grand Central Station shootout, which features a number of amazing mini-sequences, including one incredibly long continuous shot that follows Carlito up and down escalators, all the while keeping the pursuing gangsters in view.

Now we know from the start that Carlito is killed, and I thought this would deaden the mystery of who did it, but I didn’t expect that it would become one of the central strengths of the movie, as he accumulates people who want to kill him over the course of the movie, and it really isn’t at all certain who ends up doing the deed. I made the mistake of reading a review before watching, which revealed the killer. Normally not a big deal, but I was ruing in here, because I can see how it was one of the big touches that would have been devastating and thrown a new light on the entire film had I not known. Therefore I will save you from the same fate. I only advise you to be careful of what you read before watching.

Overall, a great watch. The fact that De Palma is adapting someone else’s material gives him a distance on it that allows him to shape it in a way that includes his unique worldview and apply his considerable technique, but doesn’t get subsumed by them. It’s quite intelligent, brilliantly made, with a wonderfully complex depth and interlacing of layers. If you haven’t seen it, you have a nice treat ahead of you. And for me, who has now seen all the major De Palmas? What more do I have to look forward to in life?

Should you watch it: 

Yes, immediately.