VHS Revival takes to the streets with Brian De Palma’s slick, retrospective crime thriller
It’s rare to see Al Pacino upstaged in any movie, and his performance as a Puerto Rican ex-con attempting to go straight is typically inspired, a controlled blend of both the fiery and understated sides of one of Hollywood’s most consistently brilliant performers. Then you have Sean Penn in perhaps his greatest ever role, almost unrecognisable beneath a shock of red curls as he sneers and struts his way from arrogant big city lawyer to crime world player, and all under the nose of one of New York City’s most legendary gangsters. Not only does Davey Kleinfeld manage to fool his supposed friend, Carlito Brigante, he strings him along while he’s still of use, feeding off his skills and reputation while secretly setting him up for the fall. Kleinfeld is the personification of a society gone rotten, the kind that has no time for Brigante’s misguided moral code.
Carlito’s Way is a movie of great style and energy, one that delights in the heady decadence of the disco scene while mired in the scum of the barrio, a place described as being “like them old cowboy movies, only instead of tumbleweed and cow dung we got stripped car wrecks and dog shit.” In one of his most underappreciated films, De Palma recreates the period’s bell bottom grandeur with dazzling aplomb, capturing the slick and sleaze of New York’s criminal underbelly as the bold and brightly coloured become dulled by greed and desperation. Adapted from two novels by Edwin Torres — Carlito’s Way and After Hours — Pacino’s narration is punchy and lyrical, but also introspective and heartfelt, adding a peculiar depth to a world spray-tagged with grandiose caricatures. Voice-over narration has long been deemed a lazy and unnecessary convention that detracts from the old storyteller’s mantra of ‘show, don’t tell’, but Pacino’s contemplative unravelling leads us wandering through a cinematic dreamworld, so dazzled by the the poetic deceit and colourful language that we are unable to see the path in front of us, and by the time we arrive at our hero’s fated destination we fail to see it coming.
Carlito’s Way opens with a bravura sequence of melancholic black and white and skewed perspectives, our protagonist already staring death in the face, and not for the first time we suspect. This isn’t the kind of movie that sets you up for a revelation — we know how this story ends; it’s how we get there that matters. The movie’s highlight begins with a hyper-tense show of deception involving a suspicious mafioso crew, De Palma putting us in Carlito’s slippery shoes as he pulls every last trick in the book to evade the pursuing rabble, plunging us into one tense situation after another with an ostentatious display of skill that thrills and deceives and ultimately devastates. If it isn’t the director’s finest hour, then it’s as ambitious as anything he has ever attempted, and the execution is nothing short of mesmerising. Pacino may forge Carlito’s muted flamboyance, but De Palma shows us exactly the kind of man we’re dealing with. Why the movie has fallen into relative obscurity is anyone’s guess.
Carlito Brigante: (voiceover) Don’t take me to no hospital, please. Fuckin’ emergency rooms don’t save nobody. Som-bitches, always pop you at midnight, when all they got is a Chinese intern with a dull spoon.
Upon release, Carlito’s Way received a lukewarm reception. There were exceptions, but many criticised the director for retreading old ground. This was De Palma and Pacino reunited, Scarface Mark II if you will, and critics and audiences barely batted an eyelid. A year earlier, Pacino had bagged an Academy Award for Best Actor for a particularly shouty outing in Martin Brest’s borderline-maudlin Scent of a Woman — not a bad film, but I can think of a dozen Pacino performances more worthy of the accolade. By 1993, Pacino had been boisterous for more than a decade, and along with 1992‘s David Mamet adapted Glengarry Glen Ross, Scent of a Woman was arguably his apotheosis in that regard, the kind of movie that pushed Pacino toward the realms of self-parody. Had people had enough of the same old rigmarole? Was the prospect of another De Palma gangster foray just a little overbearing? Ironically, the filmmaker initially turned down the opportunity to be reunited with Pacino, thinking he’d taken the genre as far as he could, but one look at the screenplay was enough to change his mind. Carlito’s Way may lack the political clout or historical pull of the filmmaker’s two most famous gangster outings in Scarface and The Untouchables, but it is arguably the most thrilling and cinematic of them all.
In the movie, Carlito is a new man having beaten a thirty-year rap on a Kleinfeld-spun technicality. Though some of the old faces remain, they look at him differently, and those who came up while he was away have no respect for what went before. Carlito is a crook of an altogether different variety, a man with a value system who approaches the game with a semblance of honour. Whether our protagonist was always so honourable is hard to gauge. Carlito peruses the barrio with proclamations of retirement, and when his old partner Rolando scoffs at the very notion, you can only imagine what he had been like before his sentence took him out of the game. The only window we have into that part of his life is through the people who now fill it, though his reputation means very little beyond past acquaintances who consistently prove Brigante’s code of the streets to be nothing but illusory. The new kids acknowledge him as one might a barely whispered fable; to them he is old news. When Carlito’s nephew picks him up for a family reunion, he immediately asks him for a favour. He wants to flaunt his uncle’s reputation to some cowboy associates, and when the excursion inevitably goes sideways our protagonist is already exactly where he doesn’t want to be. When he claims to be reloaded following a quickfire shoot-out that thrusts him into a tense stand-off in a dingy hideaway, an ammo-shy Carlito is bluffing. It is a telling moment that epitomises his precarious predicament. In this environment, he has to depend on his old self to forge his new self. Once you’re in, it is almost impossible to get out.
This is the first of several jaw-dropping set-pieces that show a director at the very top of his game; a scene that in a microcosm lays out our protagonist’s ill-fated destiny. His young aggressors may be full of beans, but Carlito’s instincts are immediately triggered, and ultimately they don’t stand a chance. Once De Palma has glitzed his way through a semiotic analysis of the scene’s brewing sense of danger — a briefly glimpsed handgun, a suspicious backroom toilet, the amplification of a jukebox and a selection of tracks that both dull our senses and alert us to a growing sense of unease — everything is duplicitous moves and claustrophobic close-ups, and very few faces tell a story like Pacino’s. In that scene, Carlito reveals his ability to analyse and deal with a precarious situation. He doesn’t go in all guns blazing. This is a man who has learnt a thing or two. His days of running with cowboys are long behind him.
The only face that still looks at Carlito the same way is that of Gayle (Penelope Ann Miller), a former love whose heart he broke when at last the streets caught up with him. Gayle is a once-idealistic soul whose dreams of becoming a Broadway dancer have succumbed to the same social ills prevalent in her beau ‘Charlie’s’ world, reducing her to pole dancing duties as a means for surviving the unforgiving city, and the two are once again drawn to one another as Gayle champions Carlito’s plans to go straight as an unscheduled pregnancy adds to their pressures. Their relationship is fiery and tumultuous in the face of such pressures, but also open, earnest and intimate, a sapling squeezing through the cracks of a ceaseless winter. There’s a gorgeous moment of romantic respite that sees Carlito watching Gayle from a rainy rooftop overlooking a warmly-lit dance studio. Scored to Léo Delibes’ Flower Duet, the scene has an almost operatic quality, an elegance that warms an otherwise dismal environment. In that moment, Carlito becomes the little orphan boy who happened to stumble upon the kind of warmth he never imagined possible. This is what Gayle sees that no one else does.
Carlito Brigante: (voiceover) Dumb move, man. Dumb move. But it’s like them old reflexes comin’ back. I know what’s supposed to happen now. Benny’s gotta go down. And if I don’t do it, they’re gonna say: “Carlito, he’s flaky, man. Slacked-out. A used-to-be bad guy. Joint got to Carlito.” The street is watchin’. She is watchin’ all the time.
Perhaps the most blatant hint at the person Carlito is trying to escape is young hothead Benny Blanco. Benny is a brash up-and-comer with a devil moustache and sinister glare, the kind of full-throttle delinquent who will either crash and burn or rampage his way to the very top. Benny is reminiscent of another De Palma character — Tony Montana from Scarface — and you can imagine this movie as kind of a quasi-sequel. Benny was played by a then-blossoming John Leguizamo in what is still one of his finest performances; a godsend following his role as Luigi in video game adaption and monumental flop Super Mario Bros. In a 2016 interview with Birth. Movies. Death., the actor would say of his breakthrough turn, “In Carlito’s Way, I found myself as an actor. With my entrance as Benny Blanco, [De Palma] let me do between twenty and thirty takes. And we’re talking about doing this on film, not digital. This was the era when you usually got three takes and had to beg for more. Not with Brian. Brian would let you play, because he was digging what I was doing; all my flamboyance and improv.“
Benny seems smarter than your average thug, with the sense to offer Carlito some restraint as he sets about picking his brains. Carlito isn’t interested. He simply wants to take enough out of a club investment and escape the streets that stalk him at every turn. He sees himself in Benny and resents him for it, and eventually his ego takes hold as the new kid flaunts his growing power on his premises. Carlito is who Montana could have been had he not careened over the proverbial canyon. All of this comes to a head in a hyper-tense confrontation following a conflict in Carlito’s club, one beautifully orchestrated by a director who is known for stirring emotions between cast members and having them translate to the screen. “[De Palma] loves to tell one actor one thing and another actor another thing and then just watch them go at it,” Leguizamo would explain, “It’s all about conflict with Brian. He just wants to get everyone riled up. He gets off on tension and watching actors cross the line. I’m so glad you brought him up because he’s really one of the geniuses of our time.”
Despite these parallels, Carlito’s Way is very much a different animal. Unlike Pacino and De Palma’s previous crime foray, the movie is free of political leanings, extricated from the vengeful scribe of screenwriter Oliver Stone, who would cite Scarface as a revenge piece against cocaine after struggling with addiction. Scarface will always be my favourite gangster flick of De Palma’s. It was one of the first three-hour movies I ever saw and I was utterly engrossed by its devastating depiction of a society rotten from corruption, but Carlito’s Way left a similarly lasting impression, dazzling as a pure exercise in cinematic elegance. De Palma has gone on record as saying that he doesn’t follow the standard shot breakdown, storyboard or découpage. He constructs what he calls a schematic; something only he can fully understand that he uses as a basis for collaboration. As a result, his set-pieces are immediately recognisable and almost exist as their own entities. When people discuss his work, it’s always the prom sequence from Carrie, Dressed to Kill‘s art gallery set-piece, the Union Station shoot-out in The Untouchables. People rarely talk about Carlito’s Way with such reverence, but it features several set-pieces that stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them all.
The obvious case in point is the movie’s aforementioned climax. It too happens in a train station, this time the Grand Central Station, 42nd Street at Park Avenue, and while the The Untouchables will always be regarded as the more iconic scene, I much prefer the shoot-out in Carlito’s Way; it is even more ambitious, even more breathless, and the fact that it comes at the end of a pursuit that takes us from 60th Street, Madison Avenue to 125th Street Station, Park Avenue, Harlem is breathtakingly audacious. The craft of Carlito’s initial club escape, plagued by a pack of duplicitous mafioso, is absolutely fraught with tension. Finally we get to see the legend at work, relying on cunning rather than violence, and De Palma teases that violence right to the point of necessity, playing with our expectations of what such a character should deliver. The ensuing stand-off on the packed carriages of a subway train, an impossible situation that sees Carlito turn magician, you just can’t take your eyes of, and De Palma’s urgency puts you right there with him, hovering over every trigger and anticipating every tactical sleight of hand. As for the seemingly endless cat-and-mouse shoot-out that follows, an extended Steadicam shot with minimal cuts that exhibits De Palma’s mastery of space… I mean, what can I say? Rarely does cinema reach such enthralling levels of pure entertainment.
Carlito Brigante (voiceover): There is a line you cross, you don’t never come back from. Point of no return. Dave crossed it. I’m here with him. That means I’m going along for the ride. The whole ride. All the way to the end of the line, wherever that is.
Another set-piece that ranks up there with some of the director’s finest proves a turning point for both Carlito and his increasingly out of control lawyer. Ultimately, Carlito’s Way is about decisions and consequences. Throughout the picture, it is Carlito’s refusal to accept society’s moral decline that proves his undoing, and one character personifies that more than anyone. Engulfing every last frame, Davey Kleinfeld drips with insincerity, burrowing his way into the pockets of the city’s most treacherous like a beady-eyed mole dipped in cocaine. Carlito owes Klieinfeld for getting him out of the joint and it becomes clear that he intends to cash-in that favour. Gayle sees right through Davey but Carlito has to stay true to his code — it is the only element of control he has in an environment that has outgrown him — and when Kleinfeld manipulates his so-called friend into an ill-fated boat ride (writing those words, I immediately envisage Kleinfeld impudently spraying breath freshener and announcing their secret plans to a furious Gayle — he’s such a glorious heel), the two of them cross a line from which there is no coming back. It is during that boat ride — one of the most tautly staged set-pieces in De Palma’s entire back catalogue — that we see just how far Kleinfeld has slipped. When he splits mobster Tony T’s head open with a sneering self-importance that goes beyond marching powder arrogance, he crosses the line from crook to gangster, and his fate is sealed. Kleinfeld’s humble, hospital ward demise, teased during an acutely-staged assassination attempt of dizzying bravado, is one of the most deserving in the entire genre, and Penn proves just the man for the job.
As a period piece, Carlito’s Way is superlative cinema: the punchy dialogue; the cast’s dazzlingly on-point wardrobe; the bouncing, blistering and occasionally tender soundtrack; the delirious POV character introduction shots; the boundless energy with which De Palma captures the drug-fuelled disco nightlife of the 1970s ― the film is absolutely alive from start to finish. There are so many memorable faces, so many beautifully delivered roles, both minor and major, that merge to create an unyielding vibrancy, all of it held together by De Palma’s mouthwatering skills and hypnotic sense of style. This is a master craftsman revelling in the art form, and for such a pitch-perfect movie it seems almost effortless, featuring an ensemble cast who are sure to stay long in the memory — not least Carlito himself, an understated character who refuses to succumb to the decadence of conventional onscreen violence, and who is much stronger, and more vulnerable, for it.
The redemptive goals of Carlito inhibit that urge to explode with the kind of guns-blazing frenzy fans of gangster flicks typically crave, but when push comes to shove he shows there is still some fight left in the old dog, and during the kind of dizzying climax that only De Palma can deliver, we get a glimpse of the legendary skills and resourcefulness that kept Carlito alive all those years, the kind befitting of a director who, though past his absolute peak as a filmmaker, is still very much at the top of his game. But a person can only protect oneself from the enemies who are apparent, and in Carlito’s world the definitions that separate enemies from friends are precarious, the lines blurred, and when you can’t see the angles no more, you’re in trouble, baby. You’re in trouble.