Carlito’s Way (1993)

Directed by Brian De Palma


Carlito’s Way is, like I wrote about The Untouchables, very violent and melodramatic, but it’s great.  Okay, maybe it’s a little long, but this genre of mafiosos, gangsters, drugs and money is always a little long.  In Carlito’s Way, we’re given too early images of Carlito Brigante (Al Pacino).  In the first, he’s dying, and in the second, he is released from prison after five years, celebrating his new freedom and a promise to live his life straight.

So these two images are quite the contradiction.  Was is supremely negative, and the other very positive.  It poses the dramatic question: Is Carlito the same criminal gangster that landed him in jail in the first place, or is he a changed man?

His intentions are genuine, we quickly learn, but his circumstances will not make his clean break from the criminal lifestyle easy.  In an early scene his cousin brings hm along for a drug deal which goes comically wrong almost immediately.  Just about everyone in the room is killed, save for Carlito, and he takes the money and runs.  Yes he want to leave this life behind, but his past still has him in its grasp.

Carlito’s lawyer, Kleinfeld (Sean Penn), is similarly involved in crime, as is just about everyone he knows.  It’s Kleinfeld and a young, hot-tempered gangster, Benny Blanco (John Leguizamo), who contribute most to his downfall.  And Carlito’s not blameless either.  As his past and soon to be current love, Gail (Penelope Ann Miller) points out, it’s Carlito’s decision to remain involved with these people.

Using the money he took from the failed drug deal, Carlito buys into a club where he hopes to make the $75,000 he needs to buy into a friend’s car rental business in the Caribbean.  Between the mounting pressure from his increasingly unhinged lawyer and the failure to “deal” with the Benny Blanco problem, Carlito struggles to get out alive.

So much of this movie is predictable.  We’re told right up front that Carlito will die, so that’s never a mystery.  The real question is whether Carlito is upfront in his promise to live a more honest life.  Maybe it’s because Pacino is the same actor from The Godfather and Scarface that we don’t believe him at first.  His courtroom performance after his prison release might just be that, a performance.  But soon he remains committed to his vow, even while his behavior continues to contradict his promise.

I really enjoyed this movie because it’s as campy as other De Palma movies.  He’s a great director, particularly for action set pieces, and the foot chase that ends the movie seems to go on forever but never grows stale.  It’s some of the stuff between the action scenes that does grow a little tired.

The whole movie follows Carlito’s dying narration as he remembers his life and the events leading up to his death, likely with some sadness.  The narration puts everything into place, but it’s a crutch onto which the movie leans.  In one scene, Kleinfeld seems normal, but then in the next he’s off his rocker, snorting too much coke and causing too many problems.  It might seem like a leap from one scene to the next, but Carlito’s narration explains, pretty simply, that Kleinfeld has changed.

Other events transpire in that way, and because of that, things happen very quickly.  Again, though, this seems to be part of the genre as much as the money, guns and drugs of other gangster movies.  This genre of movies is about the rise and fall, often symbolic of ego, pride and something resembling American capitalism.  It’s an unspoken promise that a gangster movie will show someone’s rise from the poverty to filthy excess followed by a similarly speedy fall from grace, often to the point of death.  Goodfellas offered a turn on the expected finale by putting its protagonist in a position worse than death, as someone who rats on the ‘family.’  Death, though something to be avoided, is romanticized in the gangster genre.  We remember the violent ends met by Joe Pesci in both Goodfellas and Casino as well as other executions in The Godfather and certainly the spectacle with which Pacino went out at the end of Scarface.

It’s as if the filmmakers know that we know that the main character will die, so the question is only how and how big will the death be?  In Goodfellas, then, Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill isn’t even offered the saving grace of a fiery death, going out like other gangsters.  Instead he turns on the family, ratting them out and living the rest of his life in witness protection.  That film ends with him picking up the newspaper in a bland, safe neighborhood, the epitome of suburbia, and then he looks at the camera with a look of disgust and/or guilt as we hear the sound of a jail cell closing.  Sure, he’s free, but he’s stooped lower than the low in the eyes of the mafia and probably in his own eyes too.

So with that being said, Carlito’s fiery death, even though we expect it, isn’t such a tragic ending in most gangster movies.  You live like a gangster, you die like a gangster.  But the slight twist is that Carlito doesn’t want this lifestyle.  He doesn’t take the same joys as his counterparts, and he simply seams tormented by the life he’s chosen and which continually keeps him close.

I’d say that Carlito’s Way treats its gangster hero with more objectivity than most gangster movies.  Many of those other movies glorify their violent, financially-lucrative exploits.  You can picture the long, tracking shot in Goodfellas, into the diner where Henry knows everyone and tips them handsomely.  That glorifies the lifestyle because it’s from the perspective of someone, Henry (the movie is based on his book), who loves that lifestyle.

Because Carlito doesn’t want to live this way anymore, and thus is against the world of the story which would otherwise be glamorized, I’d say that De Palma’s proclivity for violence is better served thematically.  His movies have always been violent, often cartoonishly so, but it’s still nonetheless hard to watch.  He doesn’t hide the blood or the blunt/sharp/gut wrenching impacts of bullets, hammers or bullets in the cut.  He shows it all.

And that violence should be hard to watch.  Almost every instance of onscreen violence in this movie is a bad thing for Carlito.  He winces or grimaces when Kleinfeld kills two men, not because of the violence itself, but because of what it means.  Each death, it seems, brings him closer to the edge.

Carlito’s Way is a little weighed down by familiar cliches, tropes and clunky dialogue.  Penelope Ann Miller’s Gail is as underwritten as many female characters in biopic-esque movies such as this.  She’s there to be loved by Carlito, a symbol of his salvation, and little more.  It’s not very believable, watching her fall back in love with him.  She has every reason to hate him, to leave him again, and he offers that to her, yet she sticks with him for no discernible reason.  I can only think it must be a case of stockholm syndrome.  There certainly is an abusive quality to her relationship with Carlito.

So does the film side with Carlito?  Does it agree with him, that he never wanted this lifestyle?  He seems to get some redemption near the end, finally splitting ways with Kleinfeld, but I think Carlito is a hypocrite.  He says he wants out, but he stays in as long as he can.  I would think that the movie holds him accountable, I mean I did write earlier that the movie views him with objectivity, but the movie does give him the fiery end customary of most gangster protagonists.

Maybe Carlito’s Way has more to say on the gangster genre than it does on Carlito’s own story.  It’s hard to look at this movie without thinking of ScarfaceGoodfellasThe Godfather trilogy and other gangster films I’m probably forgetting, and De Palma knows this.  He knows we’ve seen this before, and thus I have to think that what he’s trying to say has more to do with our viewing experience and expectations of such a movie.

So Carlito, in this story, doesn’t realize how stuck he is.  Whether he likes it or not, he’s a gangster, and that lifestyle will follow him to the end.  It’s just that the end, usually somewhat romantic among gangster films, is not so here.  Still, Carlito dies on his own terms.  He gets to be the authority to us, the audience.  As he dies, he narrates the events of the story and calls the people trying to save him fools.  He knows more than they do, making him somewhat omniscient.  The movie builds him up, even as he dies in a way that we’re led to believe would disappoint him.  In doing so, the movie and the protagonist seem to be saying two different things.  The movie says that this is akin to a samurai dying with honor in battle, but the character up until that point flees from this lifestyle like a soldier on the front lines deserting his platoon.  They each want different things, but Carlito’s uniqueness is swallowed up by the genre he serves.

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