In 1983, Brian De Palma and Al Pacino, came together in Scarface, a movie that polarized critics and audiences alike. After his turn as the suave Michael Corleone in The Godfather Series, Pacino, again lit up the screen as Tony Montana, a foul mouthed, hot headed, illiterate, cocaine snorting gangster who makes it to the top, and has an equally sudden fall. A decade later in 1993, Brian De Palma, takes up the issue, “Now what if Tony Montana wanted to go straight?”. So he gives Tony Montana, a makeover, renames him Carlito Brigante, and again gets Pacino, who by now had become to the gangster genre, what John Wayne was to the Westerns. Ah yes Tony was Cuban, and Carlito is Puerto Rican. Incidentally the book on which the movie was based was called After Hours, but De Palma had to change the title, to avoid the confusion with Martin Scorcese’s 1985 black comedy of the same name.
The movie starts off with one of the best opening scenes, we have Carlito being shot at the station, and then rushed to the hospital. Brian De Palma, is a master of visual composition, and the visualization for this scene was brilliant. The scene is shot in B&W, but you have the opening credits being imposed on it in a bluish hue, with Patrick Doyle’s moving BGM in this part, wonderfully setting up the mood. The voice over records Carlito’s thoughts, while he lies wounded on the stretcher. Again another brilliant visualization here is the way Palma, gives the kind of surreal atmosphere, the camera tracking along the lights of the hospital corridor, giving it a kind of deathly hue. And then Carlito sees the Paradise Now poster, and immediately Palma switches into a kind of reddish hue, with a woman dancing in silhoutte on a tropical island. The opening scene gives voice to Carlito’s thoughts, as he reminiscences escaping to the tropical island. And then the movie goes into a flashback.
Its the 70′s, and Carlito is released from prison with help of his pal Dave Kleinfield( Sean Penn), a sleazy, smarmy cocaine snorting lawyer. Carlito now wishes to go straight, tired of his past life as a gangster, and his years in prison. As Carlito revisits his old neighbourhood, he finds that it has changed a lot, and he begins to feel like a stranger. As he says Mi barrio ya no existe( My neighborhood exists no more). Carlito is an old school gangster, believing in code of honor, ethics, and he is shocked at the new breed of gangsters who have no ethics and are totally ruthless. He meets up his old friend Pachanga, and tries to get back to his old flame, Gail( Penelope Ann Miller), who works in a strip joint to get along.
Like Scarface, Carlito’s Way was not a critical favorite when released. And yes the movie has its own drawbacks, but for me it still remains one of my favorite gangster movies. When i watch a gangster movie, i have a simple rule of thumb, are the characters interesting enough, and how are the relationships between them etched. In that aspect, Brian De Palma does a great job in the movie. In fact one area where I would rate Carlito’s Way much better than Scarface is in the characterization. Scarface , was entirely about Tony Montana, to the extent that other characters in that movie don’t really register on your mind. In fact had the movie been titled Tony Montana, it would have made no difference. Also Brian De Palma, builds up Tony Montana to a larger than life character, who makes other characters look pretty insignificant.
While Carlito Brigante is finely etched out, what gives an additional strength here is the character of Dave Kleinfield, the smarmy lawyer. As they say sometimes your friends could be your worst enemies. Carlito wants to get out of the shit hole he was in, but he is dragged into it again and again, thanks to his Dave, who believes that honor is something expendable, as he tells him ““Fuck you and your self-righteous code of the goddamn streets”. Dave is quite upset about Carlito’s decision to go straight, and he later becomes an addict to cocaine, getting into a mess with the local mob boss Tony T over a payoff. For me some of the best scenes in the movie were between Carlito and Dave. Its well known that Pacino can be a real scenery chewer, to the extent of making other characters look stupid, ala Keanu Reeves in Devil’s Advocate. Here however Sean Penn’s smarmy Dave is an effective counterpart to Pacino’s Carlito, and Penn looks every inch the mob advocate, with his curled frizzy hair do, his mannerisms. In fact at times Penn is quite unrecognizable. The way De Palma builds up the relationship between these two, is the core strength of the movie.
Palma also does a good job, in bringing out the Puerto Rican atmosphere, by getting mostly Hispanic actors to star as the men around Carlito. Carlito’s old friend Pachanga, his ex partner in crime, becomes Carlito’s right hand man later, and his trusted lieutnant. But the crucial character is that of Benny Blanco, a Puerto Rican gangster, who feels Carlito is motherfucker to the max and idolizes him. Carlito however hates him, his lack of ethics, feeling he is a low life
Who the fuck are you? I should remember you? What, you think you like me? You ain’t like me motherfucker, you a punk. I’ve been with made people, connected people. Who’ve you been with? Chain snatching, jive-ass, maricon motherfuckers. Why don’t you get out of here and go snatch a purse.
For me the relation between Carlito and Benny was indicative of the differences between the old school gangsters and the new breed. It was as if Brian De Palma, was disowning Tony Montana out here. Another superb scene on the same lines is where a group of gangsters mock at Carlito’s efforts to go straight. In fact for me that was one of the major points, Carlito’s attempts to go straight are defeated at every end. He is reminded of his past life, and when he wants to get away from it, he is dragged into it.
If i had to relate one song to Carlito Brigante’s life, it would be Hotel California, especially the closing lines
Last thing I remember, I was
Running for the door
I had to find the passage back
To the place I was before
Relax, said the night man,
We are programmed to receive.
You can checkout any time you like,
But you can never leave!
Carlito here is trying to find his way back, but he is unable to do so, pulled in all directions. Its as if he can only check out, never really leave his life of crime behind.
And that makes Carlito a kind of sympathetic figure, unlike Tony Montana. You never really emphathized much with Tony, he was the larger than life figure, loud, arrogant and hot headed. When you see Tony’s end, its tragic, but its something you knew was comming along, thanks to his self destructive ways. Carlito here is more sympathetic, and here you follow his story, in relation to the other characters around him. You empathize with him, feel sorry for him, want him to get out alive. Pacino gives a totally different performance here compared to Scarface, more restrained, more subdued, as the ex gangster trying to get along in a world, that wont allow him to forget his past life.
The weak link however in the movie for me was the love story between Carlito and Gail. For a woman who is a strip dancer, working in the underside of New York, Gail comes out as some one way too polished. Some how her character to me seemed like one of those mujra waali characters with a heart of gold, in the old Bollywood flicks. Michelle Pfeiffer was a perfect fit for the sexy femme fatale role in Scarfacer, she had that icy cold demeanour combined with a sexuality, something like the female you desired, but could not really touch. Penelope Ann Miller on the other hand is more like a wholeseome girl next door, sweet and cute, but she just does not have that Sharone Stone or Michelle Pfeiffer kind of cold sexuality. Imagine Juhi Chawla doing Bipasha Basu’s role in Jism, fit nahin hota. Also the romance between Carlito and Gail, gets too corny at times.
De Palma is famous for his set action pieces, and here he comes with two really good ones, one is the shootout in a pool parlor, and the final climax shootout at the station. My favorite is however the pool parlor shootout, where Carlito accompanies his young cousin Guajiro for a drug deal. What i love here is the way Brian De Palma, sets up the scene, and builds up the tension here. The camera tracks Carlito, all along, and its here that De Palma, brilliantly builds up the tension. We see Carlito looking around the parlor, and the small hints keep slipping in a door ajar, voices behind the door, the body language of the people around. By setting up the scene from Carlito’s POV, as a viewer we get sucked into the mood, as we sense something is fishy. Here the tension is built up by the small things around, you dont explicitly see it, but you feel something is going to happen. This one scene itself is worth the price.
For me Carlito’s Way is again another underrated gangster flick. It seemed to have suffered in comparison with Godfather, Scarface, and also maybe the fact that it references Brian De Palma’s earlier flicks, especially the shootout scene in the station, is quite similar to that in Untouchables. But still worth a watch, for its characterization and great performances from Pacino and Penn.