Monday, April 23, 2012

Director Spotlight #6.19: Brian De Palma's Carlito's Way

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. April’s director is the self-proclaimed master of the macabre, Brian De Palma.

Grade: 96 (A)

When most people think of a Brian De Palma-Al Pacino movie, they’re most likely going to go to Scarface, the infinitely quotable, gloriously over-the-top 80s gangster epic. Their subsequent collaboration, 1993’s Carlito’s Way, has found a cult following, but it’s not nearly as fervent. Don’t let it fool you: Carlito’s Way is a masterpiece, and De Palma’s best film next to Blow Out, and one of the very best films of the 1990s (the French film criticism magazine Cahiers du Cinema picked it as the very best. A bit far, but it’s certainly top ten material). The film is De Palma’s Goodfellas, a constantly escalating crime-epic with a beating heart.

Carlito Brigante (Pacino) is a Puerto Rican ex-con let out of a 30-year-prison sentence after only five years because of a technicality. Plenty of ex-cons claim to be changed men who want to lead a straight life, but Carlito really means it. He gets a job running a disco club in New York, and he plans to collect $75,000, go to the Bahamas, and start a car rental agency. But old habits die hard, and try as he might, he’s getting pulled at every angle- whether it’s his cokehead lawyer Dave Kleinfeld (Sean Penn), his violent old friend Pachanga (Luis Guzman), the D.A. trying to catch him on a dope rap (James Rebhorn), or a nasty up-and-coming gangster, Benny Blanco “from the Bronx” (John Leguizamo). Carlito has a dream, and an old flame to share it with (Penelope Ann Miller as Gail), but there’s no room for dreamers in this city.

Carlito’s Way isn’t a garish gangster epic in the same fashion as Scarface. Where the earlier movie was white hot, the latter is a much cooler, more low-key film. That doesn’t mean De Palma doesn’t direct the hell out of it, however. If anything, Carlito’s Way is more exciting than Scarface. De Palma doesn’t use split-screen, but his use of split-diopter gives the film a great visual dynamic and mise-en-scene (it was only so long before I used pretentious filmspeak). Carlito and Dave have a couple of gorgeous women on their side, but a split-diopter shows the two clearly more interested in catching up. A cute waitress hits on Carlito, but he’s more interested in watching a girl on the dance floor who looks a lot like Gail. And when Carlito gets a handful of different chats about how his loyalties will get him killed, we see both the concerned friend and Carlito, reacting, knowing it to be true but unable to admit it. It’s great visual storytelling.

Better yet are the long crane and tracking shots that immerse us fully into Carlito’s world. These are some of De Palma’s densest compositions- whether the characters are on the streets or in the discos, the screen is packed with things to watch before the camera zeroes in on what’s really important. Crane shots give us important information- in one scene, a nervy Dave is snorting coke like a madman, only to hear that the D.A. is here. Dave cleans himself up, the camera shifts, and all of the sudden Dave’s no longer the helpless cokehead, but a “respectable” lawyer.

The tracking shots in Carlito’s Way almost feel like an answer to De Palma’s good friend Martin Scorsese for the long takes in Goodfellas. One long POV-shot shows Carlito entering a disco, looking around at what he’s seeing, and not recognizing the world around him. “Where’d all those miniskirts and all that marijuana go? Now it’s all platform shoes and cocaine.” Other long tracking shots show Carlito’s relationships with everyone else, whether he’s far away from everyone else, struggling to catch up with Gail and ask her not to leave him, or losing touch with his old friends. Another shows Carlito having to try hard not to lapse back into his old ways when he has a chance to kill Benny Blanco. Better still are the long tracking shots as the grand finale approaches- Carlito is pressed for time to leave on a train with Gail, and when Italian mobsters show up, it’s not a good sign for him. He’s gotta get out.

De Palma crafts a number of exciting set-pieces throughout the film. An early scene in a pool hall shows just how quickly Carlito’s dangerous past catches up to him. Carlito’s na├»ve younger cousin brings him along on a simple drug deal, but Carlito’s instincts tell him that something’s not right- the bathroom door in the back is opened just a crack and apparently “out of order”, the music is turned up so loud that no one can hear anybody, and it all looks like an ambush. De Palma crafts a scene in which Carlito’s quick wits and watchful eyes save his own hide (a shot in which Carlito sees an assassin in somebody’s sunglasses is particularly masterful), but not everyone has the same trained eyes. De Palma’s voyeuristic sensibility and master of slowly wrought tension sets up scenes in which who’s watching who and why determines who lives, who dies, and what the consequences are. The first set-piece shows how quick wits can save someone; another on Dave’s boat shows how not seeing the right things leads to doom.

Carlito isn’t the only voyeur- the film’s obsession with how people watch each other carries over to most of the characters. D.A. Norwalk’s best chance at putting men behind bars involves bugging people, and he does it throughout the film- an illegally made tape sets Carlito free, another attempt shows how Carlito has learned from past mistakes, and yet another shows Norwalk bugging Dave, now a corrupt lawyer and major figure in the criminal underground.

Voyeurism doesn’t just determine who lives and who dies, though. It also intersects with sexuality in fascinating ways. The first act of the film shows Carlito’s disinterest in most women: he only has eyes for Gail. When Carlito sees Gail for the first time in years, De Palma evokes Hitchcock’s Rear Window- Carlito peeks in on Gail during dance practice from a building across the street. It’s a thrilling and perversely romantic moment that slowly leads up to their rekindled romance. Carlito follows Gail in a fashion not completely unlike James Stewart and Kim Novak in Vertigo- it’s also another older man with a gorgeous young blonde woman- but it’s less about obsession than it is about a connection between a couple of dreamers. In what’s possibly the most romantic scene in De Palma’s oeuvre, Carlito visits Gail’s apartment building. Gail opens the door just a crack, teases Carlito, and tells him that if he can’t “bust the chain” to get in, he doesn’t get in. Joe Cocker’s “You Are So Beautiful” provides a gorgeous theme to their romance as Carlito the voyeur becomes Carlito the romantic. Their embrace is a swirling pan that deliberately evokes the Stewart/Novak kiss in Vertigo- their relationship is sweeter and less problematic than that of the older film couple, but it’s another doomed love all the same.

Carlito’s Way isn’t as film-centric as some of De Palma’s other movies (Dressed to Kill, Raising Cain), but it still shows De Palma using cinematic language to pay tribute to his influences. Aside from Rear Window and Vertigo, Hitchcock shows up in the suspense scenes, which are as intricate as anything Hitchcock ever put together. The shootouts near the end, meanwhile, recall both Howard Hawks and Sergio Leone in their intricate design. A bigger influence still are the 90s crime films- Carlito’s Way almost seems to exist as an “I’ll show you!” to De Palma’s good friend Martin Scorsese, but the aside from the long tracking shots and strong sense of time and place (New York in the 70s for both), the final act of both films show constantly escalating tension as their protagonists get squeezed by every angle (as a bonus, both films show clear influence on Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterful Boogie Nights, although Carlito’s Way doesn’t get cited nearly as often). But Carlito’s Way also recalls Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part III in its tale of an aging gangster (also played by Pacino) trying and failing to go straight, ultimately leading to a tragic ending. That it outdoes The Godfather Part III in every way only makes its lesser known status all the more disappointing.

What separates Carlito’s Way from other gangster films of its era is the comparative lack of violence. Sure, the set-pieces are appropriately bloody, but it’s a bit jarring to see De Palma, the self-proclaimed master of the macabre, making a movie that’s less violent than his more respected contemporaries. More often there’s the constant threat of violence that could potentially ruin the redemption Carlito so desperately wants. When an old friend betrays Carlito, he looks like he’s about to shoot him…but he pulls back, out of pity and of determination. When the presence of Leguizamo’s Benny Blanco goes from overbearing to dangerous, Carlito has a chance to kill him and keep himself safe. But he can’t do it. It’s too important that he do the right thing. The lack of truly violent material makes the violence in later scenes all the more significance- when a couple of mobsters are eventually killed, it’s not Carlito who’s responsible, but Dave. Yet it touches Carlito all the same- Dave has “crossed the point of no return”, but he pulls Carlito along with him, and the fallout is catastrophic.

Carlito’s Way was inspired by the Edwin Torres novels Carlito’s Way and After Hours, yet it notably takes its plot from the latter novel (it couldn’t be called After Hours because of the Scorsese film with the same name). Pacino’s Carlito is a tired man grasping at any sense of credibility and legitimacy. He knows that “this shit business” is a killer, and he’s grown older and wiser. But the past catches up with you. Carlito Brigante is one of Pacino’s best performances- it occasionally veers into the explosive territory of late-period Pacino, but without lapsing into self-parody. More to the point, though, it is a return to the thoughtful Pacino of the 1970s. Carlito never talks when he doesn’t have to, and while the character’s narration could be a lazy crutch, Pacino infuses it with vitality and energy that helps communicate the feelings Carlito has when being pulled from all ends.

Penelope Ann Miller hasn’t had a great career in the years following Carlito’s Way. It’s disappointing, considering how great she is in the film. Even more than Carlito, Gail is a dreamer. She wanted to be an actress and a dancer, but all she can find is work in a strip club. The film doesn’t judge her choices, nor do Miller or Pacino judge her character; she did what she had to do. But Carlito’s Way is a film filled with broken dreams and dying optimism. It’s a performance filled with romanticism, vulnerability, and profound sadness, so when Carlito and Gail look like they finally have a chance to get away from it all, it’s all the more heartbreaking when the story comes to a tragic end.

Sean Penn’s performances over the past decade have grown more mannered and more interested in unloading buckets of tears than actually acting (Milk excepted), but Carlito’s Way shows a young actor at the top of his game in perhaps his finest performance (only Dead Man Walking comes close). Penn has to play several different angles- Dave the respectable lawyer, Dave the nervy cokehead, Dave the nerdy guy threatened by the mob, Dave the liar, and Dave the self-righteous criminal. Penn plays each part brilliantly as a character who’s quickly losing control in a performance that embodies the sleazy charm and dangerous appeal of several De Palma movies.

The rest of the film is filled with great colorful supporting performances, from Luis Guzman as Carlito’s violent friend Pachanga to Viggo Mortensen as a particularly unlucky friend of Carlito, but John Leguizamo’s role as Benny Blanco is the most vital to the film. Here is a character with no respect for the old guard or old ways, a violent cowboy who’s willing to do anything to prove himself. Carlito speaks several times about the danger of not being able to see all the angles, but when he disrespects Benny Blanco without considering what a threat he might be, he sews the seeds for his own doom.

Ultimately, that’s what Carlito’s Way is about- the dying of old ways and the inability to see all the angles. Carlito keeps himself alive for a good long while in the final act as De Palma and Pacino clue the audience in to how his life is in danger and how Dave is going to die (a tracking shot behind Carlito that focuses on his pockets is a particularly masterful clue), but it ultimately boils down to a masterful 10-minute foot chase sequence in New York’s Grand Central Station. It’s at this point where the slow-building tension and quiet melancholy of the rest of the film explodes as De Palma uses every tool at his display- split-diopter, lock tracking and crane shots, Patrick Doyle’s intense score (with a sense of tragedy just lurking around the corner), and a voyeuristic sensibility. De Palma, like Hitchcock, set several sequences in his movies on trains or at train stations (Dressed to Kill, Blow Out, The Untouchables). The final set-piece in Carlito’s Way plays like an ultimate blow out for everything De Palma does well. It’s an extended suspense and action sequence that culminates when it looks like Carlito has finally gotten away. The dangerous guys are all dead, and he’s home free to escape with Gail. Except for the one angle he didn’t see or count on- “remember me? Benny Blanco from the Bronx?”.

It’s important to note that Carlito’s Way starts with the film’s ending in a heightened, slow-motion black-and-white style. This doesn’t kill the suspense of the film so much as it informs the tragedy of the narrative. There’s a sense of inevitability at the heart of Carlito’s Way, and when the rug is pulled out at the end of the film, it augments the sense of loss that’s present throughout the film. There’s still some hope- maybe Gail can get out. It’d be the one noble thing that Carlito did with his brief time outside of prison. It’s not a tale of failed redemption, but of how that redemption could never have been sustained. “There’s no room in this city for big hearts like ours…sorry baby. I did the best I could…tired baby…tired…”

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