Carlito's Way Review
Brian De Palma puts on a great show. Give him a good script, a strong cast and a team of reliable collaborators and he can be a marvellously invigorating director, renewing familiar material with an intense visual strength which the years have not dimmed, as his last film Femme Fatale demonstrated. There’s nothing particularly original about Carlito’s Way but, returning to the mainstream after the not uninteresting flop of Bonfire of the Vanities and the hugely entertaining but financially unsuccessful Raising Cain, De Palma brings vast reserves of energy to David Koepp’s flavoursome script and turns his actors loose. The result is one of his most enjoyable movies.
It’s based on an old formula – ex-con gets out of jail and tries to go straight while everyone who knows him tries to drag him back into a life of crime. Carlito Brigante (Pacino) has emerged from prison, after five years, determined to get out but finds his lawyer, David Kleinfeld (Penn) has other plans for him. To complicate matters further, Carlito becomes involved with his old flame Gail (Miller). It’s distinguished by the source material; Edwin Torres’ books based on his experiences with criminals as a New York Judge which crackle with realistic atmosphere.
Admittedly, the plot isn’t anything very interesting and the romantic subplot involving Carlito and Gail rarely engages our emotions. Their first meeting after Carlito gets out is poignantly affecting and suggests good things to come. But Penelope Ann Miller’s performance while touching is never as devastatingly emotional and heartbroken as it would need to be to force her scenes into some kind of life. It’s hard to believe she could ever make a living as an erotic dancer; she’s got no sexual heat emanating from her at all. She looks at Carlito with an indulgent, mumsy expression which suggests she wants to offer him a cup of warm milk and tuck him up in bed. But none of this really matters because De Palma speeds through most of their scenes in order to get to the good bits – namely the extraordinarily exciting suspense set-pieces where the tension is racked out so tautly that they rise above the realm of action and become witty in the manner of Hitchcock at his very best in North By Northwest. He wastes no time getting to the first one, a confrontation in a backroom involving a pool table, a chest-freezer and a pair of sunglasses which is so exciting you can barely believe De Palma can better it. Everything is in place – the editing is paper-cut sharp, the grungy cinematography reeks with atmosphere and the bit-part actors look like they’ve just crawled up from some Latino gutter. Yet, amazingly, De Palma does better this confrontation during the last reel; an extended chase sequence which has us hoping against hope that Carlito’s fate during the opening scene can somehow be changed. With an amazingly fluid camera, some brilliantly extended takes and an ingenious assortment of perils, De Palma keeps us breathless for a full 22 minutes.
None of this would matter if we didn’t care about Carlito. Indeed, the whole structure of the film relies upon how our feelings about the central character and De Palma had the good luck to get the film with Al Pacino already attached to it. Four years into his career renaissance after his Sea of Love comeback, and a year after his Oscar winning turn in Scent of a Woman, Pacino is on absolutely scintillating form. In Scent, he mugged entertainingly and turned a minor bit of comedy-drama into a riveting hambone special. I think his performance as Carlito is much better than the one which got him the award. It’s beautifully layered, mixing the show-stopping attention hogging scenes - where Pacino relishes the outrageously eloquent dialogue – with minute, subtle moments where you can see Carlito’s thought processes catching up with his instincts. Every time he gets a good line, he delights in it, weighing each word, rolling it around his mouth before emitting it. His narration also works surprisingly well, packed as it is with great lines such as “Don’t take me to no hospital. Fucking emergency rooms never saved anyone. Some bitches always pop you at midnight when all they got is a Chinese intern with a dull spoon.” Pacino achieves something very difficult. He makes us believe wholeheartedly in Carlito’s redemption and the possibility that he might change his life without trying to make him a sweetheart. Carlito Brigante is, it’s made clear, a tough bastard. But he’s all too human – and its his basic humanity, and newly hatched impulse towards mercy, which proves his eventual undoing. The world created in this film is a cruel one, recognisably the same blackly comic universe in which bad things happen with an inexorability that becomes horribly funny – think of Kate Miller in Dressed To Kill who wanted nothing but the love and affection she deserved but ended up dying pointlessly or Jack in Blow Out who believed that second chances always work out but became mired in personal tragedy and failure despite his every effort to get it right.
It’s a world made for people with all the moral character of cockroaches and a world in which the likes of David Kleinfeld thrive. Returning to the screen after three years away, Sean Penn is riveting as this most detestable piece of legal scum who leeches off his clients and turns up at exactly the wrong moment to poison Carlito’s life. It’s a performance devoid of self-consciousness where Penn gets so far inside Kleinfeld that there seems no distinction between actor and character. Tricked out with a hilariously bad Afro and a pair of glasses which seem to make his face chubbier, Penn is sheer delight, a bad guy who enjoys the benefits which being bad provide. When he’s wired on drugs, especially during a tacky house party where he sports a red cravat, Kleinfeld is a ball of misdirected energy screaming at his guests that they are ruining his property. He and Pacino work together beautifully – Pacino’s verbal double-takes at Penn’s madness are irresistible - and there’s more chemistry between them than Pacino finds with Penelope Ann Miller. This is a reminder that Pacino has often been at his very best – as opposed to his most engagingly over the top – when partnered with someone who gives him a run for his money; Gene Hackman in Scarecrow, John Cazale in Dog Day Afternoon, Michelle Pfeiffer in the underrated Frankie and Johnny. The two central performances are backed up by a fine collection of sleazy character types, among whom John Leguizamo’s despicable Benny Blanko (from the Bronx) and Luis Guzman stand out. There’s also a delightful cameo from director Paul Mazursky as a Judge. The only wrong note is sounded by the casting of James Rebhorn as the slimy DA. Nothing particularly wrong with his performance but Rebhorn has played this role too many times and his presence reminds you that he played virtually the same part opposite Pacino in Scent of a Woman.
What makes Carlito’s Way different from most gangster movies, and a lot more attractive, is the prevailing tone of doomed romanticism. The opening makes it clear that we’re watching a tragedy unfold – although we may hope the tragedy can be reversed – and the weight of experience and sadness in Carlito’s eyes makes him a wiser, more reflective character than we would expect. It was right to make him a man coming towards the wrong side of middle-age, the sum total of mistakes and bad decisions that he can’t quite help repeating. Yet the mistakes and misjudgements make him strangely sympathetic; we respect his humanity, particularly in the scene after the backroom shoot-out when he emits a cry of despair about the situation he’s unwillingly found himself embroiled in. He also has deep humour which keeps erupting even in the most difficult situations. This is true to the books by Edwin Torres, incidentally, and Koepp, De Palma and Pacino seem to have responded to the chance to tell a story about the possibilities of humanity and redemption within the most unlikely setting.
Whatever you can say about De Palma’s films – and a lot has been said about them both good and bad – you can’t deny their technical brilliance. Stephen H. Burum’s cinematography emphasises the stark contrast between the griminess of the streets and the striking luxury of the clubs, all pink neon and glitterballs. At times, the interior of Carlito’s club looks a bit like some kind of furnace in which the hero could easily be burned alive. As stated earlier, the editing is remarkably acute (although the film is definitely overlong and could do with twenty minutes cutting out) and the production design deliriously evocative of mid-seventies tackiness. Most surprisingly effective is the music, both the soundtrack of disco music (including some imperishable classics such as ‘Backstabbers’) and Patrick Doyle’s elegiac score, mostly written for strings and piano and obviously inspired by the work of Samuel Barber. The score sets the tone for the whole film and contributes to its gut-wrenching emotional impact. The ending breaks your heart due to its inevitability as much as anything else and De Palma allows the tragedy to bloom into beautiful shades of colour much as he did in Blow Out. If it’s not his best film – it doesn’t have the exotic brilliance of that movie or Dressed To Kill - then its certainly very impressive and has deservedly become one of the most affectionately remembered of the 1990s.
Carlito’s Way was originally released by Universal back in 1998 on a non-anamorphic disc. In 2003, a Special Edition came out and this new disc, give or take a few extras, is very similar. This new region 1 release is on a DVD-14 with the film on one side and the extras on the other.
The film is presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio and has been anamorphically enhanced. It’s not a flawless transfer but is generally pleasing. There is a good level of detail and a small amount of attractive film grain which never goes over the line into unsightly texturing. The colours are usually strong although the darker shades tend to lack distinction and result in a slightly drab appearance during the low-lit sequences. There is also some artifacting here and there.
The soundtrack options are all very impressive. The DTS 5.1 Surround track sounds marvellous with loads of atmosphere and some richly evocative uses of ambient sound. The Dolby Digital 5.1 track is also excellent. A Spanish Dolby Surround mix is also included.
The extras are a little disappointing and not a particular advance on the previous Special Edition. We get the same documentary, a 30 minute Laurent Bouzereau piece which is in the same rather tired mould as most of his other pieces. The contributors are interesting enough though – De Palma, painfully smug producer Martin Bregman, David Koepp, writer Edwin Torres and editor Bill Pankow- and the 30 minutes pass pleasantly enough. The lack of anything from Pacino is a major drawback however. Also carried over from the SE are a wonderful photo gallery and the theatrical trailer.
The new features are limited but enjoyable. We get a ten minute interview with De Palma – still wearing that weird safari jacket type thing – which reveals some of his motivations for making the film and his modus operandi. Also present are eight minutes worth of deleted scenes which vary from the interesting to the redundant. The best is a drunk scene between Pacino and Penn where the two actors have the physical skill of a traditional comedy team. But the other ones are generally extended versions of scenes in the film and you can see why this already overlong film needed to get rid of them. The other new feature is a promotional featurette from 1993 which runs about five minutes and has lots of clips and some nice behind-the-scenes shots.
Subtitles are included for the film and also, laudably, for the extras.
If you already have the SE of Carlito’s Way then there isn’t much of an improvement here to make a purchase of this ‘Ultimate Edition’ worthwhile. However, if you don’t have a copy of the film then this should do very nicely.