Friday, December 22, 2017

Carlito's Way (1993)

USA, 144 minutes
Director: Brian De Palma
Writers: Edwin Torres, David Koepp
Photography: Stephen H. Burum
Music: Patrick Doyle, Brian De Palma Pop Hit Mix
Editors: Kristina Boden, Bill Pankow
Cast: Al Pacino, Sean Penn, Penelope Ann Miller, John Leguizamo, Ingrid Rogers, Luis Guzman, James Rebhorn, Viggo Mortenson, Paul Mazursky, John Ortiz, Joseph Siravo

Yeah, I thought too late, I probably should have taken another look at director Brian De Palma's Scarface while I was at it, which I have somehow not been able to do since seeing it new. I know its reputation has seen considerable rehabilitation since then. And between putting Al Pacino front and center, coming in long, and working self-consciously within the gangster movie frame, they have a lot in common. If it's ridiculous for Pacino to bury his Marielito head in a pile of cocaine on a desktop in Scarface it's probably equally ridiculous to make him a Puerto Rican gangbanger trying to go straight in Carlito's Way.

But here we are. I've grown fond of Carlito's Way since first seeing it some 10 years ago. It's an exemplary instance of De Palma's ability to craft operatic narrative that is genuinely affecting. It's romantic, absorbing, moving, and often beautiful, even if it is all in the service of overfamiliar clichés. At least Scarface was pushing hard on its limitations, amirite? I'll have to make a point to get to it. We probably shouldn't leave Goodfellas out of this discussion either, as Carlito's Way also adapts some of that movie's surging pseudo-documentary verve. Carlito Brigante (Pacino) narrates in voiceover and the story unfolds with a lot of episodic energy, taking its time to explain certain points fully. It also has a predilection for matching intense scenes with rock songs: "Oye Como Va" by Santana, "You Should Be Dancing" by the Bee Gees, "Lady Marmalade" by Labelle. But the sense of classic tragedy, of noble life and fatal flaws and destiny—that's all De Palma.

Our hero Carlito was something of a heroin tycoon in New York in the '50s and '60s, but took a fall for 30 years. As the movie begins in 1975 his lawyer has managed to get him off on a technicality after five years. Carlito swears he's not going to blow the opportunity and will go straight. He really means it too. He has a dream of buying into a car rental operation in the Bahamas. He's keeping his new life all on the up and up (as much as he can), with an unswerving loyalty and debt of gratitude to his lawyer. But that's where the fatal flaw part comes in because the lawyer, David Kleinfeld (Sean Penn), is a very bad man—a despicable, loathsome creature that it is a pleasure to hate. Pacino carries this picture with his comfortable easygoing style, but Penn is the element that defines the contrasts, expands the horizons, raises the stakes. Part of it is the sheer spectacle of his unnerving appearance here, wearing loud expensive stylish suits and a wig that turns him into a lookalike for Larry Fine of the Three Stooges. He is a cocaine addict. He looks like a clown and acts like a clown but he is actually very dangerous, which only becomes more evident as the movie goes along. Evident to everyone, that is, but Carlito.

It's a good cast—a November release, it should also be taken as a bit of an Oscar-bait exercise. Penelope Ann Miller is Gail, Carlito's love interest. Like many such from De Palma she is somewhat vacuous, impossibly angelic, a placeholder on which Carlito—and more importantly the audience—can project fantasies. She calls him Charlie. She doesn't actually show up in any way until more than 30 minutes into the movie. Yet in her way she also expands the horizons of this movie. She is the innocent, the lamb. She wants to be a ballet dancer. Circumstances are wising her up right along, but she clings to her innocence unself-consciously. It's what Carlito loves about her and finally what we love about her too. Other familiar faces doing their reliable things here include Luis Guzman, James Rebhorn, Joseph Siravo, John Ortiz, and Paul Mazursky. And if it's weird enough seeing Pacino try to be Puerto Rican—he's actually not bad at it, mostly by shading away from things like the accent and staying within himself—Viggo Mortenson's turn at it is more like laughable. Still, he's a good example of the talent on hand here, powering this movie relentlessly forward.

The wind-up, an elaborate chase scene in New York's Grand Central Station, which goes on for quite some time, is the point where Carlito's Way most feels like we have parachuted into a Hitchcock picture, storyboarded to the max. I mean that as a good thing. Now we shift from the pop music soundtrack to the lusher more conventional moody movie music orchestrations of Patrick Doyle as we spiral into the tragic finish so artfully foreshadowed in the earliest scenes of the movie, eliminating all suspense on one level and yet reconstructing it with the elements of the story until it means something in the final minutes. De Palma's visions for the steadicam are well on display, with long-time De Palma collaborator cinematographer Stephen H. Burum realizing those visions expertly, moving liquidly around the interiors of the massive underground granite and marble train barn. It's a little editing masterpiece as well. The end, with all its disorientations of camera and story event, is predictable (we saw it foreshadowed at the beginning) yet nothing less than stunning virtually every time I look.

1 comment:

  1. Need to see this. Strong defense. Even if Penn's character here, "looks like a clown and acts like a clown but he is actually very dangerous," sounds as well like apt description of Pacino in Scarface.