Carlito's Way February 22, 2017
If Brian De Palma’s crime opera Scarface (1983) was a come-up of audacious opulence and giddy violence, then his Carlito’s Way (1993), a gangster drama also starring Al Pacino as a gutsy man with a plan living in a world of melodramatic sin, is a comedown, a comedown colored by sorrow, heartache, and the all-too-real reality that things are never going to pick back up after you’ve pushed karma beyond the limits of forgiving and forgetting.
Scarface and Carlito’s Way stand separately in their respective dramatic ambitions and their overarching styles and emotional textures. But the films, released almost exactly 10 years apart from one another and sharing a kink for pastel interiors, swaggy bad guys, and buckets of cocaine, seemed destined to forever be linked, not merely because of their being helmed by and headlined by the same men.
Because Scarface was all about one man’s rise to the top and Carlito’s Way is about another’s diving from the top all the way to the craggy bottom, it’s fated that it seem like something of a spiritual sequel. If Tony Montana were tinged with humility and didn’t die a sensational death, would his attempts at redemption look like the ones enacted by this movie’s eponymous anti-hero?
Carlito’s Way finds itself concerned with a former crime lord trying to get some credit in the straight world. The man, sad-eyed and regretful, is looking to leave his days of ill-advised hedonism behind and start anew as the boring man he might have been had he never dipped his toes in the waters of organized crime in the first place.
An adaptation of After Hours, a 1979 crime novel written by judge-turned-author Edwin Torres, the film initially appears to be in sync with the tonality of Scarface. When we first meet him, Pacino’s Carlito Brigante seems to share Montana’s splashy exterior. He’s flashy and loud-mouthed. Has a way with words. And he’s just been released from prison, only having served five years of his 30-year sentence as a result of a technicality exploited by his sleazy lawyer, David Kleinfeld (Sean Penn).
But as we get to know the man, who used to be at the top of the top of the coke ladder, we come to genuinely believe his claims that he’s going to change his ways and become a person capable of making an honest living. He, of course, cannot do such a thing without making a little bit of green first, though. His plan: buy a nightclub, earn himself $75,000, and retire to the Caribbean. Maybe become a car salesman.
But because his means of buying that nightclub are seedy in and of themselves (he gets the cash from a botched drug deal pursued by his barely legal cousin), and because most patrons are scoundrels and hookers, it’s impossible for Brigante to rid himself of his reputation.
This creates problems, then, when he and an old flame (a first-rate Penelope Ann Miller) reignite their romance and she becomes a part of his reformation strategy. He’s a classic tragic hero who’s never going to get ahead no matter how hard he tries.
Unlike Tony Montana, to whom he’s often compared, our admiration for Carlito Brigante is also steeped in veritable caring. The man has killed and he’s no stranger to mangling the lives of others. But his newfound remorse is obvious.
In Scarface, Pacino was all grease and fat, juices and gobs with no nuance. But in Carlito’s Way, he proves himself as a piece of tendered, fleshy meat, and the movie gives us enough time to see him wear down to the scraps and bones he’d rather not be. He’s a smorgasbord of vulnerability and pain, and the comprehension that his desires will never be realized causes every tragedy to shatter the heart instead of simply break it into jagged little pieces.
The film’s utmost accomplishment is its devising of a quasi Shakespearean tragedy without losing sight of its gangster drama edges — it’s grandiose and it’s sweeping and it’s sensitive, but it also constructs its transgressive world with an efficiency that convinces us that screenwriter David Koepp and director De Palma understand their subject on a level deeper than sheer emotional understanding. Pacino is equal parts sympathetic and roughened, the lost soul who wishes he could discard his soiled past like a dirtied shirt.
The film additionally stands among De Palma’s great contributions to the cinema. In his filmography has a standoff risen between the Hitchcock obsessed De Palma (Sisters, Dressed to Kill) and the more enterprising, humanistic De Palma, a De Palma fascinated by human nature and how human nature can be altered in the midst of crime and debauchery (Scarface, The Untouchables). Carlito’s Way arrived in theaters at a time during which De Palma’s mastery of his art was called into question — both 1990’s The Bonfire of the Vanities and 1992’s Raising Cain were critical and commercial failures, misfires of momentous erroneousness. Carlito’s Way’s transcendence of the genre flips doubt onto its back. It’s an ultimate exemplifier of De Palma’s directorial glory when he’s given the right kind of material to work on. Not a false note rings during the movie's well-earned two-and-a-half hours. A