A movie begins with a hard-boiled voiceover…glimpses of a key character being shot…and a fixated look at a sign that says “Escape to Paradise”. Everything is muted…everything is cold…but yet, in the Coke-machine-glow of that sign, it seems like we are about to witness something positive rise from the ashes.
Or maybe we just want to believe something positive can emerge from something that appears so grim.
CARLITO’S WAY takes us back to 1975, where a mid-level criminal named Carlito Brigante (Al Pacino) is sprung from prison on a loophole after serving five years of a thirty year sentence thanks to some cunning work by his lawyer, Dave Kleinfeld (Sean Penn). Carlito says he’s done with the game, but soon he’s talked into serving as back-up in a drug deal.
The encounter goes south, as they often do, and the end result is that Carlito proves his mettle and comes out ahead.
He now wants to earn just enough to get out for good, and to do-so, he takes over a nightclub. His life as a club owner makes him the target of snitches, the bane of wannabe thugs, and the heart’s desire of one special woman (Penelope Ann Miller).
But when Dave meets with another client, and agrees to help him slip out of prison without the help of the loophole…everything Carlito is trying to do with his newfound freedom is threatened.
If there was a surprise for me in CARLITO’S WAY, it was the romance.
The violence, I expected. The backstabbing, the blood, the guns, the body count. That’s the game, right? But the arrival of Gail…and what she brings out in Carlito is stunning, sensual, and gloriously seductive.
It’s not the sort of thing one expects to see in a movie like this – two people catching up in a formica diner, talking about what they want to do and who they want to be. It’s not supposed to work that way. She’s a dancer and he’s a crook. They’re supposed to dance, drink, fuck, and fight. They aren’t supposed to be vulnerable with one-another…not supposed to truly connect.
Their chemistry reminded me of Bruce Willis and Madeline Stowe in 12 MONKEYS, and their desire to escape it all every bit as urgent. That has just as much to do with the actors as it does with what they are given to act out. This was the moment where we started to lose Al Pacino…where he started becoming a “HOOO-ahh…” cartoonish glimmer of his former self. And while there are glimpses of that caricature in this movie too, it largely dissipates when Penelope Ann Miller arrives.
So maybe we have her to thank; not just for the best strip tease ever performed between a chain-locked door and a mirror…but for giving us one last moment of true Pacino before he wandered off into the woods forever.
At the risk of being labelled a heretic, I have to wonder what happened to Brian De Palma.
For so damned long, his films were so stylish, so splendid, so fucking cool! Set pieces in his films were works of art; sometimes bringing together the best of Scorsese, Hitchcock, and Almodovar. His use of colour was outstanding – painting American portraits with a Giallo palette. The deep reds that soak Al Pacino and John Leguizamo in this movie are a fine example of that, ditto the deep greens and blues that are used in the first shoot-out.
And bloody hell could the man stage a scene around a train. Whether it was in a station or on the carriages, Brian De Palma used the scale, scope, hustle, bustle, roll, and rhythm of the iron rails like few others in cinema history. Watch the standoff in THE UNTOUCHABLES, or the pursuit in BLOW-OUT. Or watch this movie where he went so far as to film one train from the vantage point of another goddamned train!!!
So what happened? How could a man create a tapestry of such splendid films and then suddenly just begin fading into the background the way De Palma has?
It’s hard to fathom it sometimes, but the fact is that true artistic achievement generally has a shelf life. Some will rise above, and continue to do great things right up until the end of their careers (Robert Altman comes to mind). Most though, will eventually fade – and likely while they still feel as though they have much to say.
That, sadly, is De Palma. While his early work remains influential, and is even prompting a whole new generation of attention thanks to the recent documentary about him, the fact is like many before, he was handed a window of time to work within, and eventually the window closed.
Say what you will about the merits of PASSION, REDACTED, or FEMME FATALE…the fact of the matter is, ain’t none of them a CARRIE.
As the dust settled on CARLITO’S WAY, I found myself wondering what it is that makes the great gangster films rise above.
In any given year there are half a dozen films that want to be CARLITO’S WAY. They come with star power, studio backing, and pedigree. They are given every chance in the world to succeed, and yet most of them fade from the cinematic landscape after a few months or years. You get the feeling most of them want to be CARLITO’S WAY…or THE USUAL SUSPECTS…or HEAT. Instead, they just sorta fizzle and become MAN ON FIRE…or BLOW.
What allows the best ones to endure?
There are several answers to that question, really…but I believe one of them – the one that applies here – is that it helps if the anti-hero is a bit working class. We have little interest in pulling for the bad guy if he’s just looking to amass wealth and power. But if we see someone who has some goodness mixed with his violence…someone who is trying to climb out of their circumstances and attain something better, then we relate.
Carlito doesn’t want to build an empire. He doesn’t want to carve off a whole corner of New York to call his own and amass more money than he can spend in two lifetimes. Instead, what he wants to do is earn enough to get out. He’s like the guy who plays the lotto every week in the hopes of quitting his job…except, instead of buying lotto tickets, he violently takes over night clubs.
We see in him what we saw in Michael Corleone…what we saw in Neil MacAuley. We see a more morally compromised version of ourselves, and we cling to them.
In clinging to these characters, we allow them to endure…we allow them to rise above.
I usually post Blind Spot entries on the final Tuesday of every month. If you are participating, drop me an email (ryanatthematineedotca) when your post is up and I’ll make sure to link to your entry.
Here’s the round-up for March so far…
Erin watched THE LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP
Beatrice watched THE MALTESE FALCON
Coog watched BELLE ET LA BETE
Paskalis watched SCHINDLER’S LIST
Brittani watched WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?
Rich also watched WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?