Director in Focus: Brian De Palma – Carlito’s Way

Carlito’s Way (1993)
Starring Al Pacino, Sean Penn, Penelope Ann Miller, Luis Guzman, John Leguizamo, Viggo Mortensen

In the wake of Bonfire of the Vanities, De Palma returned to Hitchcock-land with Raising Cain, an odd film about twins and multiple personalities that in many ways hearkened back to Sisters. It was another failure for the director, albeit not as quite a large scale one as Bonfire. With a sense of humility about him, De Palma embarked on adapting a novel by a federal judge called After Hours. The film would be renamed Carlito’s Way (to distinguish it from Scorsese’s After Hours) and would return De Palma to some themes and ideas from Scarface. However, instead of the rise and fall of a crimelord who is brash and aggressive, Carlito’s would tell the story of a man once neck deep in crime, now trying to work his way out and go legit.

Carlito Brigante (Pacino) has just finished five years of a thirty year sentence. He has successfully been released when an appeal is issued proving the D.A. illegally made the recordings that sent him up the river. Now, with a re-evaluation of his life, Carlito has his sights set on raising enough cash to join a former inmate’s car rental business in the Bahamas. He buys into a nightclub set up by Kleinfeld (Penn), his attorney and reconnects with his lost love (Miller). Along the way, he draws the ire of Benny Blanco (Leguizamo) an up and coming street tough and must question his loyalty to the ever more frenetic Kleinfeld, whose life in danger of being taken by angry mobsters. The entire time Carlito is trying to make the right choices, stay on the path of good, so that he and his girl can escape.

The first thing that struck me about this film is how phenomenally better and more modern it was than Bonfire. One thing that kept getting to me as I was watch Bonfire was how it felt very dated. Typically if a film is set in the 1980s you’re supposed to feel that through the set design, tone, etc. Bonfire pulled it off in a way that made the picture feel too out of touch with any sort of universal truth. Carlito, on the other hand,despite being set in the 1970s, feels like an incredibly modern film. I think a lot of this is due in part to it being subject matter that De Palma is much more capable of handling. The director himself admitted he was planning on turning it down because on first glance he saw it as a Scarface retread. When he finally sat down to read it, he saw the film was going to be the antithesis of Scarface.

The acting here is a mixed bag, though. Sean Penn as Kleinfeld is spot on. He never exaggerates his character but is able to get across the transition from cool, calm and collected to on the verge of a nervous breakdown without breaking a sweat. It’s interesting to note, that at this point in his career, Penn had all but retired from acting to pursue directing (He was working on The Crossing Guard with Jack Nicholson at the time). His return to the screen was a big deal at the time and his performance definitely caused some people to encourage him to keep acting. It’s a strange thing for people of my generation to think about, as I was not aware of Carlito at all on its original release and have grown up with a viewpoint that you can count on Penn to be in all sorts of Oscar bait type pictures. On the other hand, Pacino nails the character of Carlito but has a persistently annoying accent problem. In his attempt to conjure up a Puerto Rican flair to his voice he ends up sounding at times like a Southerner, and then at others a bizarre interpretation of a stereotypical New Yorker. Accent aside, this a is a complete 180 from Scarface. Carlito is incredibly likable and charming, and it is impossible for you not to root for him to escape.

All the typical De Palma tricks are on display, and while they felt forced in Bonfire, here they feel exciting and fresh. There’s some great looking deep focus shots, just a little POV, and some wonderful Steadicam work, particularly in the final scene in Grand Central. The editing in the film is also some of the best of any De Palma movie. I found myself literally clutching my fists in anxiousness during the final tense moments of the film, which could not have been possible if it was wasn’t for some stellar camerawork and editing. While plots and actors may fail the director at times, his camera is his most loyal friend and you can always count on him to know exactly how to shoot a scene that gets the most out of it.

Next: De Palma does Mission: Impossible and closes out the 90s with Snake Eyes

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s