Carlito’s Way is an interesting film with an equally interesting position within the gangster genre. Without the regal presentation of The Godfather, the deceptive headlong energy of Goodfellas, or the epic vulgarity of De Palma’s earlier Scarface, it takes us into the mind of a gangster who wants to be something better. Like these other films, it is primarily a character study, and as such relies greatly on Pacino’s performance. The film portray’s Pacino’s character as an essentially good man, but one who is unable to escape his past.
The film begins with Carlito Brigante (Al Pacino), being released from prison on a technicality. He gives a speech to the judge about how he’s going to go straight, and much to his lawyer and best friend’s (Dave Kleinfeld, played by Sean Penn) surprise, he actually means it. He plans to run a nightclub in order to make enough money to partner up with his friend in the Bahamas in a rental car business, but this unfortunately mixes him up with a bunch of gangsters, exactly the type of people he’s trying to avoid. Despite his best efforts, he gets pulled into the life again, jeopardizing his relationship with Dave, his girlfriend Gail (Penelope Ann Miller), his sense of morality, and his life.
Most gangster films show the rise and fall of the gangster in criminal enterprise, somehow commenting on the American Dream in the process. Carlito’s Way is probably the most moral gangster film I’ve seen, perhaps with the exception of De Palma’s The Untouchables, which is told from law enforcement’s point of view so it’s easier to moralize more in that film (though that’s a discussion for another time). In most gangster films, there is a severe discrepancy between any code of honor gangsters profess to live by and their indiscriminately violent actions (think every Joe Pesci character ever). In the end, no matter how much the film tells you it’s about belonging to a crew or a family or whatever, it’s always about money and power. The strange thing about this film, is that even though Carlito can definitely tap into his violent tendencies from time to time, he still is sincere about wanting to reform. I may have to take back what I said about morality, because it seems he is just wanting to settle down rather than feeling any remorse, but nevertheless it is interesting to see a gangster film where the gangster tries to shed an ideal rather than live up to it.
De Palma, king of the references, has a particular one here that explains this peculiar relationship of this film to the rest of its genre. When we see Carlito lying on a stretcher at the beginning of the film, he looks up at an advertisement for the Bahamas; a clear reference to the “World is Yours” ad in the original 1932 Scarface (and somewhat by extension, De Palma’s own remake of that film). It is used in the same way, to depict society’s offering of the main character’s desire which turns out to be deceptively hard to achieve. The nature of the desires are different though, Carlito actually wants what society is handing out rather than a twisted version of it. It’s an interesting reference that works successfully on many levels, orienting the film with respect to the genre as a whole. This is opposed to the glaringly blatant and completely random reference to The Shining, which I’m pretty sure is in there only because De Palma likes The Shining. It’s such an obvious reference that it doesn’t really work to stick it is as a homage without justifying it thematically. If it was less obvious or well known he could have gotten away with it, but as it stands it sticks out a lot and is just plain confusing.
The other great attraction of this film is the relationship between Dave and Carlito, and for that matter just Dave’s character in general. One could almost see an entire film being made from Dave’s point of view; that’s how well developed his character is. He is Carlito’s opposite, instead of trying to reform he just gets involved in more drugs and welcomes opportunities to be a gangster himself rather than just defending them in court. Sean Penn’s performance is as good as Pacino’s here, perhaps better. It took me a while to recognize him, and he’s not burdened with accent troubles like Pacino is. Far less developed is Gail and Carlito’s relationship, which works on a sentimental level but isn’t really justified on the basis of who their characters are. Pacino just needs a love interest, is basically what it comes down to. There’s also something that De Palma does with her character towards the end which is cliched, unnecessary, and stupid.
The biggest complaint I have about this film is that it took me a while to get invested in it. At the beginning I had a hard time paying attention to it and drifted off several times. The ending, however, works incredibly well. The tension gets very high during Carlito’s getaway attempt; De Palma does a great job intercutting between Pacino, the goons chasing him, and Miller. He also uses the multiple levels of the location to great effect, giving Pacino a lot of places to hide.
Carlito’s Way could be improved in some aspects, namely more fully developing the character of Gail and cutting out some of the boring beginning stuff, but all in all it’s a movie I greatly appreciate for its unique position in the genre. It’s more sympathetic towards its main character, and best of all, this doesn’t feel out of place or forced. It’s an interesting look at a reforming gangster and a success for De Palma.
“Never give up your friends, Dave, no matter what.”
Long story short: 3.5/4 stars
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