"I've dropped myself into straightforward character pieces in order to explore that form and reap its values. But you are sort of restricted visually when your first requirement is to tell a fairly straightforward story. So I'd like to go back and develop pure visual storytelling. Because to me, it's one of the most exciting aspects of making movies and almost a lost art at this point." - Brian De Palma
There's a scene in Brian De Palma's "Carlito's Way" in which Al Pacino stands outside his lover's door, watching as she slowly undresses. Pacino pants like a dog in heat, salivating over the beauty of her naked body. Unable to contain himself he breaks the door down and lunges for his woman, their lips locking as he embraces her soft flesh. De Palma's camera then giddily circles the couple, "You Are So Beautiful" blazing on the soundtrack. The moment of passion escalates, the camera circling faster and faster, their feverish kisses becoming more wet, more sloppy, until she looks into Pacino's eyes and says: "Where's my cheesecake?"
It is with moments like these that director Brian De Palma acknowledges that "Carlito's Way" is one giant slice of cheese. This is art for art's sake, a purely formal exercise in which De Palma indulges his fetish for sexy aesthetics. He pushes every motion and emotion to operatic proportions, ringing every ounce of drama from what is really a fairly generic plot. With its impeccable compositions, precise camera work, glacial tracking shots, baroque tone, sublime action sequences and flamboyant acting, this is a film in love with its own form.
But for a film so preoccupied with surfaces, it's remarkable how much emotion De Palma wrings out of his cast. De Palma has a fondness for bad actors, often deliberately casting them as props or undermining their performances. Indeed, his leading men (Michael J Fox, Josh Hartnett, John Travolta etc) are often clueless actors who themselves play clueless characters, and his leading women (Melanie Griffith, Scarlett Johansson, Rebecca Romjin, Nancy Allen etc) are often models or vacuous pretty faces who likewise play airheads, hookers or prostitutes. This is a guy preoccupied with surface beauty, even as his films are explicitly preoccupied with the dirty veneer behind such surfaces ("Redacted", for example, is about the lie behind beautifully composed photographs). And even when De Palma does cast genuine talent (Pacino, Penn, Lithgow) he has them play larger than life characters, their raging opera performances designed to match his shamelessly grandiose vision.
In "Carlito's Way" De Palma has Al Pacino play Carlito Brigante, an ageing gangster who has recently been released from jail. Carlito is determined to go straight, staying out of trouble until he can amass enough money to retire to some paradisaical tropic island. It's a generic plot, but Pacino and De Palma mesh so perfectly that the film eventually transcends its B movie premise and becomes, at times, something a bit more sublime.
Odd for a gangster movie, "Way" aligns itself firmly with the world of noir. Gangster movies typically follow a fairly obvious narrative progression. We get rise, the good times, and the fall, the bad times. "Carlito's Way" is odd in that it treats the fall as a forgone conclusion, its dying protagonist narrating his death dream like Fred MacMurray in "Double Indemnity". This is a conspiratorial world, Carlito pulled around like a puppet on a string by some unseen, cosmic noir God. Indeed, upon being released from jail, every action Carlito does, every choice he makes, is righteous and admirable. And yet noir fatalism thwarts him at every turn, his choices unable to halt an almost predetermined finale. And so the "Way" of the film's title refers both to Carlito's spiritual path, his newfound desire to be good and do right, but also something more inexorable; the "way", the fixed route. Rehabilitated or not, Carlito's tragedy is that there was never any chance of escape.
And so while in "Scarface" Pacino's manic performance gelled perfectly with De Palma's cocaine inspired direction, in "Carlito's Way" his forlorn eyes mesh flawlessly with De Palma's melancholic visuals. At 53 years of age, Pacino's face has never looked this beautifully tragic. Framed by a jet black beard, Pacino walks about like Jesus on a good hair day, suffering for sins he can not atone. Already dead, he spends the film always dressed in black, navigating his death dream like a fallen angel. Watch too how Pacino spends the film alternating between a stance of fast-talking macho posturing and one of melancholic regret. He wears the face of a corpse, of defeat and acceptance, his flashes of confidence a hip old mask which doesn't know if its going or staying.
And yet in death Carlito does receive a spiritual redemption of sorts. He may not have escaped his past, but he does help his lover, a stripper who dreams of being a ballerina, escape hers. And so when De Palma chooses to end the film with another airing of "You Are So Beautiful", we know that the song has a dual function. We celebrates Carlito's newfound spiritual beauty, but also the aesthetic beauty of De Palma's filmic world.
8.5/10 - Stylish. De Palma's one of the few directors able to convey a sense of true three dimensional space. His crane shots are gorgeous, and the film is composed of numerous long takes, elegant whip pans, and zooms so precise that we switch from long shots to close ups almost imperceptibly. Worth multiple viewings.
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