Compiled by Fiona A. Villella
Parts of this article are now hosted on the PANDORA archive of the National Library of Australia and Partners.
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Carlito’s Way (Brian De Palma, 1993) combines classic American storytelling with a strong dose of soul. It is a film about the act of running toward a dream with a speeding bullet right behind you and the excruciating moment when the dream is lost forever.
Never has a film illustrated these themes with such qualities of energy, intensity and grace in every aspect of its mise en scène.
In order to arrive at a real appreciation and understanding of the film, a call was recently put out for “impressionistic” paragraphs on specific key moments or broad, poetic themes relating to Carlito’s Way. The following lexicon is a collage of diverse perspectives that illuminate particular aspects of this wonderful and beautiful film.
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With this lyrical film, De Palma achieves a kind of immortality through the creation of Film as Art. Never really as cold and calculating as his detractors would have you believe, De Palma builds on the humanist line he introduced into his work with Blow Out, in 1981. Once again he calls on cinematic technique to serve the higher purpose of illuminating his characters and their fleeting passage through life, but here adds a translucent, tremulous note of poignancy and doomed longing that haunts his already haunted protagonist.
Pacino’s ex-crim hell-bent on going straight could be Tony Montana from Scarface (1983), older and wiser. He’s seen the light now, but the light hasn’t quite seen him, or if it has so has too much darkness. Death looms from the outset and comes full circle to claim its own. He’s on a road for which there is but one exit. In essence, Carlito is trying to outrun the cold hard metal lodged in his being. All of his life flashes before his eyes in a last bid to hold onto that elusive, one and only truth: the love of a beautiful woman and the paradise it promises.
The film it inspired: the elegiac Turkish film, Eskiya (The Bandit), directed by Yavuz Turgul in 1996.
by Dmetri Kakmi Back to list of words
(Dmetri Kakmi is a critic and essayist. He currently works as an editor for Penguin Books Australia.)
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Dancing pervades Carlito’s Way, as indeed it has pervaded the gangster genre since the ’30s. But more than that, this film is a dance. And it’s not just Gail’s occupation and dream, or the recurrence of a motif. Despite his protestations, Carlito is the dancer of this film. And De Palma knows this, just as he knows Pacino is the perfect dancer. There’s nothing quite so cinematic as Pacino following or leading a steadicam: his every movement through the club, to the disco of the ’70s, a part of this dance. He is someone who can still sway to the rhythms of the camera under the weight of a life that has taken its toll. We see him lift his feet, give his hips an extra shake, but like an athlete summoning that little extra to get across the line, it is only the mustering of a remembered vitality. ‘Cause Carlito is old now. And older than his years. He no longer pursues the original gangster’s perversion of the American Dream. Once, but that lead to prison. His is the dream of retirement, selling Ford Pintoes in Florida. He is no wall flower, he never was. The streets and clubs were his dance floor and he moved with the best of them. But now he would be happy to just sit it out, just as he chooses to watch Gail from the side of the dance floor. But for Carlito the dance can only end one way.
By Michael Cohen Back to list of words
(Michael Cohen is currently completing a Master of Arts in Cinema Studies at Latrobe University, Melbourne)
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Oye, Carlito, things have changed. They fuck at summer homes and wear purple ties. Mustaches have tightened and plays run unseen. Can you reconcile two names? The rhythms of business? Try to catch up with a past, and in the speed of betrayal, you’re doomed to fulfill a flashback. A dream is a destiny if you run fast enough, and when the salsa gives out there’s a moment: a gun from a cloth under fluorescents.
by Michael Price Back to list of words
(Michael Price is a graduate student in Boston University’s Film Studies program.)
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The voice-over spoken by Al Pacino as the dying Carlito, gunned down by “Benny Blanco from the Bronx” on a railway platform, is undoubtedly one of the finest voice-overs written for the postwar American screen. The opening blue credit letters superimposed on the film’s black and white photography provide a stark lyrical quality to the doomed Carlito as he sees the world upside down from his stretcher while being rushed to hospital. We encounter an inverted neo-noirish black and white world of overhead strip lighting and inquisitive faces in choker close-ups worthy of Robert Frank’s camera. Pacino’s smoky gin-Hispanic-nuanced voice is apt for the moving Faulknerian undertones of his lyrically laconic and tragic voice-over of someone trying to escape the urban inferno of his past. The city and its menacing ambitious night creatures, just like the ambitious punk Benny Blanco (John Leguizamo) who acts as Carlito’s once younger doppelganger, encircle Carlito who seeks redemption faraway from the larva evil of the streets (brilliantly rendered in an extraordinary serpentine sequence of crisscrossing Hispanics as Carlito hits the streets with his innocent young relative) on a Carribean island running a car rent business.
Carlito dreams, but the city knows better. Pacino paces his voice-over with the consummate ease of a poet capturing the everyday rhythms, silences and tensions of city life as Auden’s “great wrong place.” His words are measured, clipped and sculptured with the generic hard-boiled familiarity of classic crime fiction (Hammett/Chandler) and film noir. It is a noble, poignant doomed voice-over, almost Proustian in its elliptical temporality and subtlety, that speaks of Carlito’s sheer will to exist with a modicum of self-dignity, somewhere far from the reach of human evil. But (as expected) his endurance to survive ebbs out like a nocturnal tide revealing Carlito’s past catching up with him. Each time I see and hear Carlito’s Way I marvel at the strong, finely-chiselled performances (Pacino, Penn, Leguizamo) that will burn you in your seat, but to hear Pacino’s words snake their charm around you is to encounter a multifaceted verbal poetry seldom heard these days in the American cinema. It is a voice-over that will set the benchmark for future aspiring filmmakers. To hear it, just once, you will come back to it – again and again. It is a voice-over that, if I may say so, Abraham Polonsky would find arresting in its moral resonance and musicality as American urban speech.
by John Conomos Back to list of words
(John Conomos is a media artist, critic and writer who lectures in film and media studies at the Sydney College of the Arts, University of Sydney. Cinema has been his life-long passion. )
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I first saw Carlito’s Way (1993) shortly after reading two impressive books – Richard Dyer’s Stars (BFI, 1979) and Andrew Britton’s Katherine Hepburn: The Thirties And After (Tyneside Press, 1984). The discovery that star images were not only worthy of critical investigation, but could reveal new areas of complexity in works with which I considered myself thoroughly familiar helped me appreciate aspects of Brian De Palma’s film I would otherwise have missed altogether.
Writing about Al Pacino in The International Dictionary Of Films And Filmmakers (1990 edition), Robin Wood suggested that Pacino’s roles could be divided into two types. On the one hand, immature characters marked by “nervous energy, vulnerability, craziness and childishness” (Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon  and the two films for Jerry Schatzberg – The Panic In Needle Park  and Scarecrow  – provide the best examples, though, to judge from the clips I have seen, Pacino’s own The Local Stigmatic – shot piecemeal throughout the ’80s – also belongs in this category). On the other, mature, repressed characters, “restrained and understated, the energy held back by an act of will” (Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather  and its 1974 sequel, William Friedkin’s Cruising ).
Implicit in this opposition is the assumption that if energy is linked with immaturity, the onset of maturity must involve a loss of vitality, and De Palma’s response to the implications of Pacino’s persona – the way in which the first set of characters inevitably becomes the second – was already evident in Scarface (1983), wherein Tony Montana (Pacino), initially defined in terms of extreme (though already corrupted) energy, becomes increasingly immobilized – in a chair, in a car, in a bath, and face-first in a mountain of cocaine.
The interest of Pacino’s recent work, following his brief retirement in the mid-’80s, resides in the attempt to reconcile energy with maturity: the central concern of Sea Of Love (Harold Becker, 1989), Frankie And Johnny (Garry Marshall, 1991), Heat (Michael Mann, 1995) and Looking For Richard (Pacino, 1996). It is even vaguely discernible in the otherwise execrable Scent Of A Woman (Martin Brest, 1993) and The Devil’s Advocate (Taylor Hackford, 1997). The failure of this attempt becomes the explicit subject of this period’s two masterpieces – Coppola’s The Godfather Part III (1990) and De Palma’s Carlito’s Way – and it is significant that both films use the same strategy, projecting the negative aspects of Pacino’s persona onto subsidiary characters: Vincent Mancini (Andy Garcia), Joey Zasa (Joe Mantegna) and Don Altobello (Eli Wallach) in the Coppola; Dave Kleinfeld (Seann Penn), Vinnie Taglialucci (Joseph Siravo) and Benny Blanco (John Leguizamo) in the De Palma. In each case, the structure is rendered explicit: Coppola stresses Don Altobello’s function as a representative of what Michael Corleone (Pacino) might become by having him boast (in a scene cut from the theatrical release but restored to the video) that he has “lost all the venom, all the juice of youth. I lost the lust for women. And now my mind is clear. My duty to God is clear.”; at the other extreme, the psychotically violent Benny Blanco – who, although he possesses that energy associated with Pacino in Scarecrow and Scarface, has not a single redeeming feature – is described to Carlito Brigante (Pacino) as “you twenty years ago”.
Michael Corleone and Carlito Brigante are respected figures in criminal underworlds from which they now wish to retire. In both cases, their plans are frustrated not by character flaws, but by the inexorable logic of the societies they inhabit. Whereas corruption in, say, Capra could be purged by the villain’s change of heart, the personal changes undergone by Michael and Carlito inadvertently cause them to set in motion a series of events, defined as beyond individual control, which lead to their defeats. This theme is complicated in Carlito’s Way by De Palma’s characteristically caustic view of heterosexuality, which he sees as essentially neurotic. Expanding on the hints of homosexuality that often accrue to Pacino’s characters (Dog Day Afternoon, Cruising), De Palma suggests that while Carlito’s most intimate relationship is with Dave Kleinfeld (“If you was a broad I’d marry you”), his affair with Gail (Penelope Ann Miller) is entirely illusory. For Carlito, Gail remains an image which, by its very nature, must remain tantalisingly out of reach, and he is consistently separated from her by windows, door chains, narrative events and the sheer length of the widescreen frame: to film their single moment of sexual passion, De Palma selects that complex camera movement – borrowed from Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958) – he habitually uses to imply surrender to romantic illusion. But for us, Gail is presented as a fully rounded individual with an autonomous existence that is the antithesis of Carlito’s: she is practical enough to understand that her dreams of becoming a dancer can best be achieved by performing in a strip club. The relationship’s attraction for Carlito lies precisely in its artificiality: he can enjoy making plans which, at some level of consciousness, he knows circumstances will prevent him from realizing and that, when the time comes, he can easily abandon (the key moment is Carlito’s smashing of the mirror in which he and Gail had been reflected). Clearly then, this relationship forms the private component of Carlito’s public scheme to sell cars on a tropical island, and the impracticality of both projects is stressed by the gesture which connects them: the romance with Gail is summed up by the “Escape to Paradise” sign (the equivalent of Scarface’s “The World is Yours”), while the nightclub Carlito uses to finance his dreams is called ‘El Paraiso’.
by Brad Stevens Back to list of words
(Brad Stevens is a UK-based writer on film.)
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People like humanism in the cinema because they are sexually repressed. To see a human on the screen – brimful of life, vim, vigour – is to want to fuck it in some way. This is actually good. It’s a form of modern parafilia which has not yet been adequately defined or catalogued (1). People should consensually fuck anything in anyway whenever they want. If it comes down to watching arthouse movies with an occasional young thing in some semi-sensual situation – fine.
I like to do my fucking outside of the cinema. I leave the cult of humanism for those addicted to emotional pornography. For me, the cinema is only attractive when death is on the screen. Pathetically yet undeniably, when someone is dying on the screen, I feel most alive. Not because “there but for the grace of god go I”, but because I know that when I die every death scene in the cinema will flash by – simultaneously, deafeningly, overwhelmingly. I have no problem with this whatsoever.
Films that start with someone dying are the best films. Those films state openly and defiantly that their story is well and truly over. They leave you nowhere to go except to trace the events which will fatefully and fatally return you to the film’s beginning. Like a morbid virtual-loop from Brain Storm (Douglas Trumbull, 1983), you watch the film to die and die again.
When Al Pacino is dying at the beginning of Carlito’s Way, I feel giddy, exhilarated, impassioned. For it is Al Pacino dying again – not Carlito. Al Pacino is the gracefully impassive face of death. His visage haunts the cinema as a morbid mask doomed to die again and again. His breath is the whisper of ghost. His skin has the tactility to engross a mortician. His hair is like the world’s most perfect wig. He is sexy, heaving, funky, dark – like a doll of dreadful desire from Necropolis. He ain’t no Latin lover, baby. He’s El Morte.
Carlito’s Way is one of Pacino’s best chapters in the cinematic road movie that is his eternal death. Upside down, in slow motion, colour-drained, across Central Station, fixated on a garish, tacky Caribbean billboard. He looks into it and sees the same fantasy world which drew him to the USA from Cuba in Scarface over a decade ago. In Scarface he went out in a blaze of operatic death – a spectacular demise in neon, disco and velvet. In Carlito’s Way he goes out in fluorescent, strings and vinyl.
Pacino is best when he is drained, is draining, is being drained. His is the living corpse of exhaustion, and the cinema loves him for this. Everytime his leather jacket squeaks in Donnie Brasco it is the sound of his bones calcifying. Everytime he sniffs in A Scent Of A Woman it is the sound of a sheet being pulled across his face. Even in Heat, he withers as he stalks Robert De Niro, giving himself heart palpitations as he chases what might be his own shadow, his own mirror image, his own echo across LA. And in Looking For Richard, he passionately revives mouldy old Shakespeare – not because the bard is alive and well, but because Pacino knows the grave repository of psychoses that lines Shakespeare’s tomb with figures of maddened men.
To prove his effectiveness as death, Pacino also gives us the most vital signs of life. His body is a motion machine: it dances, sways, dives, surges with delicate denouement and dynamic drive. In Carlito’s Way, he defines the art of sitting at a marble club table; waiting in well-upholstered V-8 cars; walking across busy downtown traffic. He merges and blends effortlessly in the land of the living. De Niro is a face – a granite block so compacted that when it is in close-up you can hear the atoms humming. Pacino is a complete body that can be performed on and fragmented in so many ways. There are few actors who you can smell on the screen. Pacino is one of them.
Carlito’s Way is sublime because of its rendering of Pacino. It captures him in a palpable holographic frieze and allows him to breathe, spit, curse, dance, drive, shoot and run. And best of all, it allows him to die. That is what Al Pacino does best. That is what the cinema does best.
(Philip Brophy lectures at RMIT, is a filmmaker, and also a noted cultural commentator of many years standing.) Back to list of words
- Parafilia – blanket psychological term for all groupings of pathological and sociopathic forms of aberrant and ‘non-normative’ sex. Literally means ‘beyond love’ due to its focus on de-human, non-human, inhuman and post-human fetishization. In my view, most forms of acceptable heterosexual sex are extreme repressions of the wider terrain that fetishists have broken through by engaging with non-human and non-normative sexual triggers.
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“My eyes are feelin’ heavy now.I can feel my body being pulled to the ground”.
Poetry and irony fill the last scene of Carlito’s Way. Carlito departs the platform not in a train, on a one-track route toward a dream, but on a stretcher, with a piece of metal in his side and a vision quickly fading. In the final moment before dying, Carlito’s life (the part that leads him directly to where he is now, at least) “flashes” before his eyes. All he wanted was to go clean and live a modest life. But the inexorable forces of gangster law and street-bound codes of honour – merciless and destructive – deny this dream. Like Hitchcock, the filmmaker De Palma was so heavily influenced by, De Palma constructs Carlito’s Way with the viewer very much in mind. He has crafted a plot based on the principle of ephemerality, of transience, of allowing a dream to exist only to have it withdrawn. The profundity and melancholy of Carlito’s Way lies in the gesture De Palma makes that, like the cinema and life itself, Carlito by striving desperately to make his dream a reality is constantly haunted by death. In the images of the last scene, we share Carlito’s final view of the world: as it slips from a normal perspective and turns uncontrollably until settling on the over-head fluorescent lights that pass one by one; as people in a rushed and panic state huddle round the stretcher fussing over this “Puerto Rican ass”; as we catch the final glimpse of Carlito’s beloved, Gail who we are painfully pulled away from. She stands alone on the platform – crying – ready to board that train. That empty space beside her is where Carlito should be, and together they should board that train and begin their life together. Carlito/Pacino is an angel, unable to materialise his dreams, to live his life “his way”. Like the viewer who becomes inextricably immersed in the hopes, the dreams, the “life” of cinema, Carlito will always be cut off from being able to fully grasp his simple dream and hopes. There is no other fate for him but death.
by Fiona A. Villella Back to list of words
(Fiona A. Villella is co-editor of Senses of Cinema.)