United States, 1993
Directed by Brian De Palma
With Al Pacino (Carlito Brigante), Sean Penn (Kleinfeld), Penelope Ann Miller (Gail), John Leguizamo (Benny Blanco), Luis Guzmán (Pachanga), Frank Minucci (Tony Taglialucci), Joseph Siravo (Vinnie Taglialucci), James Rebhorn (Norwalk)
The narrative is a long flashback: the titles appear over strikingly grisly, less than sharp, slow-motion, black and white shots describing how a man gets shot on the platform of a railway station and is taking care by medics and wheeled at breakneck speed out to an ambulance. As people are agitating and watching him carefully, Carlito Brigante’s voice hogs the soundtrack, musing over what has happened to him and how it could have occurred, the way things went for him in the previous weeks.
A teasing, clever, tried and tested device to dive into a good crime story, it seems – but as the personal story of Carlito Brigante unfolds in unpredictable and increasingly woeful ways which are bitterly vindicating the bleakest, darkest views held on gangsters, as powerlessness and urgency both grip and tear apart the lead character, as the groundwork gets relentlessly and hopelessly laid for the final gunfight, it turns out to suit nicely what is a truly wistful, heartbreaking narrative, a redeeming and a renaissance that just cannot succeed, the desultory walk to a dead end that should be so easy to go around, a paradise lost. The only touch of color in those stunning inaugural shots is a poster for a dream vacation place high on a wall: the poster would effectively and vividly bookends the film, the representation of the other life Carlito Brigante must forgo at the last minute after he tried so hard to achieve the goal only to get badly thwarted.
He does not gainsay it: all along, he makes plain how it is expected in films and in the streets that an old big gangster relapses in his bad ways, that temptations and traps lie around, that he runs against the grain, and the clock. Former, and new, girlfriend Gail seems to think he would fail; however happy about dating him again and feisty about life she sounds, she remains insecure, feeling the shadow of violence and corruption cast over their affair, their lives as they are and used to be – always asking Carlito Brigante whether he did shoot dead anyone. It is not hard to imagine District Attorney Norwalk, the guy who fell the Puerto Rican bad guy and sent him in jail five years earlier, on the prowl, ready to nab him again. It is painfully obvious to realize gangsters old and young, never mind the generation, the job, the business angle, want him backing them, whether the old hands reckoning to get flushed again, like sidekick Pachanga, who finds it tough to accept only a small position of bodyguard in a club that is run without dubious operations, or looking for a kick-start, like upcoming, brash, flashy boy Benny Blanco. This is important, those thoughts and judgments articulated by the regular voice-over: Carlito’s way is a candid, lucid, realistic narration of his experience and of the world he grew up in.
And it sincere, genuine, honest, especially when it comes to his dreams, that are not a fantasy at all: to make a fresh start, as a decent denizen. What he told a wearied and annoyed judge at the start, in a quite astonishing courtroom sequence that look great acting pyrotechnics, a funny moment that cannot be really the whole story (and in a way, alas, it will not), was a true desire, a real ambition. He feels reformed and is keen to move on. He is not going to go back on the streets – and the film does show how hard he avoids it, and at point, how Norwalk acknowledges the effort. Carlito Brigante is not a resurrected Tony Montana, even if he is played with the same energy and grit and awkward charm by actor Al Pacino and tracked by the same mesmerized and highly skilled camerawork designed by director Brian De Palma. Just ten years after his outrageous, flamboyant, and highly epic and tragic gangster movie “Scarface”, De Palma seems keen to examine a personality coming from the same background but standing out as a perfect opposite. The logic of the character is not a rise and fall tale, from rags to riches and from riches to ashes, but a phoenix tale of rising again after the fall, only in another way – only to get always challenged and ultimately tripped: so tragedy and blood are inescapable, but the narrative is not the same, the strength and the appeal of the lead completely different and more fascinating, certainly more morally relatable and respectable.
The candid narration of Carlito Brigante’s efforts to stay clean and how he struggles to navigate pitfalls coming up on his way at an increasingly fast speed and harsher and harsher to handle is gripping, his cunning proving as essential and impressive as his determination – and Al Pacino puts out a rock-solid, flawless performance, which also includes a wonderfully tender side, a truly touching nature, thanks to his relationship with the character of Gail (an alluring and moving Penelope Ann Miller who may be somehow underused, which is a recurring flaw of a De Palma films since the end of the 1970s). Carlito Brigante’s ultimate failure partly stems from an old characteristic of the movie gangster: loyalty means a lot to him, and when he owes someone, he feels he cannot let him down. But then he was not able to imagine how dark and dangerous Kleinfeld, his bright young lawyer behind the successful appeal that set him free, is.
That biggest of the betrayals is the other, minor narrative arc of the film, even more tragic and dreadful than Carlito’s tale: a depressing, disgusting, unstoppable fall, a rot springing in the screen in grotesque details – the highfalutin, tasteless extravaganza, with sex and dough on a roll – and then spreading in a noir, fatalistic, and eventually savage manner, a nasty crime story turning awry and sinking the ship – he scammed one of his clients but the fellow realized it; senior mobster Tony Taglialucci is ready to forgive as long as the lawyer plots his jailbreak; and when the big day comes, Kleinfeld tries to get rid of the troublesome gangster, and incurs the wrath of the mobster’s son, Vinnie Taglialucci. Scandal and violence in this film cross a line: it is not the man freed from jail who errs on the wrong side but the man who helped deliver justice. Corruption is not always on the same side of the street – but after spending so many time on the streets, Carlito Brigante is gets tainted.
The plot may get meandering while the emotions get strong and high and the words and thoughts powerful but what looks coherent, simple, direct is remarkably enough the mise en scène. No split screen and no sophisticated flourishes with the frame and the soundtrack: it is always effective, sometimes truly inspired, but close to the character, his moves, his emotions. It trades spectacle for sensibility much of the time, taking an approach that has quite different, more discreet and quieter, from the stunning displays that defined “Scarface” – though the final gunfight in the railway station is amazingly well organized and shot, a gripping run for life that vaguely echoes a memorable scene of “The Untouchables” (1987), though De Palma this time does not feel the need for cinephilia reverence and for playfully re-imagining great pictures; he just show the wits and guts of a man struggling to stay alive, and how they help him (the bitter irony is that the final, fatal gunshot comes from a quite different need for vengeance). But then the characters are not the same, the register even less: flamboyance and rage have given way to melancholy and a modest pursuit of happiness. Too bad this pursuit proved to be as futile as the fight for power and money usually stirring gangsters.