Sunday, November 28, 2010

Thinking About Doing Something Else

Brian De Palma’s gangster saga CARLITO’S WAY is an unrelentingly invigorating piece of work and I feel the same way about the film now as I did when I saw it on opening weekend way back in November 1993. I’m not saying that I think it’s a great movie or even necessarily in the top bracket of De Palma titles. Beats the hell out of me if it’s even better than SCARFACE though I guess I know deep down which one I’d choose if I had to decide but that’s not really what I’m talking about here. I’m just thinking about what I respond to personally in the film along with the power, the genuine feel of pure cinema dripping down off every frame, something about it that has always struck me as being extremely powerful. I admit, part of my excitement has to do with the big climax that it all builds up to, yes, but even if the momentum doesn’t continue at top-notch levels all the way through, with a romance plotline that it never all that affecting due to its pure familiarity but my feelings for it persist and arguments to the contrary don’t interest me very much. Made almost exactly ten years after the release of SCARFACE this reunion between De Palma and star Al Pacino with the two once again delving into a storyline focusing on the Latino underworld, the film arrived at an interesting juncture in De Palma’s career coming immediately after the fairly insane RAISING CAIN but also at the midway point between the total disaster of BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES and the enormous commercial success of MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE. Like that film, CARLITO’S WAY feels a little like the director trying to keep his stylistics and expected set-pieces maybe slightly secondary to the commercial needs of the material which, in fairness, was probably necessary. Considering how far he went to the brink with the madness of RAISING CAIN he probably needed to pull back just a little and CARLITO’S WAY could very possibly be one of his most ‘normal’ films, whatever that term may mean. That’s not to say that I wouldn’t be able to guess he was the director if it didn’t have any credits and while the final result isn’t always at a top-notch level, what’s there is pretty damn great. It’s the sort of film that I could criticize and what I might have to say would be valid but I’m not sure there’s much point because I don’t particularly care. It’s a film that I love and find absolutely thrilling in almost every possible way.

New York, 1975: Infamous gangster Carlito Brigante (Al Pacino) is released from prison 5 years into a 30-year stretch after his trusted lawyer David Kleinfeld (Sean Penn) uncovers evidence of illegal wire tapping led to his arrest. Visiting his old neighborhood, Carlito has little interest in falling back into old habits, merely intent on raising enough money so he can get out of this life and head for Puerto Rico to invest in a car rental agency. Old habits die hard, of course, even if one skirmish he wanders into and is directly involved in results in having enough to invest in a nightclub with Kleinfeld so he can make the money he needs. Once settled in, Carlito goes after old girlfriend Gail (Penelope Ann Miller) who he broke it off with once he went away and soon finds out that her dancing career isn’t going quite as well as she makes it sound but he continues as pursuit of her regardless while Kleinfeld, meanwhile, has his own problems. With an imprisoned mobster who believes he stole money from him making an impossible demand, Kleinfeld doesn’t hesitate to ask for Carlito’s help to pull off an impossible task which the reformed crook, against his better judgment, feels he has to do. He promises to help his attorney even if it threatens to jeopardize his future with Gail, not to mention any chance he has of getting out of the life once and for all.

At times hugely entertaining, CARLITO’S WAY succeeds not because of the very familiar tropes of its gangster story but in the noir-tinged elements of Carlito’s ultimate fate that we’re made well aware of as soon as the screen credit “AL PACINO” flashes onscreen at the film’s start, combined with the excitement of every frame delivered through De Palma’s patented visual mastery. OF course, it also has a lead actor fully confident to play things as every inch the star he is, taking a guy who in real life would no doubt be just a sleazy criminal and turning him into somebody with true magnetism but, hey, he’s Al Pacino so he’s really fucking cool. As a story, it certainly isn’t perfect and a few elements feel left kind of hanging there, sprinkled through the good-but-not-great screenplay by David Koepp (based on the novels “Carlito’s Way” and “After Hours” by Edwin Torres)—for one thing, there’s a big deal made about how a certain character in the pool hall scene is Carlito’s cousin but any fallout that might come from that relation is immediately dropped. The first half also contains what feels like a few extra threads for flavor that ultimately give the film a slight episodic feel, somewhat hurting the momentum as Carlito meets up with a few old associates (including Viggo Mortensen, in and out in one scene) to get a feel of what the streets are like after several years away.

And, yeah, the romance is just a little too familiar with the way it reunites the couple, provides conflict, then reunites them again just a brief time later, all feeling a little too much like plot pieces being moved as beats written on a chalkboard in the best Screenplay 101 fashion, causing the entire conflict in the love story to feel just a little too obligatory. It’s not even all that badly done, just overly familiar with nothing about it that can become very special no matter how well De Palma shoots it all. “He saved my life, Gail!” screams Pacino during one of their arguments and the star kind of sells it but it still feels like too much in the way of movie plotting. Do I care? Maybe not really. 70s period detail throughout is decent, with big collars and a few giant afros seen, but the feel isn’t quite there and the atmosphere is never quite as lived in as the sort of thing done in BOOGIE NIGHTS—in comparison, the CARLITO’S WAY look at the decade is just a little too shiny, never quite feeling as gritty as one might imagine mid-70s New York of the TAXI DRIVER-TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE era (incidentally, we’re just a year away from this film being as old as the era it portrays was when it was released, which scares the hell out of me). A few pieces of how the era is shown seem not quite right, from the street signs to the spotless subways as well as the look of Grand Central in the famous climax—it’s certainly missing the famous Kodak Colorama and Westclox Clock that were there at the time and known to anyone who would remember but gone by the time this film was shot. Do I care? Again, not really, not much at all.

At its very best, the bigger-than-life style of CARLITO’S WAY ultimately achieves a kind of mythic feel similar to how the director approached THE UNTOUCHABLES, but here taken to even greater extremes. This approach goes through every scene as the story gains in power, with the various pieces coming together until it practically explodes in every pulsating close-up and tracking shot brought to the film by De Palma and cinematographer Stephen H. Burum, taking what in other hands would just be ordinary stuff and making it truly rich. The De Palma set-pieces are sprinkled in there like the pool hall shootout in the first half-hour (which is damn good), but momentum definitely picks up in the second half when we move away from the romance towards the inevitability the plot is building up to and the final 40 minutes play flat-out like gangbusters. Beginning with a expertly staged ambush near a certain elevator (no other director knows how to use a beautiful woman as a diversionary tactic in his framing like De Palma does) and the sly steadicam work moving along with Al Pacino’s Carlito as he makes a crucial hospital visit every single beat works just beautifully, the effect of everything the story has been building to finally coming together.

Good as some of this is, it still hasn’t quite broken out to the next level yet, so just when it feels as if the only thing De Palma can do to move this film into the pantheon is to create one of the great sequences of his career, well, that’s pretty much exactly what he does. As anyone who’s seen it knows, I’m referring to the extended climax as Carlito is pursued up through the subway by Italian gangsters seeking retribution as he desperately tries to get to the train that will whisk him and Gail to that new life he dreams of, culminating in a legendary final confrontation on the escalators at Grand Central—again, maybe a conscious attempt by De Palma to provide an equivalent to what he achieved at another train station in THE UNTOUCHABLES but, again, do I really care? Damn right I don’t, not when it’s this astoundingly well-executed. As soon as that chase begins (I’ve checked the DVD: this piece of bliss begins at exactly at 2:04:15) the whole effect it all gives off is like pure celluloid crack: moving to the subway at 125th Street as the camera incessantly follows the chase up the train from one car to the next, leading right to the famous station and climaxing with that all-holy phenomenal steadicam shot as Pacino tries to keep hidden and get down that damn escalator without the Italians chasing him ever noticing, all set to a truly remarkable score by Patrick Doyle (actually, the original location for the sequence was going to be the World Trade Center but the February ’93 bombing forced them to change things). I love this entire sequence, a near perfect fusion of De Palma’s expert way of putting this all together, Pacino playing it all just right and how Doyle compliments it all, his score matching up with what’s happening perfectly-- the combination of image and music at the precise moment where we see just how Pacino is moving down the escalator is pretty much like a goddamned complete cinematic orgasm for me, a feeling I can’t wait for every time I see this movie once again.

Some of CARLITO’S WAY might be a little too overly familiar in how some of this gangster movie stuff goes back to what was done in the 30s for the entire film to qualify as truly great but it does achieve greatness, from the way its star moves through the frame to the way De Palma tells this story. It achieves a power that almost seems beyond its grasp, taking the tale of what is essentially just a thug and making it genuinely greater than what is demanded. The more lyrical passages of Doyle’s score also stay with me making it almost more emotional than I ever really expect—something reaching, calling out from the past, desperate to tell its story, to get you to remember the tale of Carlito Brigante and his love for Gail. That feel of lyricism, along with the power of De Palma’s eye as it films every single gunshot, makes CARLITO’S WAY forever unforgettable. Yes, it’s not perfect. And I don’t really care. I still have an absolute and total love for it.

With this role coming right in the middle of a particularly strong period for the actor, Pacino is phenomenal as Carlito Brigante, a criminal who nevertheless believe in his “self-righteous code of the goddamn street” even if it may destroy him. He doesn’t quite inhabit the character as much as he did with Tony Montana— a stray line of dialogue saying how someone once thought he was Italian feels like someone covering their ass—but he seems more in tune with this film, more willing to play and work with what De Palma is doing with his camera. He also provides Carlito with a certain intelligence in every quizzical close-up he has of trying to figure things out as they happen around him—the canny voiceover narration makes him seem like a guy looking at several things at once, sort of like the famous De Palma split screen which never even occurs here, but it’s running through his head as he tries to suss out what’s really going on. And what the hell—he’s Pacino, screaming “YOU THINK YOU’RE BIG TIME? YOU’RE GONNA FUCKING DIE BIG TIME!” and it’s just so damn cool. Appearing in what at the time was his first role in several years, Sean Penn digs into his slimeball laywer character in unforgettable fashion, never trying to make him at all likable for an instant. He seems to do something surprising with every weasely moment he has on screen, coming off as completely nasty and bitingly funny at various points, not to mention pulling off a shit-eating grin in a way that no other human has ever achieved. It’s a fantastic piece of work by him.

I suppose 1993 was during that period when it had apparently been decided by somebody that Penelope Ann Miller was going to be a big star so she kept getting shoved into big movies until it actually happened which it never really did although with a Golden Globe nomination this was probably as close as she ever got. This performance certainly isn’t award worthy but considering how down people are on her (which, considering a few other movies she did, I can understand) she’s not a trainwreck here at all—if anything, she just never comes off as world-weary as the character should really be presented but all things considered, with the exception of her sharp comic turn in THE FRESHMAN (she certainly worked with as many GODFATHER actors as possible) this is probably her best work. John Leguizamo is pretty damn great as the legendary Benny Blanco from the Bronx, the always dependable Luis Guzman is Pachanga (still, ask me some time what Guzman does in this movie that annoys me to this day), James Rebhorn is District Attorney Norwalk, playing his part as if he had someone literally shove a stick up his ass and the forever enjoyable Paul Mazursky cameos as Judge Feinstein.

Since De Palma was working with someone else’s material here there isn’t that much on a story level to connect to his other films outside of a definite feel of the inevitability of fate. But on a outward level the film feels absolutely like De Palma with its setpieces, feeling of extravagance along with that Patrick Doyle score that comes with a main theme that contains an undeniable feel of elegy that the director seemed to become fond of around this time (and, looking forward to SNAKE EYES, another De Palma/Koepp collaboration, Pacino yells out, “Here come the pain!” at a crucial point). I suppose it’s one of those movies where I just respond to it on a gut level and can even accept some elements that I might not be so receptive to other times—even the use of “You Are So Beautiful To Me” which one would imagine to be clichéd beyond belief, somehow works here and I don’t mind it one bit. CARLITO’S WAY is a big, juicy prime rib of a movie. Maybe it has some fat on the sides but in the center is a juicy, rich meal prepared by someone with absolute pride in the impeccable way that he’s preparing this grand feast and it’s something that I always look forward to returning to. Or maybe sometimes I just feel like watching that climax once again. Containing few if any of the usual preoccupations from his most personal work, this gangster movie may have been more of a job for Brian De Palma than some of his other films, true, but the end result is so expertly made that this doesn’t really matter and it manages to find a true passion within the material. It’s a beautiful piece of work.


Unknown said...

Fantastic piece, Mr. Peel. I love this film for many of the reasons you stated so eloquently. The film just moves with all the pace and confidence of a filmmaker who knows what the hell he's doing and is aided and abetted by a leading man who is also brimming with confidence and infusing all the bravado he can into Carlito. Great stuff.

Watching this film reminds me that this is one of those De Palma movies you could almost watch without any dialogue because the visual storytelling is so fluid and well done.

And what can you say about Sean Penn? For what was reportedly strictly a paycheck film (to bankroll THE INDIAN RUNNER I believe), he nails it and is amazing that he pretty much walks away with every scene he's in. His lawyer character is so slimy and sleazy that I half expect to see a slime trail behind him when he walks.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Thanks very much, J.D. Sounds like we're on the same page on this one. It's such a fantastic film.

I never really thought about Penn doing this just for the paycheck. I know he had kind of soured on the acting thing around this time but I figured his prior relationship with De Palma, having been in CASUALTIES OF WAY, probably had something to do with it. I'm sure he was well paid, though, and that slime trail he leaves is so pungent he earns every cent of it. Anyway, thanks again!