CARLITO'S WAY, 1993
After leading a life as a major drug lord in New York’s underworld, the recently incarcerated Carlito Brigante (Al Pacino) walks free from jail pledging to go straight. With help from his shifty lawyer David Kleinfeld (Sean Penn) Carlito gets back on his feet managing a nightclub and rekindling his old flame Gail (Penelope Ann Miller). But soon the old reflexes come back and Carlito gets embroiled in the extra curricular criminal activities of Kleinfeld. Now on the run from the Mob, Carlito must run the gauntlet to escape the streets of crime and make his dream of a new life with Gail a reality!
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Along with Francis Ford Coppola and Sidney Lumet, Pacino also formed a successful collaboration with Brian De Palma. A decade after the release of sprawling crime thriller Scarface (1983) Pacino and De Palma got together for an alternate crime thriller. Scarface’s Tony Montana was all about rising up in the Miami crime world and ultimately is a story of excess. But with Carlito’s Way De Palma and Pacino explored a gangster that was conservative and wanted to escape the world of crime. This made for a much more heartfelt movie that comes across like a tragic love story.
The film begins in voice over as we witness Carlito being brutally shot. Pacino’s smoky voice rolls over us with a dreamy quality… we are inside his thoughts. Right away we know that this film is far more intimate character study than Scarface. His gaze is fixed on the image of a sun-kissed beach with the silhouette of a woman dancing against the sunset. Immediately we know that Carlito wants to be somewhere else. Carlito has an aspiration that’s beyond money and power, he dreams about a simple life with the woman he loves. As Carlito walks free form court he yells: “Thank God almighty…I’m free at last!”
One favor indeed. As Carlito touches bases with old “colleagues” they are shocked at how he’s changed. He’s not looking for any “work” and is just babysitting his cousin. Eventually Carlito is asked for that “favor” and finds himself right back in the old trenches. In what is a fantastic set piece that De Palma has crafted every fine detail of: Carlito dispatches an entire room of gangsters but sadly stops short of saving his cousin from being killed. The scene shows De Palma’s mastery of suspense as he drip-feeds us information building the anticipation of violence before it erupts. This scene importantly shows us that although Carlito wants to go straight, he still knows how to use a gun. Unlike in most gangster films the scene ends with the protagonist Carlito standing in the bloodstained room reflecting on the consequence of his actions – it’s a defeat not a victory!
The real heart of this movie lies in the beautiful and touching relationship between Carlito and lost love Gail. We see Carlito scramble through the rain to watch Gail in her dance class. The casting is brilliant and De Palma makes full use of the chemistry that’s ripe between Ann Miller and Pacino. Both convey the sense of a couple that were in love many years ago and somehow never lost the feeling. In the scene where Carlito discovers Gail is working as a topless dancer, Pacino stops the film dead with a single stare. The moment is a throwback to the stillness, the restraint of Pacino’s early work in films like The Godfather (1972). The camera moves slowly into Pacino’s face… his dark brown eyes beam and we feel his every emotion. Few actors can convey so much about their character with a single stare. With Carlito Brigante Pacino proved he was still one of the best actors working in film.
Ultimately Carlito’s Way tells us there’s no escape from this world and sadly our precious Carlito cannot be an exception. On watching Carlito’s Way you realize it’s a story of love and hope. De Palma has made some seminal gangster movies like: The Untouchables (1987) and Scarface (1983). But Carlito’s Way is by far the best; it’s a gangster film with heart and with a breathtaking performance by Al Pacino. The nineties saw Pacino move into senior roles that usually place him in the role of a mentor like in Donnie Brasco (1997). But Carlito’s Way offered Pacino a lead role with a love story, action and of course the chance to play a different type of gangster to his earlier roles. When viewed in retrospect to Michael Corleone, Tony Montana and Lefty Ruggiero, Carlito Brigante is actually the most positive gangster Pacino has ever played.
Perhaps not as grand as The Godfather or Scarface; Carlito’s Way still deserves it’s place next to all the best gangster movies ever made. It’s also perhaps the last great central performance Pacino has given in his film career to date. As bittersweet as this may sound, I can’t think of a better “Last Great Performance” for an actor of Al Pacino’s caliber!