Street Ethics

Film Review: Carlito's Way

This is a magnificent (and somewhat underrated) film, directed by Brian De Palma. More nuanced than Scarface and The Untouchables, it's also better acted. All the main cast are fantastic: Pacino, seemingly relishing his role, is much better here than he was in his previous film Scent of a Woman; Penelope Ann Miller as disenchanted old flame Gail; Luis Guzman and John Leguizamo as colourful gangsters; and not least Sean Penn, who does a stunning job as the utterly unscrupulous, sleazy, flash underworld lawyer Kleinfeld. Set in the '70s, the period is believably depicted via clothing, vehicles and hairstyles. Pacino's character is Carlito Brigante, a gang member in Spanish Harlem who was sent down for life five years previously for murder and drug running.

In the opening sequence, we see Brigante executing a rambling monologue to a resolutely unimpressed judge, about how he's a changed, and vindicated, man. Warming to his theme, he gives an increasingly overblown speech about his childhood, life chances, and how he's now “rehabilitated, reinvigorated and re-assimilated”. He thanks the chief investigator for supplying tainted evidence, the appeals court for reversing the judge's sentence, and the Almighty for allowing all this to come to pass. Brigante's smirking lawyer, Kleinfeld, has got him freed on a technicality, and along with the judge and everyone else in the courtroom, believes that Carlito's diatribe is merely so much bluster.

However, Carlito is serious. He didn't expect to be given another chance, and he's determined to move on and make a better life for himself. Kleinfeld laughs incredulously as Carlito explains his plan to save up enough money to buy into the rental car business a friend of his has opened in the Caribbean. Unfortunately, Carlito makes the fatal mistake of moving back to his old neighborhood, where he quickly reconnects with associates from his previous life. He still has a reputation as a big shot, but even in five years things have changed, and new guys are moving into positions of power. The rules are changing.

Carlito sets things up “This is the most amazing trick shot you'll ever see.”

There's a pivotal moment, early on in the film, where we can see which way things are going to go. He's taking a ride with his young cousin, and his sense of duty leads Carlito, albeit reluctantly, to accompany him to what turns out to be a drug deal. After they arrive, Carlito is uneasy; something doesn't seem quite right. Sure enough, it was a set-up, and after the bullets stop flying Carlito is the only man left standing (a result attributable more to luck and instinct than skill and judgement). Although it was only a minute of chaos and panic, Carlito is visibly rattled as he slinks out through the back exit to the sounds of approaching sirens. But now we see: he's inexorably sliding back into his old life. The rest of the movie precisely documents this process, pulling us along rapidly through a series of increasingly calamitous events.

Carlito narrates the key incidents with a world-weary resignation. He is old and wise enough to see what's happening and the mistakes he's making, but is ultimately powerless to prevent the unravelling. He tracks down Gail, who is classically trained in ballet but making ends meet working in a strip club. They still have the old connection, but there is now an air of desperation to both of them, an unspoken understanding that this isn't how things are supposed to be.

With the cash he took from the doomed drug deal, he's able to invest in a seedy nightclub in a rough part of town. He wants to work quietly for a few months, just long enough to make sufficient money to execute his escape plan. Inevitably, things aren't going to be that easy; the club is popular with lowlife of all kinds, and most of them want to introduce themselves and buy him a drink.

After an old friend tries to entrap him, he realizes that the district attorney's office are still after him, and in addition he's got other threats to deal with. One of these is a new guy around town: Benny Blanco from the Bronx (Leguizamo), whom Carlito immediately perceives as a younger version of himself. But this assessment is not quite right; there's one major difference which will become violently apparent much later. An early encounter between the two reveals a decisive lack of commitment from Carlito; his denial of who he is, and the situation he's in, leads to a crucial decision that loses him the respect of his associates and sets him up for big trouble.

Carlito talks to his lawyer “Did I tell you about my insane plan?” “Please elaborate, Mr. Kleinfeld.”

In the meantime, Kleinfeld is rapidly disintegrating. He is heavily into cocaine, and becomes increasingly arrogant and unhinged as the movie progresses. This culminates in a preposterous scheme to bust out of Rikers Island an Italian-American criminal kingpin. He describes this plan to Carlito, and now it's Carlito's turn to be incredulous. But, once again, his misplaced sense of honour (not shared by Kleinfeld) compels him to help out his friend. Unsurprisingly, the plan doesn't go well. Kleinfeld double-crosses the Italians, but they're onto him, and by extension, Carlito. With both the law and the Italians closing the net, there's ultimately no choice but to run. The movie closes with a fantastic set piece ending in Grand Central Station. Inevitable comparisons to the station scene in The Untouchables notwithstanding, this is about as perfectly executed a chase sequence as you will see, full of long takes, narrow escapes and crazy improvisation.

This film affected me in a way that none of Pacino's other films have. The characterizations of Carlito, Kleinfeld, Gail and the supporting cast are superb. The cinematography and musical score (including the memorable closer – Joe Cocker's You Are So Beautiful) are excellent; you can feel '70s Harlem in every detail. Carlito is a man who, try as he might, can't escape his fate; destroyed by his own 'code of the street' gangster's ethics.

Note: this review was first published 8th February 2015