De Palma: Carlito’s Way (1993)

I have a vivid tactile memory of the first time I watched Carlito’s Way – in 2002, at a friend’s house, on a dated 80s black leather couch, relegated to a family room we rarely visited. I always remember that couch when I think of Brian De Palma’s film, since it embodied the last traces of an 80s mise-en-scene in the early 00s, although I couldn’t name or understand them as such yet. Carlito’s Way is also fixated with those traces, but a decade earlier. It’s also De Palma’s last film set in the 80s, at least in spirit, since while it takes place in the mid-70s, he channels all the atmosphere of his 80s period into one final flourish. Colour-wise, this is both an origin and end story for purple, De Palma’s most distinctive shade of the 80s, which starts to vanish from his films from here on out, culminating with the bright reds of Mission to Mars.

De Palma has often been compared to Alfred Hitchcock, and one of the many characteristics they share is a profound capacity for spatial thought. As with Hitchcock, De Palma’s films follow an inexorable spatial logic that peaked with his 80s output, turning Carlito’s Way into a kind of greatest hits retrospective, a myth of origins for the spatial schemes that typified the height of his golden age. As a result, Carlito’s Way is more interested in space and atmosphere than narrative drive, although that’s not to say that the story is uninteresting. Instead, De Palma takes Judge Erwin’s two source novels, Carlito’s Way and After Hours, and distils them to a few great twists and hooks, freeing up most of the film for languorous drift.

That means that Carlito’s Way often feels more like a crime melodrama than a regular crime film, driven by affect and emotion more than character or narrative. De Palma sets the scene with an elegiac opening, filtered purple for reasons that will become clearer later on, in which we see Carlito shot and apparently killed in what appears to be a New York subway station. From there, De Palma flashes back to 1975, when Carlito, played by Al Pacino, is released from a thirty year prison stint five years into his term, after his lawyer David Kleinfeld, played by Sean Penn, uncovers issues with the government case. From here, De Palma settles into a two hour plus extravaganza that often seems to be aiming for the same maximalism as Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, released a couple of years before. Both films centre on the 70s, but where Scorsese’s 70s is cushioned in a mid-century bubble, De Palma’s is already proto-80s.

There’s also a different valency to casting Pacino, who wouldn’t appear in a Scorsese film until The Irishman. After a quiet period in the mid-80s, Pacino had experienced a renaissance with his roles in Sea of Love and Scent of a Woman, although neither of these films quite returned him to the glory of Scarface, his last collaboration with De Palma. In both releases, he was a little too manic, and that mania exhausts itself in the opening scene of Carlito’s Way, as he testifies to his conversion in court, in baroque blackspeak, before being dismissed from the remainder of his thirty-year sentence. As soon as he leaves the courtroom, Carlito seems calmer than he has been in years, while Carlito has far more modest goals than Pacino’s recent characters – to make enough money to emigrate to the Bahamas and drive cabs for a living.

There’s thus a strong parallel between Pacino and Carlito that turns this first act into a self-reflexive commentary on Pacino’s own future. Like Pacino, Carlito has been given a second lease on life. If he’d remained in prison, he wouldn’t have been released until 2000, which in some ways feels like the horizon of Carlito’s Way too, as De Palma tries to image Pacino, and his own 80s aesthetic, as it might evolve over the next decade. De Palma, like Pacino, was also experiencing a bit of a slump following The Bonfire of the Vanities, so it often seems like he’s using the film to question how much he can bank on Pacino, and their shared peak of Scarface.

As a result, the first act of Carlito’s Way simply luxuriates in Carlito as he commands the tableaux and mise-en-scenes that unfold around him. The length of the film is partly a way of accommodating this languorous first act, as Carlito’s reputation precedes him, and everyone treats him like he’s royalty. The Puerto Rican accent really accentuates Pacino’s delivery here – or, perhaps more accurately, makes it impossible to avoid the fact of Pacino delivering his lines. For Carlito’s Way marks the point at which Pacino indelibly starts to play himself, in the same way that Goodfellas marked De Niro’s last real effort to play a character distinct from his own screen persona. From the start, then, there’s a reflexive impotence to De Palma’s project – the more he tries to restore Pacino, the more Pacino becomes a pastiche of himself.

We first see this vulnerability to Pacino’s presence in one of the pivotal scenes in this first act – a drug drop that Carlito attends to support his cousin Guajiro, played John Augstin Ortiz. Up until this point, Carlito has exuded an acute sensitivity to space and mise-en-scene, and that process continues, to some extent, during this drop, which takes place in a pool room painted in lurid red tones. As soon as Carlito arrives, he notices a suspicious chink in a back door, and sets up a “trick shot” on the pool table to keep his eye on it. At this moment, he effectively becomes a surrogate director, embodying one of De Palma’s own trademark trick shots as he coordinates his sightline across the pool table to ensure maximum surveillance of the scene. Nevertheless, he can’t fully control it, and while he survives, he only just survives. Meanwhile, his cousin is murdered by the dealers, and everyone present is killed in the ensuing bloodbath. 

Before this point, Carlito has adopted a melancholy detachment from the people who pay him tribute, epitomised by the stately sunglasses he dons after their praise becomes too much. He’s already mentally in the Bahamas, checked out of his New York life, which paradoxically gives him a supreme calm at the centre of the scenes that De Palma constructs around him. Yet this inability to fully control the events of the red room both plunges him back into the criminal life, and ruptures his sense of spatial omniscience, producing an acute dislocation that crystallises around the only legitimate business opportunity available to him – a nightclub called the Paradiso, in Spanish Harlem, that Kleinfeld encourages him to manage.

The Paradiso introduces a new spatial scheme to the film that quickly dissociates Carlito from De Palma’s camera. We first experience the Paradiso via the first sequence shot of the film, which only gradually and inchoately reveals itself to be a point of view shot from Carlito’s perspective, as a waiter nods directly at the lens, and a voiceover accompanies the camera up the stairs: “So here’s me, in the club, playing Humphrey Bogart.” In order to understand this space, Carlito has to reach back to Casablanca, and to a more classical cinematic era. But because Casablanca itself takes places at the threshold between contested spatial schemes, it only reiterates the exoticism of the Paradiso, and Carlito’s alienation, his utter confusion in the face of an America now dominated by “platforms, cocaine and dances that I don’t dance.”

It’s clear, then, that some profound shift in spatial experience has occurred in the five years that Carlito spent in prison, and that the film’s meandering rhythm partly reflects his inability to navigate space when he gets out. This experience is even more dramatic in that Carlito’s criminal empire and enterprise began with an act of spatial defiance. Later in the film, he tells his girlfriend Gail, played by Penelope Ann Miller, about this moment. As a young man, he was told that “spics” couldn’t go east of Park Avenue and “wops” couldn’t go west of Fifth Avenue. Only by defying these rules did Carlito learn to command space in the way that we glimpsed in the opening scenes of the film. Over the next two hours, Carlito desperately tries to recover this spatial autonomy, and to restore this wayfinding that gives the film its name.

To some extent, though, he is doomed to fail, since what he is trying to stave off is the spatial signature of the 80s – the spatial style of high postmodernism. Michel Foucault once argued that the ultimate postmodern space was a cruise ship, since it was an entirely self-contained simulation of the world designed to navigate the amorphous and blank space of the open ocean. The Paradiso follows a similar principle, decked out like a cruise ship, replete with portholes, rafts, galleys and guardrails that tip De Palma’s camera in weird canted angles, as if it’s always slightly seasick. While we see one establishing shot of this club in the opening act, De Palma quickly dissociates it from the outside world. As soon as Carlito is ensconced there, we never return to the public sphere of Spanish Harlem. It’s as if the club has no point of reference other than its own self-contained and self-reflexive play, always looking inwards. 

Carlito first apprehends this 80s spatial scheme as a new colour scheme that has started to creep over the world during his time in prison. This colour scheme starts with the bright red of the pool room where he first falters in his command of mise-en-scene, and then morphs into the lurid red and pink suit of Benny Blanco, the most significant Puerto Rican gangster since Carlito’s time in prison. Benny, played by John Leguizamo, is right at home in the Paradiso, where he carries himself with a new kind of spectacle and a more savvy sense of networked capital, cultivating his persona as “the fucking JP Morgan of the smack business.”

Between this new spatial scheme and this new colour scheme, Carlito’s generational angst turns into a more ontological angst, as he struggles to come to terms with the way that the reality field of New York has shifted between 1970 and 1975. This was also the period when De Palma’s style solidified into a proto-80s mode – the period when he first inchoately glimpsed the 80s as his most enduring muse. Watching these scenes, I was reminded of Sidney Lumet’s The Anderson Tapes, released in 1971. In that film, Sean Connery’s character, like Carlito, emerges from a relatively short stint in prison to discover that the entire media landscape of New York has changed in his absence. Yet where Lumet channels this into a surveillance allegory, De Palma is fixated with the fate of space itself, which always seems on the verge of dissociating into a series of self-contained set pieces and Pacino one-liners here.

Carlito’s main defence mechanism is to retreat into a deep noirish solitude, and find introspective solace in moody nocturnes, as he tries to reprise a voice from another era, in scenes that almost play like flashbacks. These sequences retreat from the red-pink cusp of postmodernism into deep blue tinting, as Carlito wanders the streets looking for a space that still accommodates him. That space is partly the 70s of New Hollywood, from the tinting itself, which recalls the flashback scenes in The Godfather II, to the taxi that cruises slowly by in the street when Carlito finally meets up with his girlfriend Gail in a restaurant. These allusions to Coppola and Scorsese align Carlito with New Hollywood’s elegiac version of the present moment, even as De Palma inexorably propels the film towards a more postmodern plasticity.

As a result, there’s a limit to how far Carlito can retreat into these deep blue pockets of nostalgia. While they start as a counterpoint to the red colour scheme, they quickly become a counterpart, as the postmodern future shifts from pure reds to a series of vertiginous cusps between red and blue. In the process, Carlito’s blue nocturnes absorb some of the red they were meant to hold at bay, segueing into a lurid and artificial purple that exposes them for the fantasies they are. This shift is especially vivid in the lighting scheme of the Paradiso, which alternates between red and blue strobes. Over time, these gradually evoke a spectrum of pink and purple pastels that pre-empt (and recall) the colour scheme of Scarface and the rest of De Palma’s 80s output. In one of the longest and stillest shots of the film, the camera trains on Carlito as he sits on one of the leather lounges at the bar (not unlike the couch where I watched the film) as red and blue strobes collapse this pastel spectrum across his features.

Nevertheless, Carlito keeps returning to these blue nocturnes, as if trying to forestall the future against all the odds. The longest and loneliest nocturne ends with him reconnecting with Gail, his girlfriend, who turns out to be just another thwarted trajectory out of this impending postmodern doomscape. We only see Carlito and Gail sleep together once, and yet this moment of consummation is bookended by the most tortuous spatial exchange in the film. It starts with Carlito arriving at Gail’s apartment, where she opens the door, but refuses to let him in. He points out that she wouldn’t have let him up if she didn’t intend to let him in. Then she asks him, hypothetically, how he would get in, and tells him “if you can’t get in, you don’t get in,” Carlito breaks down the door, but any cathartic command over space is offset by the bathetic fable he tells after sex, which ends with the moral that “you just end up where you are.” Gail laughs, and points out that everyone does, and Carlito laughs it off too.  

Between these two moments, Carlito seems to be fumbling to negotiate space itself, moving through a largely hypothetical trajectory to Gail’s bedroom, and then situating himself in space in the most banal and bathetic way once they’re done. While this spatial schism reaches a crisis in Carlito’s relationship with Gail, Kleinfeld is its catalyst for most of the film. In fact, Kleinfeld isn’t exactly a character so much as a perpetual, propulsive dislocation – a figure of insatiable postmodern play, exuding a queasily comic register whenever he enters the scene.  In its own way, this may be Penn’s most accomplished comic performance, right down to the way that he half-wears his bizarre hairpiece, the perfect accoutrement for a character who exists mainly as a series of displacements rather than as a coherent presence in and of himself.

As the film proceeds, Kleinfeld becomes the placeholder for a more amorphous spatial field that Carlito can’t quite process. We first glimpse it out the corner window of Kleinfeld’s office, which inexplicably gives way to a deep-focus panorama of pedestrians and cars that offsets the action taking place in the foreground. This continues into Kleinfeld’s apartment, whose lavish picture windows offer such an expansive vision of the Triborough Bridge that it’s almost impossible to focus on what is happening closer to the camera. As Kleinfeld becomes addicted to cocaine, he disrupts the film’s mise-en-scenes more actively and aggressively. In one sequence, Carlito permits Gail to partner with a professional dancer at the Paradiso, and sits back to enjoy the tableaux of their dexterity, only for Kleinfeld to muscle in, threaten the man, discomfort Gail, and inadvertently disclose his latest criminal enterprise to her in the process.

This criminal enterprise takes up the second act of Carlito’s Way, and prompts the two most flamboyant shots of the film so far. By this stage, Carlito has escaped prison, only to find himself imprisoned in a different way, trapped in an emergent postmodern spatial scheme that’s epitomised by the ship-nightclub that has become his biggest asset. To envisage how Carlito might escape this second prison, De Palma resorts to his most sweeping shot yet, panning in across about a hundred metres of water to join Kleinfeld as he makes his way to the Riker’s Island Prison Barge. Once he’s on board, Kleinfeld meets with a client, Tony Tagliuccia, a Mafia boss played by Frank Minucci, who demands that Kleinfeld help him escape, under pain of death. Kleinfeld reluctantly agrees, and leaves the ship, as De Palma follows his gaze out to a buoy on the horizon more vividly than he has followed any sightline so far. This may be the most flamboyant moment of spatial apprehension in the entire film.

This sequence provides De Palma with the visual vocabulary required to imagine an escape from the prison of postmodernism. Carlito has escaped a physical prison, only to find himself trapped in a postmodern ship-nightclub; now Kleinfeld recruits him to help a criminal escape from a literal prison-ship. Accordingly, De Palma situates the prison-ship in quite an abstract way, as if to indicate that it represents an entire spatial scheme, rather than a discrete space in itself. The interior of the ship, where Kleinfeld meets Tony, is so modular and mechanical that you’d never know it was a prison, or that it had any single or specific function, without the exterior shots. Yet De Palma also refrains from assigning the ship any concrete boundaries either. We barely see Kleinfeld enter or exit, we don’t get any insight into the entry protocol, and there’s no logistical challenge to leaving the prison either – it’s just a matter of Tony jumping out and swimming to the buoy, where he expects Kleinfeld to pick him up in a boat.

In other words, the prospects of Carlito’s own prison escape come down to the amorphous space around the buoy – the cusp of the prison-ship’s water boundaries – that galvanise Kleinfeld and De Palma into that preternatural gaze. This imagery propels us through the next part of the film, as we cut to an aerial shot of Carlito in the Paradiso office, with a model ship behind him, and then move to Kleinfeld grooving in the club as “Rock the Boat” plays over the dance floor. For a moment, the film grows optimistic, and it seems like Carlito might have a chance of escaping this postmodern prison. He even manages to dispose of Bobby Blanco, the harbinger of this postmodern space, displacing him from his pride of place in the Paradiso and throwing him out into a late reprisal of the moody blue nightscapes that suffuse the first act.

This optimism continues into the prison escape itself, which initially draws directly upon this deep blue palette – the colour scheme that has symbolised Carlito’s yearning for a way out of the imminent postmodern future. As Carlito, Kleinfeld and Tony’s brother make their way from Kleinfeld’s Long Island jetty to the prison boat, the blues get deeper and deeper, until the boat is little more than a deeper patch of blue on an entirely abstracted horizon. You sense that Carlito is reaching a critical cusp between his past and future here, especially since he’s just explained to Gail that he only has a future at all because of his past life with Kleinfeld. 

Yet despite the deepest blue palette of the film, there are warning signs here. For one thing, we never see the logistics of this prison escape, because there are no real logistics to begin with. Since Tony has paid off the prison guard to let him jump off the side, we never return to the prison ship as a discrete space, meaning that there is no tangible or cathartic sense of escape. Moreover, the bluer the water becomes, the more hyperreal it seems, exuding a viscous plasticity that’s too thick and shiny to be real water, not unlike the palpably artificial river scene at the end of Cape Fear. Even if Tony makes it to the buoy, the last few feet of water, from the buoy to the stern of the boat are the most purely postmodern in the film. Here, all the film’s postmodern play is distilled and dissolved into a self-referential liquidity.

Even so, Tony might just make it, and Carlito might just make it. Yet in the last instance, the artificiality and hyperreality of this water undercuts its blueness from within, as Kleinfeld meets Tony as he rises from the river by shooting him in the head, partly as revenge for threatening him, and partly on a cocaine high. Just as the deep blue seems to be caressing Carlito, allowing him to draw on his past enough to guarantee a future, and just when this blue seems to have reached its moodiest thickness, Kleinfeld brings a bloom of red spouting forward from Tony’s head. This red quickly reiterates the red-blue cusp where the film’s postmodern spatiality has been most pregnant, migrating the blue palette of this scene back into a lurid purple. In one move, Kleinfeld prevents Tony from escaping the prison-ship, and stops Carlito from escaping the ship-club, as the high postmodernism of the 80s finally arrives.

This sequence ruptures any sense of past and future, setting Carlito adrift in an indefinite postmodern present. When we next see him, he’s smoking dejectedly back in the ship-club, before De Palma cuts to the most elaborate tracking-shot and network of gazes so far, but now entirely dissociated from Carlito’s agency. In the first act of the film, De Palma tended to anchor Carlito’s deep blue nocturnes in an establishing shot of Gail’s street, so it’s grating when we return to that same vista now, in the harsh light of day, devoid of that blue cushion.

Up until this point, Carlito has tried to transcend the oncoming 80s, either by retreating to a fantastic past, or envisaging an alternate future where they never occur. Now that the 80s are all around him, he opts for a different solution – trying to achieve immanence within this 80s landscape, by generating enough mobility to occupy the present moment as fleetingly as if he were about to depart it. After such languorous first and second acts, we now move to a compressed third act, as Carlito books a midnight train to Miami, a boat to Nassau, and asks Gail to give him five hours get everything straight – five hours to find the very cusp of the 80s.

During this period, Carlito starts to regain some tentative control of space. For the first time since the opening act, we see the exterior of the Paradiso nightclub, with an elevated train line pointedly in the background. When we step back inside the nightclub, De Palma’s flamboyant camera work is realigned with Carlito’s perspective too – a tracking-shot as he walks around the floor, then a low-angle 360-degree pan as he takes stock of Tony’s Mafia family. The red-blue cusp also stabilises into the most balanced purple field of the film, both in the neon sign, and inside, where it’s perfectly calibrated by a curving sweep of glass bricks.

Yet despite this optimism, you sense an inexorable sense of pastiche. When Carlito goes to visit Kleinfeld in the hospital, he has to dodge his way around criminals in ways that recall Michael’s trip to the hospital in The Godfather. More pressingly, actually arriving in Miami can only end with a Scarface pastiche – a rehashing of De Palma and Pacino’s most iconic postmodern moment. In fact, Scarface becomes a kind of figurative horizon here, a reminder that however much Carlito may try to flee the 80s, he will still end up on the cusp of the 80s, since Pacino and De Palma will inevitably reprise their own 80s heights if the action hits Miami. Pacino’s legacy, so languorous in the first act, now becomes suffocating in the third.

While Carlito might be heading for Miami, arriving in Miami, and being confronted with the inevitable devolution into full-blown pastiche and postmodernity, is the most traumatic possible prospect in the film. His best option is to fail, but to fail on the very cusp of leaving, meaning that he has to generate enough momentum over these final five hours to never quite leave the present tense that they evoke. Similarly, De Palma has to use these final hours as an escape in and of themselves – dig deeper into the moment, intensify real time, build enough mobility to glimpse a space beyond the 80s as the 80s closes in. In other words, De Palma is trying to imagine his career beyond the mid-90s here, and attempting to come to terms with the certainty that his 80s will soon lose their freshness (it makes sense that his next film, Mission: Impossible was based on an even older text, but still set in the present).

The first stage in this process is the train trip to Grand Central. Carlito gets on the subway at 125th Street, pursued by Tony’s gang, and a three-way battle for mobility ensues between Carlito, the camera and the train. By this stage, the criminals already feel incidental, since Carlito is trying to escape the future Tony Montana as much as the deceased Tony Taglialucci. As the train picks up speed, Carlito dodges from carriage to carriage, and from the platform back on the train, before he arrives at Grand Central, where the camera finally, fully aligns with him, paving the way for one of the very best sequence shots in De Palma’s entire career.

By this stage, it’s clear that De Palma needs to evoke a new kind of mobility to keep us poised in this perpetual present moment, and to make Carlito’s line of flight plausible as a fantasy. To that end, he revisits the end of The Untouchables – not in the spirit of pastiche, but to outdo it entirely. Whereas the denouement of The Untouchables revolves around the grand staircase, here De Palma focuses on one of the escalators that leads up from the concourse. This escalator becomes synonymous with the syntax of the film itself, as Carlito hovers around its mouth, moving away, back, and almost down, before the camera goes on ahead of him as the criminals emerge. De Palma only cuts to show a very overweight criminal climbing the stairs, as if to prove how far his camera mobility has come from The Untouchables, which seems almost ungainly in comparison to the balletic looping motions on display in this shot.

This sequence shot is the last vestige of fantasy, the last line of flight from postmodern space, and Carlito’s last effort to find an authentic spatiality deep in the postmodern present. For a moment he glimpses it, with his farthest arc away from the escalator, which takes him to a balcony over the concourse, where he looks down to a tour group posing together for a photograph. Yet this moment of synergy only lasts for a second, as he returns to the escalator, which now seems uncannily enlivened at both ends, as if to suggest an inexorable circularity, an inevitable limit to how far we can escape through this sequence shot. You sense that Carlito, and the camera, want to keep riding up and down this pair of escalators over and over again, endlessly deferring the moment of departure for Miami to remain in this immanence.

Instead, the overweight man climbing up the stairs turns out to have the last laugh, since the slowness of his ascent means he’s perfectly placed to see Carlito as he lies down on the escalator. De Palma cuts the sequence shot to show this staircase, so when it results in Carlito being spotted, it breaks the mystique of the sequence shot, and disrupts the intensified present moment that the film has fleetingly enacted. Carlito only just shoots another criminal, who slides down the middle part of the staircase, and then makes a run for the train, desperate to somehow bundle the circular intensity of the escalators into this one final flight.

However, in one last twist, he’s killed just before getting on board – not by one of the Mafioso, but by Benny Blanco, the original harbinger of this postmodern spatial scheme. When we last saw Blanco, Carlito had expelled him from the club, and dumped him in a deep blue alley, but now he’s back with pink-purple abandon, shooting Carlito at the very cusp of this flight. Worse, Blanco is only there because of Pachanga, Carlito’s right hand man, and his gatekeeper to the train, payed by Luis Guzman. Instead of completing Carlito’s flight from the Paradiso, Pachanga capitulates to postmodern space, without realising that it will kill him instantly too.  

Yet this is also, at some level, exactly what Carlito and the film wanted – to be absorbed into the present moment just before he had to depart for the inevitable Scarface pastiche that awaited him in Miami. The purple light we saw in the opening credits now spreads over the scene, fusing with the station neon until it becomes almost revelatory, a vision of postmodern space as a near-death experience. The camera is beyond seasick now, turning 360-degrees, and finally settling upon an advertisement, which we also saw in the opening scene, advertising an “Escape to Paradise.” At first, this looks like the space beyond postmodernism that Carlito was searching for, since its lurid orange-yellow hues totally offset the blue-red colour scheme, and looks queasily incongruous against the intensifying purple of this scene.

Yet Carlito has spent most of the film trying to escape from Paradise – from the Paradiso, the most aggressively postmodern space in the film. This image can’t be a real reprieve then, and sure enough, the yellow-red hues fades back to the brooding purple of the film as a whole. We hear “You Are So Beautiful,” which also played in the spatial schism just before Carlito and Gail had sex, making it hard to believe in that romance as a line of flight either. Still, the tone is emergent, complex, mercurial – while the prospect of paradise fades into the Paradiso, and Gail’s love fades as an escape trajectory, it just makes this moment more precious and fleeting, big enough to encompass the entire film, as indeed it does, connecting the opening and closing credits. And as they roll, Carlito’s Way buries itself deep into the very last second before De Palma and Carlito are utterly exhausted by the 80s, as future fear and past fantasy.

About Billy Stevenson (704 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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