Brian De Palma's Carlito's Way is a masterpiece in several senses of the word: not only this great director's most exciting and moving film since Blow Out (1981) but also, in its own terms, a perfect, elegiac tribute to a rich American genre.
As a contemporary gangster movie it shares much with another De Palma movie, Scarface (1983). Both stories are set in a gaudy milieu of seedy nightclubs and disco music; both feature Al Pacino as a street hood who has worked his way up the criminal ladder and is trying, in his own peculiar way, to live out the American Dream of success and personal fulfilment. And both films feature extraordinary set-pieces of violent action.
But whereas Tony in Scarface was an excessive, foul, animalistic figure, Carlito Brigante is cool, almost serene, and above all intent on going straight. His problem, a classic one for the genre, is that whatever he does, trouble finds him and sticks to him. The film records his desperate efforts to be free and to win the love of Gail (Penelope Ann Miller) – doomed efforts, as De Palma boldly tells us by showing the murder of Carlito in the film's opening moments.
Beautifully adapted by David Koepp (Death Becomes Her ) from two novels by Edwin Torres, this sad, haunting story gives De Palma the scope to reveal the poetic, reflective side of his art as never before. Less bombastic than his previous films, it gives a poignancy to the smallest gestures and the most stereotypical events and characters.
Although De Palma and Pacino are said to have clashed over Scarface, their work here produces one of the finest collaborations between a director and an actor I have ever seen. It is truly the performance of Pacino's career to date; free of the mannered exhibitionism that wins him Oscars, it is based on an intense concentration of energy within the film frame that is absolutely riveting to behold. On every level, Carlito's Way is one of the great films of the '90s.
© Adrian Martin October 1994