The similarities between 1983’s Scarface and Carlito’s Way are many and well-noted. They’re both Al Pacino vehicles about Making It Big, but trying to do it in a perverse way—no respectable Wall Street capitalism here, because in De Palma’s films money is earned the hard and illegal way by Latino men who’ve been dealt a hard lot. They’re trying to make a life with knuckles, drugs, and guns. And the beautiful blond romantic interest? The gateway to paradise. It’s a nice enough formula, and can go any number of ways based on subtle matters of treatment—racist or anti-racist, capitalist or anti-capitalist, sexist or…you get the point.
I would venture that a major conceptual difference between the films is that while Scarface is a film about excessive greed and other human follies, Carlito’s Way turns this treatment into tragedy. The ending comes at the beginning of the film, and for two hours we are left drifting and sprinting toward this end. (Upon repeated viewings, the effect of this conceit becomes more, not less, tragic.) Making a crime yarn look “truly human” and “realistic” is not the point of this film. For good counter-examples of the humanized crime movie, look no further than James Gray’s two films, Little Odessa and The Yards. Here we have something handled with an air of fatalism. But though the story in Carlito’s Way is treated in a fatalistic sense, the moment-to-moment, frame-to-frame experience is anything but rigid and stodgy from over-determination. It sings, dances, punches, slinks, embeds. It moves like the luxurious tracking shots that punctuate the film.
In its own way, the film is just as stylized a take on the crime genre as something like Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy. The hairstyles, the shirt cuffs, the music, the cocaine—it’s not so much to recreate an era as to hit all the semiotic cues that evoke that era as our popular consciousness is supposed to see it. We’re not meant to experience these scenes and images as realism, but as a rush. The scenes between Carlito (Al Pacino) and Gail (Penelope Ann Miller) are touching and expertly calculated illustrations of deep-seated romantic feeling: rainy streets, late night coffee shops, dim apartments. The climactic cat-and-mouse sequence should raise pulses into the triple digits. The generic intensity of the filmic experience works as a nice counterbalance to the fatalistic gravity of the story construction. The former imbues the latter with the proper feeling of tragedy (inevitable ends!) and the latter imbues the former with a purpose beyond sheer emotional thrills.
There is still another layer. As with so many De Palma films, Carlito’s Way soon manifests as an essay on its own forms. This is introduced by the very first sequence, which initiates the flashbacks, and which could be understood as no more than plot functionality if it stood alone. But several sequences double back upon themselves, announcing their self-awareness. The second sequence probably counts as the courtroom speech where Carlito delivers words about how he’s a changed man (he’s just been released from prison, not for his innocence or good behavior, but for DA corruption). Neither characters nor viewers are certain how sincere this speech is. Carlito himself acknowledges the triteness of his own words. Pacino/Carlito’s performance is immediately flattened into one entity.
The next moment of self-awareness: when Carlito holes up in a drug lord’s bathroom, preparing for a second round of combat, calling out to a room full of the dead and the dying: “You think you’re big time? You’re gonna die big time!” The point is that he’s talking to himself, back against the wall in a dark, bluish bathroom, though he’s trying to direct his fury against a host of enemies: the drug dealers who have just murdered his cousin, the drug world which would see him back in business, the thugs who would kill him for spite or revenge, the underworld which is both his vessel and his obstacle to the life he desires.
So the act of seeing Carlito’s Way is simultaneously to experience a pulpish melodrama, a keen genre exercise, and a contemplation of the visual, symbolic, or narrative forms which these things take. Carlito is caught in a trap, and we see that the trap is the story itself, crystallized into myth, replete with striking and iconic images as well as touching moments. This is the basic premise. The question is whether we “buy” the story and recognize Carlito’s tragedy purely as the result of poor life choices or pesky villains, or allow ourselves disbelief in order to register the tragedy as an evocation of genre.