Wednesday, March 28, 2012

CARLITO'S WAY and Opening Scene Sabotage


When Brian DePalma is at the height of his powers, his films can be some of the most exciting, entertaining thrillers and dramas around.  Of course, he hasn't been on his game in many years now.  Blow Out, The Untouchables, Carrie, and a handful of others could be debated as great films.  One of his best films, in my humble opinion, is the 1993 crime drama Carlito's Way, a firecracker of a film with great performances from Al Pacino and Sean Penn as an unrecognizable, slimy lawyer.  Carlito's Way has always been one of my favorite American gangster films and too often is overlooked when lists of gangster pictures are assembled.  It is a thrilling and fast-paced film that holds a special place in my heart. 

It is also a fatally flawed picture that is undone by its opening scene.

Now, as I have said, I still hold Carlito's Way in the highest regard.  But the opening scene has to be one of the biggest miscalculations in film history, a prologue which pulls the rug out from the narrative of our hero, Carlito Brigante.  We open on Carlito taking two bullets to the stomach and falling to the ground, clearly inside a train station.  Then, we get a slow-motion shot of Carlito on a gurney as he is being wheeled to the ambulance.  But it is clear he will die on this gurney.  And then, from this black-and-white prologue we go into the story and we meet a vibrant Carlito Brigante being freed from prison, making a promise to himself to walk the line. 

This opening sequence sabotages the entire picture.  Sure, there are still moments of dramatic tension and thrilling sequences, such as the one in Grand Central Station just before Carlito is shot.  The ultimate death of Carlito's snake lawyer, Davey Kleinfeld (Penn) is a great "A-HA" moment.  If there weren't such instances I would not love this film as much as I do.  But there could have been even more moments like this had DePalma decided to lop off the opening scene.  First of all, it is unnecessary.  We could have simply gone into the courtroom, where Carlito grandstands and struts out of the courthouse a free man.  The film wastes no time in slow burn, it thrusts the viewer into the nightclub scene immediately.  So the pacing and the melodrama of the opening sequence feels completely wrong.  But pacing is not the largest issue with this open.

If we know Carlito is going to die, certain risks are stolen from the picture.  We not only know he will die, but we know where.  So when he is cornered in the subway, or in the lobby of Grand Central Station, no matter how marvelously these action scenes are staged and no matter how tense they still are, that ultimate risk is absent since we are not in the train tunnel yet.  It also takes away hope, a running theme throughout the film that never registers the way it should.  The entire film deals with Carlito's struggles to stay clean and get out of the neighborhood.  But since we know the entire time he will not find the hope he so desperately yearns, there is that extra dramatic push lacking.  And all because of one mishandled opening sequence.

Of course, after seeing the film the first time, repeat viewings don't have this issue since the viewer knows what is happening all along.  But this is not where the issue lies.  Films should be dissected and analyzed as stand alone pieces, without any future or past.  To observe and critique a picture, it should have a bookend existence, and seen with this mindset Carlito's Way has a fatal flaw.  And it exists within an opening scene that is both unnecessary and steals a certain thrust out of the heart of the story.  My suggestion for people wanting to show other people this film is to skip past the opening scene.  This is what I have done, and what I plan on doing from here on out.