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Carlito's Way - Genre Study

by Michelle Langford

Note how in this opening sequence Brian De Palma’s Carlito’s Way positions itself as a familiar story with familiar characters in familiar situations, and thus encourages certain expectations for the audience. The first thing that the audience sees is the barrel of a gun, an obvious tenet of gangster films. We then see Pacino – an actor who is synonymous with the gangster genre - being shot and falling. The use of cinematic techniques such as black and white photography, slow motion, the melancholic soundtrack, the solemn voice-over narration, and the shot of Pacino looking at an advertisement that is explicitly designed to invoke paradise, unambiguously signals that this character has been struck down, and is probably going to die. Because this happens at the beginning of the film, the question is not what will happen to this character, but instead how did this happen? Following that, we see the hearing that leads to the character’s release from prison, after having served only 5 years of a 30-year sentence. It is revealed to us that he is released due to a technicality, not because he has been acquitted of the charges, or because he has been reformed. Commentary by: Rodney Wallis

Commentary by Rodney Wallis

by Michelle Langford

Brian De Palma’s gangster film Carlito’s Way (1993) contains a familiar story, familiar characters in familiar situations, and thus encourages certain expectations. The first thing that the audience sees, along with De Palma’s name, is the barrel of a gun, an obvious tenet of gangster films. We then see Pacino being shot and falling. The use of techniques such as black and white photography, slow motion, the melancholic soundtrack, the solemn voice-over narration, and the shot of Pacino looking at an advertisement that is explicitly designed to invoke paradise, unambiguously signals that this character has been struck down.

Because this happens at the beginning of the film, the question is not what will happen to this character, but instead how did this happen?

Following that, we see the hearing that leads to the character’s release from prison, after having served only 5 years of a 30-year sentence. It is revealed to us that he is released due to a technicality, not because he has been acquitted of the charges, or because he has been reformed – in spite of his declarations.

In fact, throughout the scene is an overwhelming sense that the character is not reformed. His lawyer, played by Sean Penn, is shown snickering throughout the scene, the judge is clearly bemused at the Pacino’s character’s performance in the courtroom, and the prosecutor says to him at the end, “I’ll be seeing you, Brigante,” in a way that suggests a justified confidence that the character will soon return to his life of crime

Throughout this opening sequence, the film clearly positions itself as a rise-and-fall morality tale in the tradition of the classic gangster films of the early 1930s, such as Little Caesar, The Public Enemy, and the original Scarface. This body of films, which is generally understood as constituting the birth of the modern gangster film, each play out very similar rise-and-fall narratives in which the gangster protagonist is a tragic figure – an immigrant who climbs out of poverty through ruthless criminal activity before suffering an inevitable and inglorious death. Carlito’s Way essentially repeats this narrative, only in this instance the character’s inevitable fall foregrounds the narrative, and his fall is facilitated not by his lust for power or money, but his overwhelming sense of loyalty and honour, thus making the character an even more tragic figure than the gangsters of the 1930s.

Carlito's Way - Genre Study

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Clip of the opening sequence of Carlito's Way.

from Carlito's Way (1993)
Creator: Brian De Palma
Distributor: Universal Studios Home Entertainment
Posted by Michelle Langford
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