“Carlito’s Way” — The One That Got Away

Looking into how one cleverly constructed long take perfectly illustrates Brian De Palma’s extraordinary craftsmanship and his mastery of the visual language.

Your body instinctually moves around when playing a video racing game. You can’t help it. You are leaning left and right, moving with the virtual car in the game.

And almost everyone has tried to lean forward in their cars to get a better look at a road sign, while speeding past on the highway. It makes little sense to the rational mind to lean forward a few inches to get a better glance at a sign, while moving forward a high speed. But we do it anyway.

Why? Because certain visual stimuli make us do it. It’s ingrained in us, as humans. The individual senses are tricked into overruling each other; even though we know we are sitting on our couch playing a racing game, the body leans, because our eyes tell us the car is moving. It’s pure muscle memory.

Director Brian De Palma is a masterful visual storyteller. He knows all the tricks in the book of visual medium, and his gangster opus “Carlito’s Way” from 1993 is a perfect example of this.

The Visual Language

One aspect where “Carlito’s Way” and Brian De Palma’s work excels is in the visual language. From fade in, he is telling us what kind of movie this will be.

He is inviting us into the realm of the story. The entire story you are about to watch is told directly by Carlito (brilliantly played by Al Pacino), laying on the stretcher being rushed to the hospital.

“[..] the first job of any good story is to completely anesthetize the part of our brain that questions how it is creating such a compelling illusion of reality.”
— “Wired for Story” by Lisa Cron
Carlito being ushered away on a stretcher (From “Carlito’s Way” (1993)

Carlito is talking to us directly. It is not a narrative voice-over or Carlito acting as one. We are inside Carlito’s head.

Personally, I have nothing against voice-overs in movies. Often, it works well and serves a specific purpose. But I can understand why some have reservations for them as they often give exposition about the characters and the action that is on-the-nose.

In Carlito’s Way, the voice-over serves a dual purpose. The gives exposition about Carlito, but it also tells you what kind of story you are about to watch, one where you are part of the movie. You are inside the four walls of the story

Closing in

There are two iconic scenes from Carlito’s Way, the pool room scene and the train station scene. Everyone who has seen the movie will remember these two scenes if nothing else.

The lead up to the pool scene happens right after Carlito is released from jail. He is driving around with his younger cousin taking in the newfound freedom. The cousin, on the other hand, is trying hard to impress Carlito with his street connection and convinces Carlito to make a short stop at a pool room in order to make a delivering.

Right from entering the pool room, Carlito becomes visually uncomfortable being back in the criminal milieu of his past. He vowed to leave all this behind and become a productive member of society. But he is trapped in the pool room, with no easy way to get about and he knows whatever happens next is not good.

Brian De Palma uses a subtle technique of slowly narrowing the close-up of Al Pacino’s face as he leans against the table next to the wall.

Al Pacino says nothing, and the clip is mere seconds long. But it’s clear Carlito is thinking hard about how to get out of the situation he inadvertently walked into.

It’s so intimate and telling.

Carlito trying hard to figure out of how to get out of the situation in the pool room scene (from “Carlito’s Way” (1993))

Springs into action

Moments later, in the scene, Carlito concludes action is required to get out of the tricky situation he and his cousin have walked into. Again, a very ingenious technique is used to convey our role, as the audience, in the scene.

Just as the camera is closing in on Carlito, he springs into action, and the camera is in the way of this sudden forward motion. We are forced to surge back and the camera pans back to get out of the way.

We have to get out of the way of Carlito (from “Carlito’s Way” (1993))
“But now Carlito makes his dramatic, ingenious, power-shifting move in the situation — perfectly expressed by the combination of a tracking-back with him moving forward, out of his semi-relaxed position leaning against the wall. You feel his muscles, and the muscles of the scene, tighten in this very shot!” 
— "A Walk Through Carlito’s Way" by Adrian Martin

As with the narrowing of the frame from before showed us a trapped Carlito, this sudden pullback gives Carlito the upper hand in the scene. 
He _knows_ what is about to happen. He knows what he must do. We are left bewildered and wondering what Carlito is up to.

He is in control of the scene now, and we are just standing in his way.

Returning to the start

“Carlito’s Way” is hard to watch, because you know upfront how it ends. Does he die from the gun shot? When you finally realize towards the end of the movie, you are re-watching the same scene, it’s too late. You want to get away from the mess of it all, because you have invested so much into Charlie and the rest of the movie. But you can’t get out because of the way the movie is structured and visually told.

There is no way Carlito can get away from this. It is skillfully done by screenwriter David Koepp and De Palma, and it shows a perfect understanding of the visual and narrative cues and the impact it can have on the audience.

Moving around

In the train station sequence near the end of the movie, De Palma inserts a long Steadicam scene. In it, we, as the audience, move around with Carlito. It builds enormous tension, because we only see what he sees and can move where he moves.

“ The thing you learn about the long takes is that you can document the emotion happening on the screen in real time. And once you start cutting things up, you lose the emotional rhythm of things “ 
— Brian De Palma (from the “De Palma” documentary)

The tension is so palpable because you don’t know more about what is going on than Carlito. We are running after him, leaning around corners, ducking behind walls and always looking over his shoulders, always one step behind. It is a full sensory experience. It feels almost psychical to watch the scene and can even leave you out of breath. It is very subtle but it works well.

Hiding out

The entire train station scene in Carlito’s Way is a masterful technical achievement, brilliantly filmed and choreographed. Notice how an almost unnoticeable movement of the camera makes you hide behind the wall. The Steadicam is moving with Carlito. Hiding with him out of sight.

“The waiting is very important, so you can ground yourself, so the audience gets very accustomed to where everything is” 
— Brian De Palma (from the “De Palma” documentary)
Hiding together with Carlito (from “Calito’s Way” (1993))

Just when Carlito pulls out his gun and hugs the wall, the camera takes a step to the left and leans away from the gangsters searching for him.

Losing track

At one point in the scene, Carlito — and therefore us — is about to go down the escalator. But just in the nick of time, Carlito sees one of the gangsters and jolts in the opposite direction. It catches us off-guard, and we continue down the escalator without Carlito. We leave him. And just like the gangsters chasing him, we lose track of where he is.

Also, notice how brilliantly we ease into the conversation at the bottom of the escalator. If you didn’t get it from the visuals, the dialogue tells you we have lost the whereabouts of Carlito.

It then becomes even more surprising when we spot him lying down on the escalator, trying to escape unnoticed.

See the entire long take in the video below, and notice you sit in your seat and how your breathing goes while watching it.

The scene is heavily layered in visual markers and references. We, as the audience, are an integrated part of how and why this sequence works.

Side note: The Woman with the baby carrier at the train station

As any viewer of Brian De Palma’s movies knows, nothing is added to the scene by accident or coincidence. It is a nice little nod to De Palma’s “The Untouchables” from 1987 that we see a woman sitting on a briefcase with a baby carrier next to her.

The same woman? (From “The Untouchables” (1987) and “Carlito’s Way” (1993))

Although never confirmed by De Palma himself or anyone from the crew, the connection is clear to spot. This is the same woman time-shifted from the 1930s of “The Untouchables” to the 1970s of “Carlito’s Way”.

Lost but not forgotten

“I can’t make a better picture than this” 
 — Brian De Palma (from the “De Palma” documentary)

Carlito’s Way works perfectly on so many levels. If you want to study the medium of film and see why it is so different from other mediums, this is a perfect example to do so. Every scene is crafted with such care and precision. Nothing is left to chance, and it all works in unison, the action and acting on the screen, the dialogue, the cinematography, the music, the sound, and the editing. When so much care is put into each element, they are all capable of standing on their own but combined, it creates an experience like no other medium can provide.

Brian De Palma is not credited enough for his skill as a filmmaker. No matter if you regard him as one of the most significant auteurs of the 1970s to 1990s or you see him as a master craftsman capable of surrounding himself with top talent, you have to respect the work that carries his name.

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Simon Lund Larsen is a writer at heart with a day job at a toy factory. Trying to figure out why some movies work really well. Byline at The Outtake, Movie Time Guru and CineNation. You can find him here on Medium as Simon Lund Larsen or on Twitter with the same handle @SimonLundLarsen.