5. Carlito’s Way
Another example of Oscar’s long-standing tradition of giving deserving recipients their golden baldie for entirely the wrong film, Al Pacino’s towering performance as Carlito Brigante should have garnered him awards aplenty, but instead he was awarded one for the previous year’s very awards-friendly but otherwise less meritorious Scent of a Woman. Admittedly 1994 was an incredibly crowded year, awards-wise.
But Pacino is great here – nuanced, flashy, remorseful, reformed, adept – a gangster unlike any other on his considerable resumé. Carlito’s Way shows its hand very early on, its monochrome prologue showing that we are very much within a tragic arc for our protagonist. Pacino’s line from The Godfather Part III (“every time I try to get out, they pull me back in”) serves just as well here, his past as much as his nature refusing to let him go.
As with The Untouchables, we have a train station set piece of unbearable tension and technical virtuosity, but it only works because De Palma has enabled us to invest in the characters. As we always should (but these days rarely do), we care what happens and there is an element of uncertainty as to who is going to make it out in one piece. Carlito’s relationships with his new girlfriend, his old lawyer and his new nemesis (Benny Blanco from the Bronx) are all expertly played and De Palma draws out great performances, believable interactions and an irresistible sense of building towards unavoidable tragedy.
The early pool hall sequence and the aforementioned train station climax stand out as examples of De Palma’s mastery of his craft, the impactful violence integral to the plot rather than merely for show. After a mere two hours in Carlito’s company we root for him and care for him as much as someone we might these days spend half a dozen seasons of a TV show with. Testament indeed to Pacino’s breath-taking ability and De Palma’s skill as a craftsman.