Carlito's Way ★★★★

One of the reasons De Palma is so fantastic is because of the way he embodies the myth of the classic auteur, burying his own pet fixations deep within seemingly straightforward movies. But instead of a journeyman plugging along on an endless series of for-hire assignments, he’s (at least during this peak era) a big-budget filmmaker directing the hell out of crazily sensual extravaganzas, layering maximalist fireworks over these obscured strains of subtext. There’s a lot of silly stuff here, from Pacino’s ridiculous accent to Viggo Mortenson’s wheelchair-bound breakdown scene, but it all fits with the peak-disco, coke-addled tone, and it’s worth mentioning that one thing which seems silly actually serves as the key to unlocking an entire hidden set of themes: the scene where an especially doofy looking Carlito stands on a roof in the rain, holding a garbage can lid over his head.

What seems like an offhand image here is really an excuse for De Palma to sync his hero up visually with the object of his gaze - the former girlfriend he’s watching in the window of a ballet studio. The camera alternates between gradual push-ins on each of them, slowly revealing that her hand-over-the-head ballet pose rhymes with his silly method for keeping his hair dry. I’d need an essay to go into the specifics of how this connection gets played out as the film progresses, but suffice to say De Palma is once again plumbing into both sides of the Male Gaze equation, exploring the ways that visual objectification is an alluring impulse which can have unintended malicious consequences. Halfway through the movie, Carlito finally gets the girl, through a rape-fantasy seduction scene where he’s encouraged to bust down the door of her apartment; before he does so De Palma frames him against the crack, looking exactly like Jack Torrance peeking into the bathroom. This is cinematic reference of the highest order, as a building block for character psychology and a subliminal nudge for narrative, and it’s telling that this scene becomes the inciting event for Carlito’s descent back into the violence he’s struggled so mightily to escape.

I really need to watch Scarface again.