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A Walk Through Carlito's Way 

Adrian Martin


  This is the edited and lightly recast transcript of a talk/demonstration given as part of a day-long master class on film style, organised by the Department of Media at Macquarie University and the Australian Screen Directors’ Association, at the Museum of Sydney in April 2006.    

There are several behind-the-scenes documentaries in which Brian De Palma – who normally does not give very much away about his technical and artistic processes – describes the manner in which he plans his films on computer. It is not in the conventional form of a shot breakdown, storyboard or découpage.


Instead, De Palma constructs what he calls a schematic, which is something finally only he can completely understand (as his sometime DOP Vilmos Zsigmond attests), but that he uses as the basis of his collaboration with crew heads. Basically – as far as an outsider like me can gather – a schematic is a map of the relation of the elements in a scene, especially of the various kinds of movements in the scene (of the actors, the camera, the eyelines … ) and their interrelation. He maps this schematic out for each scene, and then for the whole film, on his computer. It is something like an overall system for the film, as well as a charting of its moment-to-moment transformations.


So, when De Palma approaches a scene he thinks something along the lines of: we are going to start the scene with faces. Everything will be claustrophobic at the start of the scene, and then by the end of the scene, there will be openness – full bodies, open space; we are going to chart this passage from closed to open. Or it could be the passage from fluid to solid shapes, or from intense light to almost complete darkness. And, as one can glimpse in the making-of documentaries, De Palma has these intriguing stick-figure diagrams on his computer, completed by dialogue balloons, with arrows and heads, and light and dark, and up and down – key aspects of the film frame and the sound design that he plots out schematically. But schematic is not a pejorative word in this instance; it simply means the schema, the plan of how he intends to handle a scene, and what he hopes to bring out, to emphasise or underline, in it.


This kind of schematic process can start at the script level, as well as being something the director attends to, puts his or her imagination to. There is a basic principle or idea behind it: each scene has to internally change over the course of its unfolding. It is a principle of dynamism. This does not just mean that the character changes (learns something, feels something, loses an arm, or whatever) in the course of a scene. It means that something else is changing; something to do with the light or colour or rhythm or space – the way that place is being rendered in images and sounds.


Olivier Assayas once declared that he only has one principle when directing a film: ‘I set up a scene and I have a character enter the scene, and they must change that scene. By the time they leave the scene, it’s got to be different’. That could be literal, as in an Abel Ferrara film like King of New York (1990): somebody comes into a room, kills everybody, demolishes the room and walks out – not a bad way to change a scene! But there are a thousand ways to change the mood of a scene. It is fascinating to study the relation of parts to wholes, meaning: each scene as a microcosm of the processes of change that are happening within the film’s overall style. And this is also a principle of spectacle: if you have a scene that is in the process of passing from dark to light or fast to slow or red to green, then that is a dynamic principle of cinematic spectacle. Even if you are not aware, even if you are not sitting there as a spectator thinking, ‘Hey, I really like that slow change from red to green’, it is working on you all the same. It is totally informing your experience – your emotional and intellectual experience – of the movie.


Let us begin to ‘walk through’ a scene, seven and a half minutes long, from a great De Palma film, Carlito’s Way (1993) – a fantastically complex scene, seventeen and three-quarter minutes into the narrative, mostly set in a backroom pool hall where a criminal drug exchange is about to go down. The cinematographer is Stephen H. Burum, the editors are Kristina Boden and Bill Pankow, and the production designer is Richard Sylbert – Burum, Pankow and Sylbert collaborated with De Palma on numerous films, and they clearly understood his style and intentions well.




Every De Palma-loving cinephile’s sense of this scene as a set-piece, detachable from the film as a whole (while relating to it on many formal, expressive and thematic levels), is reinforced by its special place in the narrative – as an introductory incident that perfectly sums up, in microcosm, the trajectory of the hero’s unfortunate destiny (he keeps getting dragged back into crime), while itself being only a weak catalyst for anything much that follows. The plot, in general, hinges on everything that is set in motion by the lawyer Kleinfeld (Sean Penn), who has no relation to what happens in this scene; Carlito’s final act in the scene of pocketing the money brought by his young companion has no consequences, triggers no investigation or retribution (even though he has, logically, stolen it from people he knows and may have once worked with). Carlito simply – literally – walks away from the site of this cataclysm, with a single, significant plot element in place: he now has some money to kickstart his dream of escape.


In the prelude to the scene, inside a car on the way to this location, De Palma starts with what he (as is well known) finds most boring: pictures of people talking. Carlito is with the young and very naïve Guajiro (John Ortiz) – they are actually on their way to having dinner with the boy’s mother (who, in this very economical narrative, we will never see) – but the older man is persuaded to join his younger partner on this little, illegal pick-up (‘boom boom, in and out’) on the way. The reverse shot arrangement is elegantly composed for the wide screen, but essentially functional.




The scene at least has some movement, via the car – plus a nice bit of business that pushes the scene into a volley of closer shots: what filmmakers and film editors call a reveal of the money inside Guajiro’s jacket, to that point hidden from view. It is this reveal that motivates the cut to a new angle – part of the craft that De Palma learnt from studying Hitchcock (and, in general, classical film syntax) so closely. A different series of shots, based on different camera set-ups, can begin from that point – the film does not just jump, without some motivating ‘step’, into closer views. As we shall see, this is a technique at which De Palma is especially expert.




A voice-over from Carlito/Al Pacino begins, as they enter the barbershop from the street.



I will make a few general points about voice-over before we observe this particular example more closely. There is much fruitless debate about voice-over in cinema: for it, mainly against it. You know the Robert McKee argument, sent up rotten in Charlie Kaufman’s script for Spike Jonze’s Adaptation (2002): no voice-over under any circumstances; get it out! A lazy device, that merely states or reiterates what we are seeing – or should be seeing. Films are about showing, not telling … it is the same old spiel. Nonetheless, film and television makers keep using the device – and sometimes brilliantly. There are absolutely radical uses of voice-over in cinema: Badlands (1973), Force of Evil (1949), Une histoire simple (1959), the original Spring in a Small Town (1948) …


My point is this: voice-over can be used as cinematically as anything else. Yes, of course, there is much bad voice-over in cinema: badly conceived, badly used. Too often, it is just lazily plugging holes in the narration – narration in the broadest sense, meaning the entire, holistic way in which the narrative is organised and presented. Voice-over is bad when it is not giving anything to the film – to the dynamism, intrigue or style (again, holistically conceived) of the movie.


In Carlito’s Way, De Palma and his writer David Koepp (with whom he worked on a number of occasions, and who became a notable director himself) have used voice-over in a particularly ingenious way. There are three things worth noticing about it. First, the way that Pacino’s voice has been recorded and rendered in the sound mix: it seems very close to the microphone, no atmosphere or reverberation around it. You really hear the grain of that character’s (and actor’s) voice; it is a concrete, material sensation, an effect (and affect) of intimacy – and, in the total system of the film, this refers to the fact that, as he speaks or thinks, Carlito is a dying man, on the very verge of ‘passing over’. (1)


Second, this narration is in a quite strange linguistic or performative tense. A voice-over, almost by definition, usually comes from somewhere (often left vague, unspecified) in the future. ‘That was the day I visited my dying aunt, and everything in my story begins there, nothing would ever be the same again …’ – you know the drill, and it is often a painful drill. But here, the voice track is written as if in the present tense – even though it is, in fact, looking back, in the traditional movie/literary manner. Carlito speaks, describing and setting-up dramatic events, as if he does not know what is about to happen – and that very particular (and strange, unreal, but cinematically and narratively very useful) effect is created by having him say everything in the present tense.

  1. See Adrian Martin, ‘Threads of Voice’, in Philip Brophy (ed.), Cinesonic: The World of Sound in Film (Sydney: Australian Film, Television and Radio School, 1999).

  So the kid’s walking in there with thirty big ones, and The Legend – me – I’m walking right in with him. Five minutes from now we’re gonna be on the streets with thirty grand worth of very sweet candy – more than enough to put me right back where I just come from.    


He is not telling you, of course, what is really going to happen – which of course, he logically would know about, looking back from the future. But strictly believable or plausible logic is not the modus operandi here. Another film that does this, in a completely different, comedic key, but in an equally rich way, is Amy Heckerling’s Clueless (1995).


This brings us to the third aspect I want you to notice: the discrepancy – quite systematic in De Palma – between what the voice is saying and what, at the same moment, we are given to see. This is a question of point-of-view (henceforth POV) – or rather, multiple points-of-view. Some POVs are established visually, and some are established aurally.


In Carlito’s Way there is something that the character is saying in his voice-over narration – hence his subjective view of the event – and then something that De Palma, or the film itself as the master narrator (or enunciator, to use a theoretical term), is showing us from another point-of-view altogether. Like in much of Hitchcock, De Palma’s film is built from a multiple and mobile point-of-view structure. This is important to remember, since so much of the scriptwriting advice that circulates in the film industry advocates such woolly and reductive ideas about what a point-of-view is in cinema, and how it should be achieved – that it must a singular point-of-view, that it must create an empathy with the hero, that there must not be any confusion as to whose POV we are in … the usual, normative Screenwriting Manual nonsense. De Palma has never played by those rules.




Look at what De Palma does, and how economically he does it: all it takes is that one little move of the camera into the tiny gesture of the guy stealthily pushing the button as Carlito’s voice continues on the soundtrack. (This happens a moment after some play with mirror reflections in the barbershop: already in that, we can feel a little displacement away from Carlito’s centre-stage subjectivity.) Bingo: straight away, the scene is no longer under the control of who you thought was the POV telling the story. Often, POV functions in a position of mastery: ‘This is my life story, I’m going to tell you how it went, what it meant’, ad nauseam … – but this is completely different. It is an immaculately hard-boiled narration, which gives you important facts, as well as possessing a high level of poetic expression, an idiomatic street poetry derived (in part) by Koepp from the Edwin Torres novels that are the film’s literary source material. But then, with this decisive moment of discrepancy, De Palma instantly signals that the scene is not entirely in Carlito’s control, not any longer. This is among the most important things that De Palma learnt from Hitchcock, and then spun into his own baroque variations: how to complicate the POV structure of a scene and, from that, the entire film?


What makes this scene especially complex is that it is devoted to a space – a particular, well-defined, carefully constructed place. We are only going to see this space – an enclosed room, with no windows looking out onto anywhere – once in the entire film. So, when you have a space like this, it is the film’s duty to map it swiftly – especially if, as here, every part of the space is going to be used, dramatically and cinematically. You, as a viewer, must know – must come to know rather quickly – what is at either end of the space, and what is in between. What is the distance between those ends? – not in literal metres but in a felt sense of distance, dramatic distance or passionate space: how hard will it be for someone like Carlito (a newcomer, an outsider) to traverse that distance? And, once established, a good filmmaker can start playing with these givens. Maybe the distance can be fudged, or maybe it can be confused – always in service of a particular effect. De Palma does all of these things.


The main thing that De Palma’s schematic imagination is focused on is: how am I going to use this room? It has been designed to have a very particular, long, rectangular shape. A multiple space, with several different zones of action or activity (including a pair of jiggling, dancing girls), and various things happening at once. (There are always, in De Palma, various things happening at once – at different speeds, in different spots, and going in different directions: this is the very basis of his intricate style. His computer schematics surely reflect this!) In particular, there is a zone of action at one end (the criminal transaction) and a zone of action down the opposite end (the pool game). How are these different spatial zones and their respective events going to be interrelated?


Although this analysis will track the film more or less in its consecutive unfolding – as if freezing the scene throughout – it helps to survey, in advance, the key frames in which De Palma lays out the space: how he divides it into two roughly equal zones, purely through the cinematic means of shots and staging (for there is no literal, physical barrier or screen bisecting the room) – especially in the moment (discussed below) where Carlito is stopped mid-way; how he orients us along this invisible axis, providing (as it were) reverse wide/long shots of the two fields of the room; and the ultimate reveal of almost the whole space, in three shots right at the scene’s conclusion.



The first interior shot (after the public antechamber of the barbershop) is a typical device in contemporary cinema: a POV from a character that we have not yet seen before, and whom we do not see directly straight away. Carlito has walked into a space which is not ‘his’. The space is commanded by the person, Quisqueya (Rick Aviles), whose eyes are one with the camera’s view at this moment.




However, we are not going to cut (not yet, at least) to a close-up of Quisqueya, as traditional movie syntax would decree. Instead, he suddenly walks into the frame.



Absolutely unreal and marvellous: he has walked into his own POV, taken leave of his own eyes! Martin Scorsese and Paul Thomas Anderson use this trick all the time. In De Palma’s hands, it is an economical way of moving the scene forward.


Let us start paying attention to the sound – which, of course, is every bit as important as the image. There is something complex happening with the background, diegetic music playing in this space. It will pass from ‘Oye como va’, Tito Puente’s 1963 mambo in the version popularised by Santana in 1970, to ‘El Watusi’ (1962) by Ray Barretto. Later in the scene, there is also another kind of music – scored, extra-diegetic music by Patrick Doyle. But note, for the moment, how De Palma has basically choreographed the scene, and foreseen its editing patterns, in terms of the music: this is a major part of his schematic process.




Now we get the requisite, front-on view of Quisqueya. Note an irony that will become apparent later: he squints. His eyesight might seem to be impaired, or his eyelids droopy through recent drug use – yet the irony is that he knows, in advance, (almost) everything that is about to happen, when and how. Also note what you need panoramic alertness to pick up here:  the second instant we see Quisqueya (who, as per spectatorial custom, gets our immediate attention), behind him, the door at the back of the room, in the right-hand side of the frame, starts to open, and an intense light glints through it.


This is the first, restricted glimpse we are allowed of the bathroom area, adjacent to the main space, that is going to figure as a major zone of the scene and of its spatial dynamics. So De Palma is already planting it – or, as I would say, marking it. I derive this concept from Jean-Pierre Gorin, who once advised his filmmaking students: if you are going to dramatically or comically use something like a prop or object, subtly mark it first, bring it to our attention without making a big deal of it – simply show it, underline it. Part of a director’s craft is in the subtle ways of marking things to be used. And here, the fact that it is light, a burst of light, is important for the way this scene is shaped, narratively and stylistically.




But Carlito is not far behind in marking this detail for himself. Back inside the volley of shots between the characters, he performs the most natural, throwaway gesture in the world: he takes off his glasses. Just an acting detail, a realist bit of business? Far from it. Because he is taking off those sunglasses to see what his clueless companion does not see, and that no one else twigs that he sees (such is the splendid unreality of these kinds of cinematic events/gestures that occur in a striated, scenographic, Hitchcockian space): the light emanating from that swaying bathroom door, given to us in a closer shot that registers as Carlito’s ‘projected’ POV. In a sense, it is retroactively signalled as a POV image – or, at least, reinforced as such, in case we did not pick up the cue of Carlito’s gaze – by immediately returning to Carlito in close-up: a good example of how supple these games of subjective perception can be in the hands of a master like De Palma.



Glasses, and what is reflected or not reflected in them, become central to the action of what plays out in this scene. And more generally in the film as a whole, since it is a matter of vision, as the voice-over of a later scene wisely teaches us: ‘If you can’t see the angles, you in trouble’. Alain Masson once suggested that a good filmmaker (his example was Billy Wilder) is devoted to ‘twisting anything which can be possibly rescued from … mere presence’ (2), thus turning banal detail into something that is exciting, meaningful, functional. Carlito’s sunglasses richly serve that function.


Here is a sudden move in the scene, an element of surprise, of the kind De Palma will use more dramatically later in the scene: the close-up of Quisqueya saying, ‘We gotta do some business’. It gives a sinister feeling, and we will soon see why.



2. Alain Masson, ‘A Sequence from Avanti!’, Continuum, Vol. 5 No. 2 (1992), p. 169.


At this point, the scene divides in two, as per the room structure already noted: action at one end of the room and also at the other end, with De Palma alternating between them in terms of what he focuses on. Carlito’s precise problem is to keep his eye on everything – even as his hosts are trying all in their power to manoeuvre him into place and restrict his sensory access to what is really going on. But Carlito is already attuned to the truth behind the appearances: he has guessed that someone is lurking in the bathroom and peeking out, waiting – while Guajiro unknowingly, idiotically places himself in a position (with his back to the bathroom) where he cannot notice anything!



Now, as much as he can, Carlito has to try to control the space, and what happens in it. That is the motivation which drives the scene: not exactly a deep-psychological motivation, but certainly a pressing and cinematic motivation, and one essential for the character’s continued survival! This is the kind of motivation for action that we often find in De Palma. So, Carlito needs to scope things out: a classical sequence of four shots shows him looking in the two different directions of the scene (at the two different halves of the room), and his two POVs. To give himself the opportunity and the moment to do this, he begs off (at first) playing pool: ‘I’ll watch’, he says – a very cinematic line of dialogue, again an entirely ordinary utterance within the realistic setting of the film, but a way of unostentatiously marking the fact that Carlito’s watching is going to be central to the unfolding events.



Note here, on a related plane, how good Pacino is as a cinematic actor, not just a theatrical one: his eyes, his body movements, always rivet you, the film spectator, in one precise direction or another; their slightest motion (within a complex system of eye, head, torso and full-body gestures) can cue the cut. De Palma specifically praised Pacino’s ability to do this – and you see it more in Carlito’s Way than in Scarface (1983), their previous collaboration. By this film, Pacino obviously understood De Palma’s system, his syntax, much better, and tailored his performance accordingly, to blend into the stylistic ensemble of the whole piece. This means more than just ‘acting for the camera’: it is far more profoundly the way that an actor places himself or herself inside the vectors of a scene, its dynamics – and De Palma is big on vectoral dynamics; in fact he is (with Michelangelo Antonioni, Tsai Ming-liang and a few others) among the most architectural of directors, in every sense of that word. It was exactly this vectoral quality of performance that Kathleen Murphy noted, using this very scene as her prime example, in a tribute to Pacino:


  Corraled into keeping a young nephew company during a poolroom payoff, Brigante is instantly attuned to the fatal dynamics of the mise en scène. It’s exhilarating – like watching Picasso paint on glass – to watch the expertise and grace with which Pacino begins to make this fraught stage his own, anticipating the vectors of the double-cross, the roles the killers around him will play. (3)   3. Kathleen Murphy, ‘Dancing on the High Wire’, Film Comment (March/April 2000).

Note, too, in passing, the work on colour. Take the striking blood-red colour – even to the extent of sticking a national flag of this hue in the set! There is a hellish, underworld aspect to the scene: the setting, the music, all have a garish, lurid, lumpen tone, which is allowed by the low-class criminal milieu featured in this part of the plot – the milieu from which Carlito is trying, socially, to ascend. (The narrative premise of the scene – Carlito persuaded to take quick detour for an easy job that turns bad – is a microcosm of the character’s difficulties in achieving this ascension.) The red colour will be more prominently featured as the scene continues. Or note, later on, the purple shirt of the knife-wielding killer hiding in that bathroom: when the editing gets faster, we are going to need that simple but effective anchoring-point of visual recognition, for a character who does not speak, bears no name, and will be alive and functioning on screen for a grand total of 28 seconds!


Now Carlito tries to actively make a move of his own, against the (so far relatively demure) constraint placed on him in the space. A key shot, brief but elaborate, stages a superb mise en scène: the frame tightens up and the camera moves in a little as Carlito approaches the foreground, and Quisqueya’s right-hand man rushes forward to stop him going any further; after this moment of tension, they both rewind and resume their earlier positions further back in the frame. Everything changes very swiftly in the course of this single shot; it is like a cell that condenses or encodes the scene’s entire schematic.




Carlito is now thoroughly blocked in the space – mid-way, in fact. In the schematic map of this room, the midway is the point that he cannot get past. That is important because, every time a director sets up an obstacle in a space, s/he creates the possibility of overcoming, bursting through that blockage at another moment in the scene (or even later in the film: Tsai or Chantal Akerman work with this type of extraordinarily stretched-out spatial tension).



A wonderful gesture in regards to the diegetic music, which has now had its track changeover from Santana to Barretto: Quisqueya squeals, like a happy little kid, ‘Turn it up, man, I love that song!’ De Palma is not afraid to put in lines like that. Turn it up! – because De Palma wants it up, he needs it up for the dramatic sound-mixing effect to come. It is another example of motivation, in the sense defined above.


Every time you have an insistent piece of music like this, it is a question of rhythm, of pulse – much of the movement and editing in the scene is going to be determined on this basis. Something I suggest you do, when you are studying a film, is to beat out the scenes – find their rhythm. Mark this rhythm for yourself, tap your foot, get involved with it and feel it through your own body. Cinema was made for this! You will learn a lot more about filmmaking by beating out rhythms than by reading even the best, most detailed analyses. There is an account of De Palma in the editing room: he has the editor do a version of the scene, and then he comes in, looks and it and says ‘this is the rhythm’ – then he gives a beat to the editor, marking certain rhythmic events in the scene, how long to pause here, when to move on there … Rhythm is, in every sense, crucial to cinema – and that, by the way, is what Tito Puente’s song is literally telling us: listen to how my rhythm goes.




Carlito needs a moment here to hatch a plan. He keeps looking – but not yet seeing any new information, anything that could be helpful to him. Two more POV alternations, four shots. The music’s arrangement is getting a little more intense. It is a brief but excruciating passage of waiting, of frustration – no idea comes to him until the end of his second POV, in relation to the pool game the two flunkeys are playing.


Observe here another great example of Pacino’s acting skill: Carlito is thinking so hard and so desperately before the idea hits him, he exudes what can only be called eye panic, the kind of rapid eyeball action (accompanied by a wavering and descending head movement) that betrays intense, speeded-up thought – his gaze not knowing yet on what to focus! The following gif captures only a fraction of what Pacino does with his eyes within the span of a few seconds.




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! It is another fine moment of classical mise en scène – before montage takes over as king.




Carlito is about to try to take control of the space – quite literally, to direct a scene, position the actors, cue the movements … He does this by creating a certain confusion or chaos that only he can master, via his feigned ‘trick shot’ on the pool table – ‘I will now proceed to entangle the entire area’, as the old David Crosby song began. What De Palma does is to mirror this spatial confusion in his choice of angle. It is a low angle – reprised three times, in two different directions around the table, covering the full 360 degrees – which spins or turns with Carlito in the centre; completely unlike any other vantage-point taken by the camera so far, or at any later point of the scene. It is a superb elaboration: in a scene so devoted to mapping or orienting space we, too, experience these twirls of momentary disorientation.




It quickly escalates into a drama of space. Quisqueya calls back Guajiro when he wants to go watch the trick shot. Carlito keeps shooting glances in their direction, glances that only we are in a position to notice and understand.




Within a few moments, we grasp the ingenious dispositif that Carlito is setting up in this space: his trick shot enables him both to see – reflected in the patsy’s dark sunglasses – the movement of the killer, striding out of the bathroom; and to knock this guy out with the ball (the other one gets it with the pool cue).




The fine, split-second gradations – the constant codings and recodings –  of POV technique in De Palma are truly wondrous. Recall that first frame inside the room: it serves then, and several times later in the scene, as Quisqueya’s POV. But here, after we cut away from it, it becomes Guajiro’s POV – loosely, or by purely syntactic association, which is how De Palma often works this (the scene contains many examples).




Now we enter into a complex interlacing of POV structures – in preparation for what De Palma loves best of all, the intercutting between simultaneous actions, in different but proximate and overlapping points in space, that come together in a great catastrophe (see Carrie [1976], Dressed to Kill [1980], The Untouchables [1987], Raising Cain [1992], etc.). In this build-up to the action climax, two POVs are at war: Carlito’s and Quisqueya’s. Here is how it goes: Carlito, at the end of setting up the trick shot, looks up (the other guy in the frame sees nothing of this, of course). Next shot is Carlito’s POV, which shows Quisqueya lifting his head slowly and looking towards the bathroom (while Guajiro is so outside this game of vision that, bent over in the icebox, he is not even visible in the shot! – another nice mise en scène touch that De Palma will exploit further). Next is a low-angle mid-shot of Quisqueya – and thus definitely not a projection of Carlito’s POV – which shows him nodding his head, presumably signalling the hidden killer. Next is an angle behind Quisqueya (a new vantage point for the scene); he turns his head and directs his eyes towards the pool game. So when we re-see this long shot, it once again ‘belongs’ to Quisqueya (who has not noticed or realised the import of Carlito’s strategy). Then back to the preceding set-up behind Quisqueya, with Guajiro rising into the frame (the mise en scène effect).



Beginning with this sequence of shots (Carlito looking up at Quisqueya), the editing speeds up, and I mean it really speeds up – 46 cuts will occur in just over a minute of screen time (for comparison: up to Carlito’s POV of Quisqueya here, there have only been 38 shots inside this room, covering almost 4 minutes of screen time). The imminent acceleration is signalled through another device that enters the scene at this point: the shot of Carlito is the first to use a zoom, which will reappear (at various speeds) three further times in the scene, including the very next POV shot into Quisqueya (another De Palma signature: matching the zoom-speed on the seer and then on what is seen).


The interlacing of POV structures continues through the intense build-up to violence. Carlito’s dispositif of sunglass surveillance (reproduced above) is intercut with an elaboration of the previous POV positions reserved for Quisqueya: first, what he sees behind Guajiro; then, the light from the widening bathroom door passing across him  – De Palma loves these kinds of unfolding effects. Plus, light and vision are frequently linked (and their obverse: dark and not-seeing) in De Palma’s systematic schemas.




The trick shot plays out, and Carlito makes his move, as Guajiro meets his grisly, literally cutthroat fate: our ex-street hero is smart, but his timing is not good enough to avert this sad end for a secondary character! In such quickly intercut passages, De Palma (as he has often proved) takes full advantage of the essential plasticity of cinematic time in the rendering of a dramatic, action/violence-filled event: it is never a question of how long it would realistically take to perform this (throat cutting) or that (gun grabbing) action, or whether the distances involved are even strictly comparable; but rather, how the montage makes them cover the same fraction of screen duration, and stages either their magical connection or tragic disconnection.




Note (with Vincent Ostria) the polyphony of rhythmic levels in the scene as it builds: not only are different actions going on at different speeds (criminal deal gone wrong, trick shot gone right, music/dance, killer approaching) (4); as well, the musical beat stays the same while the picture editing itself gets faster. This contrapuntal technique makes proceedings more agonising – it is almost as if you want the music to speed up with the shots. By having that tension between the rhythm of the music and the other elements of the scene, the spectator is pulled, and viscerally so, in two directions at once. This is a variation on, or another version of, a device that Michel Chion has well noted in Fritz Lang, Hitchcock and elsewhere: when ‘mechanical’ (he calls it anemphathetic) music, such as from a toy, grinds on implacably, indifferently tinkling away at its pre-set, even pace, while some awful, dramatic event unfolds at a less predictable, perhaps chaotic speed. (5)


At last, Carlito can smash the invisible mid-way barrier in the room: he moves forward, transgresses the room-zone in which they tried to contain him, and starts firing his gun. Now we have the most ordinary thing in the world of movies: the good guy and the bad guy are shooting at each other; a typical action-film scene. But, here, it is also more than that, since De Palma can finally unleash the type of camera movement he has constrained himself from using thus far – tracking shots covering a large segment of space in two different directions.


4. Vincent Ostria, ‘Passage de la boule blanche’, Cahiers du cinéma, no. 478 (April 1994), pp. 36-7. (The title, literally ‘Passage of the White Ball’, in also an in-joke about the Cahiers street address at the time, in the Passage de la Boule-Blanche.)  


5. See Michel Chion, Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994).





With the separate zones of the action broken down, formally and cinematically, it gives a feeling of exhilaration – no matter what is actually going on in the plot. And, for the first time in the scene, there is an odd kind of equality achieved between the hero and villain, Carlito and Quisqueya: the reverse shots grant them a reciprocity, an equal position of mastery (and vulnerability) in the space.




Spectacular detail: glass shattering. Beyond its obvious action-movie effect of lively commotion, why bother to include and stage this? De Palma once referred to the levels of ‘symbolic stuff’ that he loves to work into his movies, and here is a typical Hitchcockian pun courtesy of The Birds (1963) and elsewhere: from Carlito’s sunglasses to the sucker’s reflecting glasses to … a glass mirror (one we might hardly have noticed mid-way in the room, and at the edge of the découpage), ‘dying’ as the bad guy dies. A pun on machines of vision and reflecting surfaces. Not so deep, but it is a pleasing, expressive detail, like so many in the scene.




Zoom surprise! And also something beyond the hero’s view, or grasp, of the scene as it unfolds. Man with the purple shirt is still alive, awake, and has graduated from knife to gun: he wings Carlito, but is quickly dispatched.




Who noticed when the music changed? Because now the soundtrack score is playing. Where did those blaring trumpets and orchestral score come from? ‘El Watusi’ has disappeared, and I did not hear it go! I had to re-watch and listen hard to the scene several times to figure out when that happened: at the moment when the scene is most intense and the editing is at its fastest, De Palma simply drops out the incidental music on the percussive cue of Carlito striking the ball, allowing (a split-second later) the score to come in on the corresponding percussive cue of the guy falling.






By tying the musical transition to these plot and sound micro-events, we do not really hear or notice the transition; we are so involved in the action. To create that imperceptible effect is real filmmaking craft: not the much-vaunted, spurious ‘invisibility’ of form that industry people keep banging on about – because invisible is a word that could never fit De Palma’s style! – but a superb example of the plasticity of cinema, wielded in the service of a scene’s dynamics and emotions.



Now the scene completely changes its mood, once Carlito gets into the bathroom. This is a very typical De Palma device. He has exhausted, completely worked through the possibilities of one space; now we will be plunged into another, adjoining space (the bathroom) that is, in every respect, completely different – a total contrast. Different colour: white. Different size: small, cramped. Different lighting: Carlito flips the switch, transforming it into a noir corner – where earlier it was the sinister source of an almost Spielbergian light! Different type of angle to cover it: an overhead shot, different from the low and straight-on angles used so far in the sequence – which modulates, through craning-down movement, into a fifty-second master-shot. Eerie silence.



And there is also a dramatic reversal: Carlito is now almost completely powerless. He quickly scopes out the new space: no way out, no possible moves. Worst of all, he has no more bullets in his gun. He begins playing a bluffing game, but he cannot see or hear anything much anymore – he cannot continue to master the space in the next room that now threatens him. And he has to somehow get out of this infernal building. A complete mood change in a matter of a few seconds! Whoever did the striking poster for Carlito’s Way understood this moment, its force and significance, perfectly: an image of Carlito alone in the bathroom, with an empty gun. It is not only, in context, a tense image of powerlessness – on another level, it is also a reflective, melancholic moment of pause amidst the narrative flow. Carlito yells, bluffing like crazy:  ‘I’m gonna blow your fuckin’ brains out! … You think you’re big time? You’re gonna fuckin’ die big time! You ready? Here comes the pain!’ It is an indelible, generic encapsulation of the Fallen Gangster Hero, past his prime.


Something else to appreciate here is the role of ellipsis: what is left out of a scene. Many filmmakers and screenwriters (such as Australian ones) are afraid to leave things out – bits of the story, bits of events. De Palma is among those who is never afraid to leave something out. In this scene, we see several guys waking up after the pitched battle, who obviously do not want to be killed; fooled by the bluff that Carlito still has bullets in his gun, they get the heck out of there. But this consequence is exactly what we do not see, not even in the slightest cutaway insert – just as, a little earlier, we did not see the two dancing girls (who even remembers them – not to mention the guys a few feet away in the barbershop – by this point of the scene?) flee when the action started. We do not hear these movements either, beyond some indiscernible, unidentifiable sounds: all clear trace of this off-screen activity has been banished, suppressed for the sake of cinematic suspense. We, as viewers, are more-or-less forced to stay with Carlito and his uncertainty, his blocked point-of-view position.




Once Carlito ventures back out to the main room to verify that his bluff has worked, we (along with him) re-evaluate the space in its new mood: empty, sad, tragic. Carrying on the stylistic reversal begun inside the bathroom, the shots run longer, and have more elaborate camera movements. So now – as Carlito spies the abandoned money he will decide to pocket – the film (and the character) can embark upon a melancholic postscript, allowing the voice-over to return and reflect on what has just happened, and its meaning for the future.




Finally, Carlito exits the space via a previously unused door, and boom! The light comes through, representing the outside world, the whole reality beyond these deathly walls.



We immediately go to the street; there is such a contrast between this and the interior space we have just experienced. De Palma here uses a contrapuntal effect common in his cinema: while Carlito moves in one direction, away from the action, police and onlookers move, indeed swarm in the opposite direction, towards it.




Carlito is momentarily dazed and hyper-on-guard (he threatens some poor guy who happens to collide with him at the corner), but after staggering for a few frames, he gracefully, in a single movement, wipes his fingerprints and hurls his silver gun into the back of a garbage truck. To see anything of this too-bright world, now he is looking over the rim of his sunglasses (clever little elision: when did he put those back on?). And, once again, the clipped narration enters: ‘I don’t invite this shit; it just comes to me. I run; it runs after me. Gotta be somewhere to hide …’ It has all boiled down to phrases which, in themselves, have a cinematic effect. To hear them is to feel them.




from Issue 4: Walks


© Adrian Martin April 2006/August 2013.
Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.