Carlito’s Way begins at the end. A pistol fires in a black and white close up, followed by the reacting shot of star Al Pacino’s face. He falls against a boarding train, taking a second bullet to his chest, and crumbles to the ground. The faceless assassin swiftly exits. The strings of Patrick Doyle’s intensely emotional score rise and a blonde woman, grieving, aids the dying man. As the credits begin during the slow motion prologue/epilogue, the man’s perspective is fixed on the vertical lines of overhead lights and investigating physicians. His soul seems to be floating away as the camera’s point of view goes upside down and then looks down at him. “Somebody’s pulling me close to the ground,” he narrates. “I can sense but I can’t see.” He knows that this is the end, while at the same time trying to reassure us. “My heart, it don’t ever quit.”
And it’s quite a heart. Director Brian De Palma is effectively doing a lot with the beginning of Carlito’s Way, a film about holding fast to dreams in an urban rat maze where the conclusion is predestined. The first local newspaper review I ever read of Carlito’s Way, 20 years ago on the morning of this writing, complained that De Palma’s decision to begin with the death of a crucial character was a fundamental flaw undercutting the suspense. But that perspective misses the aim of the director, himself somewhat like Carlito Brigante, a one-time enfant terrible struggling to make good in the “legitimate world” of big budget Hollywood moviemaking after a catastrophic failure that could have ended his career. The opening spoiler is part of the magic, as the director burrows into this dying man’s memories, suturing us so well into his dreams and the moment-by-moment tension that we forget about Fate’s hand. Carlito’s Way is one of De Palma’s most dramatically engaging films, a character-driven period epic where the final half-hour is a non-stop chase through offices, a hospital, a night club, the subway, and Grand Central Station, concluding at this incendiary Ground Zero destination of death, affirming how great suspense moviemaking pulls the audience in with sympathy and fear in spite of the ineluctable outcome of which we’re already certain.