Few directors can boast a more diverse filmography than Brian De Palma. The legendary filmmaker’s work has stretched from taut psychological thrillers to disturbing horrors and big budget action vehicles. Yet in spite of this broad catalogue, there is one pair of films released 10 years apart that I find myself returning to more and more regularly as an intriguing double bill.

1983’s Scarface and 1993’s Carlito’s Way both set about picking apart their eponymous gangsters, the archetype of which has been a cinematic fascination since forever—but these characters’ reputations are remarkably different. How do these two films go about deconstructing the power fantasy of the gangster figure? And has the latter been unfairly cast into the shadow of its older brother?

Few films have been as widely referenced and quoted as Scarface. De Palma’s epic journey through the cocaine boom of ‘80s America and the new breed of gangster it gave rise to, as told through the eyes of Cuban immigrant Tony Montana (Al Pacino), has had a remarkable sticking power within pop culture. A particularly vivid example of this can be found among rappers, where homages proved so popular that in 2003 Def Jam released a whole compilation honouring this relationship.

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Such references speak to the film’s thrilling immersion in all the excesses and indulgences of the period and the brilliance of Oliver Stone’s screenplay, loaded with memorable lines and f-words (226 to be exact). But Scarface isn’t exactly what you would call the perfect fantasy of a life lived beyond the reach of the law. Far from it. As De Palma pours on layer after layer of reckless greed and gluttony, the film becomes a disturbingly visceral, at times an almost hellishly overwhelming deconstruction of the cinematic power fantasy. In fact, it’s a film that borrows far more than expected from De Palma’s signature strain of psychological thrillers.

On a visual level, Scarface is an incredibly stifling experience, one that jumps from sun-baked Colombian drug mansions to sweltering Miami beaches and packed club dance floors. It makes Pacino’s performance all the more impressive, given the fact that he is constantly shown swaggering about in all-black or white suits (the anti-perspirant budget must have been through the roof). John A. Alonzo’s cinematography is a crucial base for the film’s many layers of temptation, playing up the sweaty, glistening humidity of each location in a style that Paul Verhoeven would later take to its most visceral, sexually-loaded extreme with Basic Instinct

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With this lavish groundwork in place, De Palma wastes little time in kickstarting the film’s criminal decay narrative, quickly building up scene after scene of overcooked spectacle with terrifying precision. A pivotal sequence to understanding this approach is Tony’s first meeting with drug lord Frank Lopez (Robert Loggia). As Tony and his right hand man Manny (Steven Bauer) enter Frank’s house, a wide shot envelops us in all the extravagant furnishings that cocaine money can buy: gleaming white marble floors, huge red rugs, massive French windows and, in the middle of it all, a glass elevator. All entirely unnecessary, all ludicrously expensive.

Later in the scene, Tony is sat slumped in Frank’s enormous black leather sofa, looking up in awe at the newly introduced Elvira (Michelle Pfeiffer). He’s completely zoned out, disconnected—a look that will become more and more familiar to us as Tony grows more and more brain dead, his gaze growing increasingly blank. Even at this point, before all consciousness drains away, the camera swoops in on his wide-eyed expression, turning him into a slack-jawed child ready to be lured into oblivion.

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It is a heady experience, propelled by Al Pacino’s relentlessly dominating performance, and an absolutely ruthless example of De Palma’s ability to pin down and attack his audience through orchestrated chaos. For all its pulpy violence and exploitation, Scarface is a deeply disturbing portrait of a man crushed by a life he cannot handle. Its final images are of a barely intelligible, half-comatose Tony, a prisoner in his own life and cavernous mansion, and a far cry from the film’s explosive reputation. 

If Scarface remains De Palma’s most beguiling and widely discussed film, then where does that leave his other deconstruction of the gangster power trip, Carlito’s Way? Released 10 years on in 1993, the film had a decidedly more subdued reception; reuniting De Palma with Pacino, many dismissed it as a lesser Scarface. In his review for Rolling Stone, Peter Travers seemed to sum up the general consensus among audiences, mourning “what might have been if Carlito’s Way had forged new ground and not gone down smokin’ in the shadow of Scarface.” 

Right from the opening sequence however, the film sternly establishes itself as a far darker depiction of criminal decay. In slow motion and with a ghostly pale blue tint, we begin at the end with Carlito’s (Pacino) death. Shot in the chest, he falls to the ground, a closeup of his face etched with pain and despair, while Patrick Doyle’s sweeping violin score adds a dramatic, but never overbearing, poignant note. As Carlito is rushed away on a hospital stretcher, point-of-view shots from his perspective lay out a grim tableau of the solemn faces of passers-by and doctors.

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We then have an extreme closeup on Carlito’s eyes as he looks up at a billboard that reads “Escape to Paradise” over an image of a Caribbean island, with the silhouette of a dancing woman and the setting sun. Far removed from Tony’s slack-jawed, empty stares in Scarface, Carlito’s eyes hold a real genuine desire, a sad longing for a dream that could never have been realised. 

If Scarface put on display De Palma’s skill for besieging his audiences with spectacle, then Carlito’s Way finds the director at his most grounded, stripping away the layers of criminal showmanship. Through David Koepp’s excellent screenplay, based on ex-judge Edwin Torres’ series of novels, we gradually mine more and more into Carlito’s internal psychological struggle in a world that has spent so long eating up him, and is just about ready to spit him out.


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Pacino’s performance is crucial to understanding how markedly different Carlito’s downfall is from Montana’s. Freed from jail after serving five years and now determined to turn his life around by building up enough money to leave the U.S, Pacino’s Carlito is more subdued, often choosing to sit back and quietly observe situations instead of instantly taking charge. He certainly has his explosive moments too, like in the early pool table shootout sequence, but for the most part Pacino’s reserved delivery more gradually intensifies the feeling that Carlito’s window for escape may be closing faster than he realises. 

Two other characters also play a major role in crafting the film’s more quietly intense psychological approach. Carlito’s girlfriend Gail (Penelope Ann Miller) is the moralising influence in his life and symbolises everything Carlito is trying to work his way towards. She is wrought with fear about his safety and a heated argument later in the film reveals these awful anxieties, as she shouts, “I know how this dream ends Charlie!” As one of De Palma’s better-developed female characters, Gail faces her own battle, too, driven forward by her dream of becoming a ballet dancer but forced to dance in strip clubs just to earn enough money to get by. 

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At the other end of the moral scale we have Benny Blanco “from the Bronx” (John Leguizamo). If we were going to look for an obvious link to Scarface, Benny would surely be it: Leguizamo injecting the role with a huge dose of Tony Montana’s over-compensating swagger. What I would argue to be the film’s defining moment occurs between these very two characters when they face off in a back corridor of a nightclub. Their showdown up until now has been shot side-on, but we suddenly cut to two remarkable shots that highlight De Palma’s vivid use of colour. 

First we have a front-facing shot of Benny, his sneering face fully illuminated by the corridor’s luminous red light.

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Then we switch to the same shot of Carlito’s face, hard-set and aggressive, but this time he is half lit in red and half with a ghostly white hue. Though the ubiquity of red throughout both Scarface and Carlito’s Way is deliberately unsubtle, the use of lighting and the monumental pause that is taken within this shot powerfully captures the moral dilemma that Carlito faces. Does he act tough against Benny and fall further back into his old life, or does he spare him and take one step closer to freedom, and risk retaliation in the process?  

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Throughout the rest of Carlito’s Way, lighting continues to take a front seat in establishing the film’s darker, more introspective tone. Halfway through the pool shootout sequence, Carlito retreats into a bathroom and flicks the light switch off, pitching the claustrophobic room into pitch black, with only a sliver of light illuminating him. It is a shot straight out of any classic Hollywood noir, a far cry from the explosive colours of Scarface. It’s a shot that so encapsulates the brutally dark struggle within Carlito’s mind that it was used for the film’s poster, with Pacino’s name stamped in large red text above. A number of other sequences also play out on moonlit, rainy streets, again taking their look straight from a noir mystery and rooting us still deeper within Carlito’s tormented psyche. 

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Scarface and Carlito’s Way are two remarkably distinct films joined by a common theme: the gradual destruction of the criminal power fantasy. What De Palma proves so brilliant at establishing (the glitz and glamour of “get rich quick” crime networks), he is even more adept at tearing down—resulting in an immersive, perfectly chaotic deconstruction of the cocaine boom, stacking layer and layer of dirty money on top of each other until they finally crush Tony. 

Though once unfairly judged against its big brother, Carlito’s Way finds its power in the pauses, the darkest moments, the brutal contrasts between light and dark. We see the intense psychological toll that a life of crime can take on someone who wishes to tear themselves away. The journeys that Tony and Carlito take are vastly different in scale—even if they both wind up at the same inevitable, devastating conclusion.