THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR THE MOVIE CARLITO’S WAY, AS WELL AS SOME IMAGES OF VIOLENCE AND GORE
An attempt to think through the structure of one of the best movie action scenes ever staged – the pool room shoot-out in Carlito’s Way, looking at what takes place in the scene itself, but also how it’s laid out in the novel on which it’s based, After Hours by Edwin Torres, as well as the draft screenplay by David Koepp.
First, Carlito’s Way mirrors Brian De Palma’s earlier movie Scarface, and this scene has a function similar to that of the infamous chainsaw sequence in that film – it establishes details of the character very succinctly, without dialogue, almost entirely through action. The Scarface chainsaw scene conveys Tony Montana’s cunning (telling his friends to wait, then storm the apartment if he’s not out at an appointed time), tenacity (able to endure the possibility that he will be killed with a chainsaw without giving anything away), and temper (killing a man out in the street in broad daylight for what he’s done). Carlito Brigante is a man of different qualities – a repentant man, someone of quickness, agility, alertness, adeptness, who is both from a rough, violent background, but also now alienated and uncomfortable with it. There is a life that he is very good at, but he also knows that it is a life of young, ruthless men; he is no longer young and has lost his desire to be ruthless. His later, fatal, mistake is that he can be in this life but not fully share the malevolence to survive it. It is a mistake similar to that of David Kleinfeld, who thinks you can step into and out of the gangster’s life, rather than seeing how it engulfs you, and that you must always be on your guard, always have the readiness and skills to kill. Brigante thinks he can step back and forth between the repentant and unrepentant life – that he can both humiliate a fellow gangster like Benny Blanco, but also show him mercy – as no gangster would – and this is a grave error.
The dialogue in the Rolando Rivas meet scene right before the car ride to the dealer’s place is this:
I’m serious. That’s right. I’m out. I quit.
So, mi monina Carlito Brigante got religon?
That’s right. I’m studying to be a priest.
Brigante’s quote is not completely facetious – he’s trying to lead a better, repentant life.
Back to the scene. In the book, Brigante is not this noble figure. He is not roped along to go into this drug deal, but goes because he needs money. Importantly, Guajiro is not his cousin, but a veteran of many years street experience, not some fresh faced kid. The tone of the book is something like that of a Chester Himes novel or Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets, while in the movie the action has a fantastic quality, closer to that of the train station sequence in De Palma’s The Untouchables, but still credible – gunfights are more elegantly choreographed than in real life, but guns run out bullets, and good people die. The book and movie still share much, such as details of setting.
Me, like a chump, right away I’m doing favors. This guy, Guajiro, asked me to ride shotgun on a coke deal on 100th Street, West Side. As a rule I don’t trust Cubans, but Guajiro grew up with the Barrio crowd, one of the boys, so I went along with him. Light backup. Just a favor. We pulled east on Broadway into the block. Skank street. Backroom of a barber shop, color it dingy, like the greasy, nappy-headed Dominicans around the miniature pool table. There was four of them. Right away I checked out the windows with bars, a bathroom door, and one bulb overhead. Didn’t go for it nohow. Shows to go you, when a man of “tabla” like Guajiro got to score behind a scene like this. Them’s the conditions we face in these hard times.
One small crucial change in detail – the windows in the movie’s pool room are gone. We move from the open air of the block party, the meeting at the bodega, the car ride, outside the barber shop, the smaller space of the barber shop, then the claustrophobia of the pool room, where there’s no outside light. The pool room and bathroom are studio sets, where the previous are location shots. The light palette is reduced, there’s a proper sense of restriction and immobility. The color theme in the pool room is red, for obvious reasons – though it’s not as dominant as it could be. This is not a room bathed in red light, but a background of red brick and wood. There is a very, very strong background signal of things about to go wrong, but it is a background signal.
A small detail – there are three men visible in the movie, four in the book. A smaller, but more important one – the smoke rising from the ashtrays on the counter and the pool table, that we see from the beginning, that rises during the deal, and continues to rise in the violent aftermath, after three men are gone. A stream of water keeps rippling, even after all those in the surrounding village have passed away.
Right back to where things continue in the book, with the meeting of Guajiro and the dealer, Quisqueya.
“Hola Quisqueya,” says Guajiro.
Big, gap-toothed smile of surprise, like we wasn’t clocked before we came in the door, comes up from the pool table.
“Guajiro, mi hermano,” Quisqueya says loud, with both arms extended. They embraced like they just come back from a war. Mi parna, mi hermano, mi socio, etc. Meanwhile the other three guys never took their eyes off the table. So.
When I get a message like that, my aerial goes up. Could hear the chalk dust landin’ on the floor. A .357 Dan Wesson Magnum in an elastic band around my crotch said, Ready, Jack.
An important, and, I think, essential change. In the book, Brigante carries a gun. In the script and movie, he is without one. This makes character sense, since he is now a repentant man, trying to leave that life behind, but also is incredibly effective in demonstrating his skills at getting out of a situation like this. Another: Brigante’s narration drops out the moment we are in the pool room, then comes back when the shooting’s over. His mind, the moment it hits the pool room is working intuitively, tactically, like a preyed on animal – he doesn’t have time to describe or convey anything to the reader. This is another effective difference – the novel, by having Brigante do this scene in first-person makes him come across as a tale-teller, rather than the spare piece of lethal work he needs to be here.
From the draft:
The back room of the barber shop is a small, dingy place, one bulb, barred windows painted black, with a door to a bathroom. THREE DOMINICANS, eighteen or nineteen years old, good-looking, expensively dressed, are playing pool with TWO NEIGHBOURHOOD GIRLS, a little younger, sexy.
CARLITO and GUAJIRO come in. Carlito looks around at the dingy surroundings and smiles to himself, like a professional sizing up minor leaguers.
They all look up. Guajiro turns to QUISQUEYA, also Dominican, a ltitle older than the other three.
They meet and embrace, all smiles — until Quisqueya’s eyes fall on Carlito. He regards him suspiciously. (The scene is in Spanish, which is subtitled.)
My cousin, Carlito Brigante. You heard of Carlito, right?
Quisqueya looks at the other Dominicans and they shake their heads.
What you need him for?
Carlito smiles and shows he has no weapon.
Esta bien, okay? Todo bien. Just came along for the ride.
In the final script, Brigante is given a better line (“Tranquilo, Tranquilo”), but more importantly for this part of the scene, Quisqueya stays entirely out of the shot until after Brigante’s line, with us simply hearing his voice as the characters address him. This is his place, he controls it, those at the pool table are in his command, Carlito and Guajiro are his potential victims, and what takes place next is entirely because of his decisions. When we finally see him, his look is appropriately menacing, a role played to a T by the excellent late actor Rick Aviles.
Also note – in the script, as in the novel, there are still four visible men in the scene (Quisqueya and the two at the table), instead of three in the final movie.
We go back to the draft script.
Come on, you know Carlito, man. He used to be partners with Rolando Rivas. Just got outta Lewisburg.
Now their eyes light up with recognition.
Oh, Carlito! Yeah, sure, I heard of you, man! You used to run skag with Rolando, right?
Yeah, little bit.
“Little bit!” “Little bit” – thass a good one! Joo guys were the fockin’ kings, man!
It is here in the movie that Carlito sees the bathroom door with the light on, a telltale movement in the door, and knows already that something is wrong. He takes off his sunglasses – he’ll need to be able to see everything in the room very clearly for what happens next. His move echos Rolando’s removing his sunglasses a few scenes back:
Everyone is dead. But you knew all this.
No, I didn’t know that.
Rolando takes off his sunglasses and stares at Carlito.
Let’s speak the truth between us. (etc.)
Carlito makes the gesture of his hands out of his coat and into the pockets of his pants – perhaps in another time and place, he would have had a gun, or a knife hidden somewhere, but this is now just a nervous gesture. He is trying for the straight and narrow path now, and he is weaponless.
We now go from a group shot with Quisqueya to the side, shot from behind, his face at angle, his expression barely visible,
Hermanos, take care of Carlito.
creating a suitable impact for the jump to the deep close-up,
We gotta do some business.
which re-states his menace and power – he is a fearsome figure, this is his place, with both Carlito and his cousin in the palm of his fist.
Significantly, it is after this close-up that the movie establishes two very distinct spaces, the pool table area, and the end of the bar. The third space, the bathroom, has already been established with the shot of the lit up door. Brigante knows that it’s crucial for he and Guajiro to be in the same space, and when Guajiro walks away with Quisqueya, he knows it is a mistake.
Quisqueya and Guajiro walk away. An important detail: light from the bathroom is not diffuse, but a straight angled line to the bar. This entire scene, I believe, is given far greater christian overtones than in the book or draft script, and the bathroom light is almost like a mystic sign pointing to where death will fall.
From now on, there will be an emphasis on the division of the two spaces. Music will be heard louder in the pool room than at the bar. Also, the distance from the pool table to the end of the bar will be made clear in shot after shot. Guajiro and Quisqueya will be shot always along the length of the bar, until the “wanna a cold beer, hermano?” business starts. Throughout the scene, we are shown the pool table from the distance at the end of the bar. Both Guajiro and Carlito try to leave their respective space. First Carlito will attempt to move from the pool table space to see what’s in the bathroom, then Guajiro will try to move from the bar space to the pool table; had they been able to do so, both might have left the room alive – but in both cases they are stopped.
Images and screenplay copyright Universal Pictures.