This was film noir, movies where evil not only exists, but flourishes. Cagney’s Cody Jarrett isn’t a charismatic outlaw who viewers could vicariously admire, but rather a despicable embodiment of immorality, a man who takes what he wants whenever he wants it, mocking and abusing all those he comes in contact with—including the cops, members of his own gang and his less-than-virtuous wife, Verna (Virginia Mayo).
Brian De Palma was worried about doing another Hispanic drug kingpin movie after Scarface. But the story and the acting in Carlito’s Way go in such a different direction that there ended up being few similarities between the two films. This is a personal look at one man’s attempt at redemption. Scarface, on the other hand, is a saga about one man’s one-way trip to hell.
To appreciate just how well director Stuart Rosenberg and writer Vincent Patrick captured wiseguy street corner ethos in this classic mob tale, you have to understand the meaning of an Italian phrase that has come to define the way certain mobsters act. The phrase is faccia una bella figura. Literally, it means “make a good impression.” But in fact the phrase conveys much more. It describes an attitude, an approach to life that is more typically found in the southern half of Italy, especially in Naples and points south.
Cagney, along with Edward G. Robinson, Paul Muni and, later, Humphrey Bogart, invented the film gangster. Each brought a sense of the street and gritty realism. For Cagney, that came naturally. He grew up on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and had to drop out of college after one semester when his father died. He knew how to be tough, in an argument or in a rumble.
Sir Ben Kingsley becomes the ruthless Logan in Sexy Beast, and he’s 90 percent of the reason to watch the movie. The plotline here is straightforward, nothing special really. The action is sporadic. The supporting cast is strong—led by British veteran Ray Winstone, who’s actually the film’s lead, and Ian McShane, who can always dial up ominous. But it’s Kingsley—throwing off Gandhi’s loincloth and round spectacles—who becomes the savage bully you’ll remember long after viewing Sexy Beast.
One year after reviving his career in Pulp Fiction, John Travolta gracefully slipped back into the role of a mobster. Like Vincent Vega, Get Shorty’s Chili Palmer is ultracool, sharp-witted and drawn to dressing in black. He can shatter your nose with a punch or fire his Colt Detective Special accurately enough to add a part to your hairline.
That these guys are, as the French say, sympathique, is evident from the beginning of the robbery when Tony tucks a pillow behind the head of the elderly woman to make her more comfortable after she and her husband have been gagged and tied up. A clock ticking on a mantel provides a time line for the heist, which begins shortly before midnight and doesn’t end until six the next morning. In film time, the robbery takes about 30 minutes. And during those minutes, not a word—NOT ONE WORD—is spoken.
Director Joseph Kosinski, who helmed the vapid and cartoonish TRON: Legacy, uses every frame of Oblivion as a canvas on which he can project the massive adventure he wants audiences to experience. Kosinski, who made a sizable impression on the industry with his commercial work, has a background as an architect and his eye for details and contrasting imagery is front and center in this film.
In the midst of a dinner party in his honor, Capone (Robert De Niro) takes out a Louisville Slugger and delivers a tribute to baseball as the All-American sport. As his underlings smoke cigars and chuckle in agreement, Capone circles a huge round table—finally stopping behind one nodding toadie. He briefly speaks of betrayal and then applies a few Ruthian swings to the employee’s skull.
The diary of Tatiana (Tatiana Maslany), a 14-year-old, drug-addicted prostitute who dies while giving birth to a daughter in a London hospital, sets the film in motion. Her account of how and why she came to London—provided by periodic voice-overs as the diary is translated from Russian—offers a back story of the mob’s involvement in white slavery and English brothels.
New York City is more gritty than pretty in this period piece, which was shot before the Big Apple’s late-20th century revival. The skies are gray, vacant lots are strewn with debris and there’s a doomed look to the city—right down to the rusty Rheingold beer signs. It’s not attractive, but the urban tangle is a genuine representation of a time and place.