Greetings, Glancers! It’s Tuesday again, and that means it’s time to publish another Top Ten list. Today we look at one of the best actors of all time, one whose performances and films are always ranked right at the top of any critic’s lists – Al Pacino. I can’t remember what the first Pacino film I ever saw was, but I believe I came to start watching his movies quite late – at some point in my early teens. The first films I guess I would have seen him in would have been Dick Tracy or Scent Of A Woman – neither of which are featured in my list. The ten films I’ve selected will be fairly generic in that I imagine most other people would pick almost a similar list. That’s not to say of course that he has only had ten stand out performances – there’s quite a few other films, both from his 1970s peak, and more recently that could have made the cut. Lets do this.
10. The Devil’s Advocate
Pacino is known for being… passionate.. in his performances, with sudden, fierce outbursts of emotion a release of untapped aggression. In The Devils Advocate he gives one of his most bravado, shouting, performances, usurping the smooth Gordon Gecko and creating an unholy union of Patrick Bateman, Rupert Murdoch, Holland Manners, and The Devil Itself. The film is an interesting mix of religious scares, post modern paranoia, and one percenter ambition and revelry, but Pacino steals the show and looks like he’s having impish fun throughout.
Riding high on the success of The Godfather, Pacino set his sights on a more heroic figure, that of NY Cop Frank Serpico, who wants to avoid being pulled into Police corruption and expose the many cops and officials who are abusing their powers. What could have just been another drama about dirty cops becomes one of the most impactful and hopeful versions of the trope, and Pacino creates his second iconic character. Along with Scarecrow and Needle Park, Pacino had already proven with his opening handful of films that he was a force to be reckoned with, bringing a vulnerability, power, and wild array of talents to the table.
8. Glengarry Glen Ross
As good a satire on the pointlessness of working for a living as Office Space, this one features a powerhouse cast delivering quotable dialogue and memorable performances – Pacino, Lemmon, Baldwin, Spacey. Taking all of the wit and cynicism from Mamet’s great lines, each cast member seems to enjoy chomping on each word with ferocity, Pacino delivering monologues and devising underhanded schemes with relish.
7. Carlito’s Way
I’ve always seen this one, perhaps unfairly, as a mishmash of a few of Pacino’s more successful films. It has the temperate flavor of earlier gangster hits and the cool of his more noirish 90s thrillers, but it does have a life of its own with De Palma creating his trademark dread, and with Penn and Leguizamo backing up a brilliantly tired, reluctant Pacino. It’s a more thrilling tale than most mainstream gangster dramas, with less of an artistic nuance but who needs that when you have violence, action and plenty of one-liners?
Michael Mann’s best film pairs (finally) Pacino with De Niro as the pair embark in a game of cops and robbers. We only see the two greats together for a couple of scenes, but both scenes are vital and electric. Brilliantly though, Mann packs the rest of the cast with some of the best actors of their generation, producing possibly the finest cast of the decade – with Voight, Kilmer, Judd, Portman, Sizemore, Noonan, Azaria and many many others each leaving an impact. Mann completely masters the film, giving each character space to breathe and we get a true sense of each person’s life – their desperation and fears. We don’t even notice that the story is a fairly unoriginal piece with Pacino’s world-weary cop trying to track down De Niro’s ‘one-final heist’ criminal. Beautifully shot and littered with iconic moments from the opening shoot-out to the diner scene, Heat is a ‘modern’ classic.
5. Donnie Brasco.
Continuing the world-weary themes, Pacino again delivers a performance where we feel a jug full of sympathy for him. This time he is paired with undercover Johnny Depp. While Pacino wants out of the criminal life, Depp becomes more embroiled in its seductive ways blurring the line cleverly between good guy, bad guy, and circumstance. Much of the film shows Pacino’s Lefty introducing Depp’s Brasco to the mafia, its rules, its key players, and eventually its crimes – it is in these scenes that we can’t fail but fall a little for Pacino – a man who kept just missing his chance at the big time, only to be pushed around by younger thugs. Depp is also very good in one of the increasingly smaller straight roles of his career, and like Heat we get more than glimpses into the home life of each character, meaning the neatly wrapped-up ending has a double ache for the viewer.
4. The Godfather
The one that started it all. An epic in every sense of the word, I can’t say much more about this classic so I’ll just say that it contains some of the finest performances you’d ever hope to see, and prime among them is Pacino’s as Michael Corleone. We witness him change from a humble war hero who has sought to distance himself from the family business, his romantic tendencies, his growing anger at attacks on his family, and his eventual first kill in the name of vengeance. From there it is a dark descent into becoming what he never wanted to be, closing out the outside world in the interest of maintaining the family, and wiping out anyone who dares interfere. Once we see the struggle within during the cop assassination scene, and once he watches Apollonia’s murder he gives one of the cruelest, coldest, commanding performances ever.
3. The Godfather II
I can’t say whether the sequel is the stronger film – they are both exquisite. Pacino is once again superb, now an established household name, and a much more ruthless figure than in Part One, though balanced with his attempts at being a father and husband. The film juxtaposes the breakdown of the Corleone family and Business with its inception decades earlier – De Niro playing a younger Vito, and Pacino struggling to maintain both facets of his life. It’s an incredibly intricate, tragic, violent tale with no winners.
2. Dog Day Afternoon
While much of The Godfather trilogy sees Pacino in a relatively restrained fashion, Dog Day Afternoon allows him to give masterclass in energy, with the actor frantic, visceral, and always veering between total breakdown and the convincing sting of a politician. Ably backed-up by the always flawless John Cazale, Pacino is like a tornado, twirling and blasting his way through the bank, making all the wrong decisions, stirring up a media frenzy and getting the public on his side even as he holds numerous hostages at gunpoint. As the film progresses we are forced to sympathize or empathize with him, and more and more excellent side performances are given. By the time the tragic ending passes by, we are breathless and in awe.
The film which fully let Pacino off the reins; one of the most ludicrous, audacious, and entirely brilliant performances in movie history. Inexplicably despised upon release by most critics, the film is now rightly viewed as a classic, one which doesn’t shy away from the extreme violence and debauchery which is prevalent in the drug running business. Pacino again gives a wonderful portrayal of a man changing over time – from his early almost harmless ambition, to his violent, ruthless, power-hungry newcomer, and finally to his cocaine soaked, invincibility cloak wielding boss. Filled with memorable, quotable dialogue and timeless moments, Scarface is one that I’ll continue to watch and love till I’m facedown in a pool riddled with bullet-holes.
Let us know in the comments section what your favourite Al Pacino performances and/or films are!