Al Pacino’s greatest film roles

The Blu-ray reissue of the classic Scarface is out today. To celebrate, James looks back over the most memorable performances of its star, Al Pacino...

With a veritable catalogue of iconic performances to his name, it’d be hard to argue against the fact that Al Pacino is the finest – and most consistent – American actor to ever grace the silver screen.

From his first, small part in the 1969 independent movie, Me Natalie, through to his performance in the upcoming biopic of Phil Spector, Pacino’s career has always been eye-catching.

However, it was his appearance in the 1971 movie The Panic In Needle Park that properly kick-started his film-career. A bleak, verité style film, The Panic In Needle Park told the story of Bobby (Pacino) a hustling, drug addict in early 70s New York and his doomed relationship with fellow junkie, Helen (Kitty Winn).

An art house hit, The Panic in Needle Park won acclaim at Cannes for Winn and director Jeffrey Schatzberg, but it was Pacino who benefited the most from the film’s critical success, as it brought him to the attention of up-and-coming director Francis Ford Coppola.

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Although Pacino’s casting as Michael Corleone in The Godfather (1972) seems obvious now, at the time it was hugely controversial. Against all prevailing wisdom, Coppola chose Pacino over established actors such as Robert Redford, James Caan and Warren Beatty, and in the process alienated the bigwigs at Paramount Pictures.

In fact, until Coppola showed the execs in charge of production the rushes for the famous restaurant scene, where Michael shoots Sterling Hayden’s Captain McCluskey, the studio were reportedly poised to fire both Coppola and Pacino and end their careers before they’d even really started.

However, common sense soon prevailed, and Coppola and Pacino were left alone to complete a picture that would earn Coppola an Oscar for Best Director and Pacino a nomination for Best Supporting Actor. 

Many actors have found it hard to escape the shadow of such early and career-defining success, but Pacino instead used The Godfather’s acclaim as a springboard to other equally memorable and challenging roles.

The first of these was his Oscar-nominated role in Sidney Lumet’s classic police procedural, Serpico. A magnificent dramatisation of the real-life story of an undercover New York cop during the 1960s and early 70s, Serpico was lifted into greatness by the quality and nuance of Pacino’s performance as the titular detective.

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After his sophomore bow as Michael Corleone in 1974’s The Godfather Part II brought him a second Best Actor nod, Pacino once again joined forces with director Lumet for the equally magnificent Dog Day Afternoon (1975). Lumet’s film once again featured a spell-binding performance from Pacino as he played another real-life character, the inept and twitchy first-time bank robber, Sonny.

However, unlike in Serpico, Pacino was surrounded by an equally brilliant supporting cast, which featured turns by his Godfather co-star John Cazale, the ever-reliable Charles Durning and a young Chris Sarandon as Sonny’s transsexual lover. Unfortunately, despite Pacino earning another Best Actor nomination, Dog Day Afternoon failed to win anything other than a Best Screenplay nod.

A fourth unsuccessful Oscar nomination came in 1979 for Pacino’s role in Norman Jewison’s court room drama And Justice For All…, but as the 70s gave way to the 80s Pacino’s career began to sink into something of a decline.

The lone highlight in this fallow period was his iconic turn as Cuban drug lord Tony Montana in Brian De Palma’s insanely excessive 1983 remake of Scarface. A dark and twisted version of the classic American success story, it’s a performance that’s as much fuelled by immigrant resentment, little guy bravado and swaggering misogyny as it is by the mountain of Columbian product that Montana shovels up his nose.

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A repudiation of his earlier, more nuanced performance style, Scarface was unfairly mauled by critics at the time, but clearly sows the seeds for the big Pacino performances that would follow in the 90s and beyond. Despite an obvious lack of restraint, Pacino’s Tony Montana is a compelling character and works as a vivid, fascinating and lively counterpoint to the restraint and grace of his performance as Michael Corleone. 

However, after the disaster that was Hugh Hudson’s infamous Revolution (1985), Pacino retreated to his roots and immersed himself in theatre. 

Finally returning to the screen in 1989 with Sea Of Love, Pacino soon followed that up with a final turn as Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part III (1990) as well as acclaimed roles in Dick Tracy (1990) and Glengarry Glen Ross (1992).

But Pacino’s return to the world of film finally paid the ultimate dividend with his Oscar winning performance as blind ex-soldier Colonel Frank Slade in Martin Brest’s Scent Of A Woman (1992).  With Academy Award success finally in the bank, the actor then embarked on a run of films that brought him a second wave of sustained acclaim. 

Reteaming with De Palma in 1993 for Carlito’s Way, this picture found Pacino in brilliantly subtle and brooding form as the recently released ex-con Carlito Brigante. Not as showy as some of his more recent roles, Carlito was a welcome reminder that the old, buttoned-up Pacino wasn’t just a distant memory.

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Pacino was back on scene-stealing form in 1995, when he played maverick cop Vincent Hanna opposite the cool, almost reptilian Robert De Niro in Michael Mann’s magnificent LA crime epic, Heat.

However, for many, the pinnacle of Pacino’s grandstanding roles was his turn as Satan himself – albeit one masquerading as the head of a New York law firm – in Taylor Hackford’s gloriously loopy 1997 supernatural thriller, The Devil’s Advocate.

The obvious pulpy charms of Hackford’s film aside, it would be fair to say that the two best Pacino performances of the later 90s are to be found as ‘Lefty’ Ruggiero in Mike Newell’s Donnie Brasco (1997) and journalist Lowell Bergman in Michael Mann’s The Insider (1999).

In both these films, he was teamed up with a younger star of some repute (Johnny Depp and Russell Crowe respectively), and in each case, Pacino delivered performances which were not only superb in their own right, but also gave his co-stars the platform to deliver both complementary and career-enhancing work. 

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Sadly, since the turn of the millennium, Pacino’s film output has once again been rather spotty, with memorable performances in Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia (2001) and a powerful interpretation of Shylock in Michael Radford’s The Merchant Of Venice (2004) being the exception rather than the rule.

In fact, his two most highly regarded roles during this period have come not on stage or the silver screen, but rather on television, in HBO’s Emmy Award Winning productions of Angels In America (2003) and You Don’t Know Jack (2010).

But it’s for his movie work that Pacino is still most loved, and with rumours of a forthcoming team-up with both director Martin Scorsese and Heat co-star De Niro gathering pace, it might be that Pacino has one more iconic role still to come. 

Scarface is out today on DVD and Blu-ray. You can read our review here.

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