Born in 1940, Alfredo “Al” Pacino was, along with Robert De Niro, at the forefront of a radically different style and approach to acting at the vanguard of New American Cinema in the early part of the Seventies.
Namely, this style and approach was known as “the Method”, where an actor would go deep into the psyche and philosophy of the character they played on screen. This was markedly different to the ‘show up on time and know your lines’ approach of the generation before them.
This resulted in some unforgettable performances from Pacino over the past four decades of cinema. Here are some highlights from the incredible body of work with which Pacino has left an indelible mark on the world of cinema and acting.
15. The Panic In Needle Park (1971)
This is the film that got the attention of the world in general and say to themselves “Al Pacino. Who’s this guy?”. A tough, unflinching and utterly unforgettable look at drug abuse in New York in the early Seventies, director Jerry Schatzberg had a completely unsentimental and almost documentary-like eye for what was going on in this world within a world.
Set during a time when heroin was at its most scarce and rare, Pacino nails the utter desperation of addicts looking for a fix. “The Panic In Needle Park” is a lost gem, and a film that neither preaches about or glamourizes its subject matter.
14. …And Justice For All (1979)
Most famous for its final “you’re all out of order” speech that features Pacino at his most verbally ballistic, this is an excellent team up with director Norman Jewison , a man known for his humanist and socially conscious cinema. Pacino plays Arthur Kirkland, an idealistic lawyer put in what can be only be described as a ‘devil’s advocate’ position, namely, to defend a judge on a rape charge that he despises or be disbarred if he refuses to take the case.
Pacino perfectly captures the manic, pushed to the edge quality and viewpoint that Kirkland finds himself in, it is one of the man’s most underrated performances.
13. Scent Of A Woman (1992)
Released in the same year as “Glengarry Glen Ross”, this is the film that finally nabbed Pacino a Best Actor Oscar. In the enjoyable but somewhat bloated and overlong “Scent Of A Woman”, Pacino plays Lt Frank Slade, a bitter, blind and retired former war veteran. In what becomes something of a ‘buddy picture’, he takes a road trip with a younger man in college, played by Chris O’Donnell.
Here, Pacino plays an angry man who finds peace due to those around him with an effortless elegance and grace. It’s also famous for a beautiful dance sequence involving the rather lovely Gabrielle Anwar. Not one of the man’s most spectacular efforts, but a solid film that finally gave Pacino the recognition he had long deserved.
12. Donnie Brasco (1997)
Getting away from his ‘king of romantic comedies’ persona, director Mike Newell made this punchy look at undercover cop Joe Pistone (played here by Johnny Depp) going deep into the Mob in New York. His ‘key’ into this world is his friendship with ‘Lefty” Ruggiero, a low level mobster.
Beautifully played by Pacino, Ruggiero is one that could be politely described as a ‘loser’. Namely, a gangster that serves a purpose and earns his keep, but has never risen up the ranks. Pacino brings a beautiful sense of shade and light to this role, and the moral weight that falls upon him once Pistone reveals his true colours.
A different, morally complex take on the world of the gangster and the concept of ‘what is right’ in a world where that is, at times, an incredibly difficult question to answer.
11. Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)
Based on the scorching play by David Mamet, who adapted it for the screen, James Foley’s cinematic take on the material is nothing less than utterly riveting. Set in a real estate office, “Glengarry Glen Ross” is a lacerating look at both the world of men and the notion of survival in a world that will spiritually slit you throat if there’s a buck to be made out of it.
This film features quite possibly one of the finest ensemble casts you will ever have the pleasure to see together in one film: Pacino, Alec Baldwin, Ed Harris, Jonathan Pryce, Kevin Spacey, Jack Lemmon and Alan Arkin. Read that lineup again!
Pacino personifies sleaze and the attitude of the ‘alpha male’ brilliantly, the personification of self-survival at the cost of everything and everyone around him. A brilliant cinematic take on an extraordinary play.
10. Carlito’s Way (1993)
The more underrated of Pacino’s collaborations with director Brian De Palma, “Carlito’s Way” has a wonderful heart and groove to it, amongst all the violence and profanity.
Pacino, in a more understated performance, plays Carlito Brigante. Fresh out of jail and determined to get out of the life that has just about destroyed him, he finds himself drawn deeper and deeper into the life that he is so determined to try and escape, due to various factors and influences.
A tough but, at times, quite touching look at a man trying to unlearn his past and establish a new life, “Carlito’s Way” is a gangster film, but one with a big heart to it.
9. Serpico (1973)
Showing that he can play more than criminals, Pacino here teams up with one of the most criminally underrated directors of our time in the form of Sidney Lumet. He puts forward a powerhouse, first class performance as an idealistic policeman who dares to blow the whistle on his fellow dishonest and corrupt peers, and becomes a pariah in a world he believes in as a result.
What makes “Serpico” such an affecting film is that this isn’t a world of black and white. The ‘shades of grey’ are potent and still pertinent over forty years since this film was made. The opening cross cut between Serpico now and when he was the proud, idealistic man who joined the force is some of the most powerful imagery ever committed to film, buoyed by Pacino’s total commitment to the role.