As legendary actor Al Pacino celebrates his birthday, it marks the perfect opportunity to reflect on a truly amazing legacy and his massive volume of work and accomplishments. Since I became a huge film fan at a very young age, Pacino has always been one of my favourite actors. I remember watching these films for the very first time under the tutelage of my Dad and, even as a boy, recall the huge impact they had on me.
One of my favourite attributes of Pacino is that he has never been typecast. His ‘golden’ era of movies (arguably spanning the early 1970’s through to the early-mid 1990’s) reflects a time when these legendary, heavyweight actors pulled something new out of the bag each and every time: he’d play a cop, a petty criminal, a mafia boss, a high powered businessman, an ordinary and vulnerable man, the list is long and varied. The consistency is his power, presence, energy, commitment to the role and project as a whole.
It’s very hard to compile top 10 lists because they’re extremely subjective. With a body of work like this, there is a lot to choose from. Still, here are some of my personal, lifelong favourites which hold up very well today. Films come and go, actors age, but the legacy goes on. Long may it continue!
10. The Devil’s Advocate (1997)
An unusual but very well written and acted gothic fable which puts hungry young lawyer Keanu Reeves into the company of charismatic firm boss Al Pacino who isn’t what he seems. It’s a show-stopping performance from Pacino who steals almost every scene he’s in.
9. Scent of a Woman (1992)
Pacino won the Best Actor Oscar for his work here, playing an overbearing, blind retired Lieutenant Colonel who hires a young guardian, played by Chris O’Donnell, to look after him for a weekend. But Pacino has big plans in the form of a trip to New York and an experience neither will forget. It’s a moving, heartwarming tale of opposites attracting and an outstanding drama.
8. Donnie Brasco (1997)
This is the true story of an undercover FBI agent, with Johnny Depp assuming the name of Donnie Brasco, who infiltrated one of the major mob families in the 1970’s and befriends Pacino’s ageing gangster. But as Donnie moves deeper into the inner circle, he realises he is not only crossing the line between agent and criminal but also sealing the fate of his new best friend. Donnie Brasco is a hugely underrated gangster movie of the late 1990’s and showcases excellent performances from both Pacino and Depp. Very much overlooked.
7. Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
In Sidney Lumet’s classic thriller, based on a true story and which also earned 6 Oscar nominations, two opportunists set out to rob a bank. Sonny is the mastermind, Sal is the follower and disaster follows when the cops, crowds and TV cameras swiftly arrive, turning them into a major news story. This tense hostage thriller remains one of the most atmospheric titles of its genre.
6. Serpico (1973)
Another classic from director Sidney Lumet and one which confirmed Pacino as a tour-de-force in the industry. Pacino plays Frank Serpico – an honest, well meaning cop who incurs the wrath of his colleagues for exposing corruption within the force. Having become renowned playing powerful gangsters on the opposite side of the law, fans and critics took note as Pacino delivered perhaps his strongest performance at that time and showed courage and vulnerability in the role of an officer cast out and fighting the system.
5. Carlito’s Way (1993)
Former gangster Carlito Brigante has just been released from jail after serving the first 5 years of a long sentence. His lawyer discovered a loop hole and now Carlito is determined to go straight. The plan is to retire to the Bahamas and set up a small business with his girlfriend. All he needs is the money to get started. His corrupt lawyer comes forward with the perfect proposition, just a small debt of friendship. But it could drag Carlito back into a world he desperately hopes to leave. Reuniting after their collaboration in Scarface 10 years before, Pacino and director Brian De Palma deliver the goods yet again in a milestone of the gangster genre. With strong narrative, dialogue, great characters and impressive supporting roles from Sean Penn, John Leguizamo and Luis Guzman.
4. Scarface (1983)
Often imitated, never surpassed. Pacino gives an unforgettable performance as Tony Montana, one of the most charismatic, gutsy, ruthless and highly memorable gangsters ever depicted on film. This rags to riches gangster epic charts the rise and fall of a Cuban immigrant who travels to Miami to pursue his version of the American dream and build his own, personal empire. Despite flopping at the box office, the film became a cult sensation and was heavily embraced within urban, hip hop culture and discovered by legions of new fans on VHS, the story of which is fascinating in its own right.
3. Heat (1995)
Michael Mann’s iconic, modern crime classic. Al Pacino and Robert De Niro front an amazing ensemble cast in this great cat and mouse story as a veteran detective pursues a dangerous criminal and his crew. Another one of the few films (alongside Scarface) which never feels overly long, despite clocking in at nearly 3 hours. It’s a truly timeless, classic thriller brilliantly written, shot, acted and peppered with memorable scenes.
2. The Godfather Part II (1974)
This sequel is one of the rarities which truly stands up to the original. Following the events of the first film, Pacino heads up the cast as Michael Corleone, heir to the criminal empire established by his father, the late Don Corleone. The sequel picks up as Michael begins taking charge of the family business and establishing his own methods to buy out or eliminate competition and continue his family’s legacy. Robert De Niro co-stars as a young Don Corleone, portrayed through flashbacks.
1. The Godfather (1972)
Considered by audiences and critics to be one of the best films ever made, Francis Ford Coppola pivotal work is a lavish, violent epic. It follows Marlon Brando as the head of the Corleone family and portrays the passage of rites from a father to a reluctant son, played by Al Pacino, previously uninvolved in the family business. This sprawling epic is based on the popular novel by Mario Puzo, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Coppola and features a massive ensemble cast. A legendary production based on a classic literary work and filled with great cultural context.