Al Pacino’s 80th birthday (April 25th) is a cause for the celebration of the life of a cultural icon. His roles have contributed and changed the course of American film history, all the while being a source of inspiration for many Italian-Americans.
He has created more nuanced portrayals of gangsters and criminals than any other moment in American cinema; his flexibility in playing the cops as well as the mobsters demonstrates a mastery of the crime-film genre directly lifted from his Shakespearean inspirations. Put simply, Al Pacino changed the course of American film history through his acting. From a reluctant mafioso to a blind army officer (and everything else in between), his 50-year career has certainly seen its ups and downs but has nonetheless left audiences captivated.
Here is a look back once more on some of the roles that have defined this cinematic icon.
Michael Corleone – The Godfather Series (1972-1990)
In what is perhaps the greatest character arc in film history, the rise and fall of Michael Corleone remain one of the most tragic tales ever told. Born into a criminal empire, the youngest Corleone seems to have escaped the dark shadow of his father’s legacy, until a perverted sense of loyalty drags him deeper into the Mafia world then he could ever imagine.
The gradual path from a promising young man to a ruthless Don is masterfully captured in Francis Ford Coppola’s films, and Pacino solidified himself as an actor of great caliber through this now-iconic performance. From a clean-cut and reluctant idealist in the original film to a maniacal and obsessed “family” man in Part II to a guilt-ridden shell attempting to atone in Part III, the story of Michael Corleone is Shakespearean in scope. When the series begins Michael has it all, and by its end, he has lost everything.
Nabbing Academy Award nominations (and some say robbed of a win) for his roles in Part I and II, Al Pacino burst onto the Hollywood scene with ferocity as Don Vito’s youngest son, forever leaving behind a tremendous movie legacy; indeed even if he had stopped making films after this, we’d still be talking about that guy Pacino and his unforgettable role in these truly great and unforgettable set of films. – Michael Vecchio
Frank Serpico – Serpico (1973)
I saw this movie first as a teenager and it was a catalyst for my obsession with film history. Serpico is the film adaptation of Peter Maas’ true crime book of the same name, which follows Frank Serpico, an Italian-American cop in the Brooklyn PD who becomes disillusioned with his job as a law-enforcer and becomes the most important whistleblower on corruption in the history of the department.
The film begins with Serpico fatally wounded after a botched raid on an apartment after he has been abandoned by his police squadron. The story of Frank Serpico is a highly unique one in American history, with the police officer’s history of wearing every day and otherwise inconspicuous clothing on the job, his fierce sense of duty towards stopping crime even if it meant trouncing on departmental bureaucracy and an unsettling and revealing window into the nature of power and corruption.
The most remarkable thing about Serpico is that he upholds his role as a police officer as sacrosanct while also ensuring that he creates boundaries between his personal life and his role as a cop. The final line of the film reveals much about the psychology of Pacino’s Frank Serpico: “What’s this [gold shield] for? For being an honest cop? Or for being stupid enough to get shot in the face?” A complex examination of heroism, bureaucracy, and the political dynamics of the 1970’s NYPD, Serpico remains essential viewing for any interested in true crime. – Conrad Leibel
Sonny Wortzik – Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
Dog Day Afternoon is important not only in Pacino’s career but in the development of crime movies and scriptwriting. The original film, while boasting a screenplay written by Frank Pierson, relied extensively on the improvised dialogue between Al Pacino, John Cazale, and the other actors cast in the film. Like Serpico, the plot is lifted directly from an episode of American history – John Wojtowicz’s robbery of the Chase Manhattan Bank on August 22nd, 1972. Botched robbery job films remain some of the best in cinematic history: the film hearkens back especially to Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956).
Al Pacino’s version of Wojtowicz is a man pushed through desperation to adopt violent and criminal measures but has enough of a grain of empathy to treat many of his hostages humanely: he releases an asthmatic security guard and orders pizza for the hostages he is holding. Pacino’s Wortzik is different from the earlier gangsters of his acting career: sympathetic and understanding while having criminal objectives, Dog Day Afternoon encourages viewers to understand criminality at a human level and not as an absolute evil. -Conrad Leibel
Jimmy Hoffa – The Irishman (2019)
An obvious late entry into his filmography, Al Pacino proved once more that while his glory days are certainly behind him, he can still bring forward gripping performances that leave quite the impression. In what was surprisingly his first collaboration with director Martin Scorsese, the role of Jimmy Hoffa (the infamous union leader whose disappearance has never been solved) seems to be tailor-made for Pacino’s strengths as an actor.
The irascible, charming and totally rousing Hoffa has all the elements for a great actor to work with; and so Pacino returns in fine form creating at once both an antagonistic character as well as a sadly sympathetic one. Boisterous and outspoken on one hand, while reserved and meticulous on the other, Pacino’s Jimmy Hoffa harkens back to the days of the actor’s prime. With a rightful nomination for Best Supporting Actor at the Oscars, the role serves as a welcome reminder of his great talent, that was beginning to be forgotten in recent years. – Michael Vecchio
Tony Montana – Scarface (1983)
The team of Al Pacino, screenwriter Oliver Stone, and director Brian De Palma did not just remake the 1932 film Scarface, they performed plastic surgery on it. Upping the violence and profanity, while showcasing the excesses of an addiction to power, this tale of the rise and fall of Cuban drug lord Tony Montana was not initially welcomed with warm reviews; indeed with its graphic nature and showcasing of raw evil and corruption, there’s little to actually enjoy by watching the film. And yet through its excessiveness, it became a movie that would gradually grow not only a cult following but classic status.
Pacino’s performance is central to the long-lasting legacy of the movie; with a plethora of memorable quotes (from Say hello to my little friend!, Every dog has his day... ) Tony Montana has undoubtedly become one of the most iconic of all anti-heroes, and Al Pacino is menacing, sadistic, outlandish, and yes, even humorous in the title role. –Michael Vecchio
Richard III – Looking for Richard (1996)
Looking for Richard is important to discuss in Al Pacino’s cinematic career because it is both his first directorial feature as well as a documentary, a genre he had not worked overmuch in prior to this time. The film is Pacino’s examination of Shakespeare’s continuing relevance in contemporary American culture as he cautions his viewer that if they “look for Richard” in everyday life, they will find him.
The film contains performances by Pacino as Richard III and also features performances by James Earl Jones, Winona Rider, and Kenneth Branaugh, among others. When one looks back at Pacino’s earlier roles after understanding his passion and devotion to Shakespearean material, his villains and crime-boss characters begin to seem ripped from the pages of Shakespearean folios.
It is no surprise that Pacino later took on the role of Shylock in the 2004 Michael Radford Merchant of Venice, having played the character on stage as well. The documentary reveals an actor who cares deeply about the history of his craft and continues to engage the past in new and innovative ways. – Conrad Leibel
Carlito Brigante – Carlito’s Way (1993)
Brian De Palma’s other major collaboration with Al Pacino, Carlito’s Way depicts the plight of former mob boss Carlito Brigante as he attempts to go clean. Al Pacino plays the role of someone whose “every instinct” is geared towards being pulled back into gangsterism. Early on in the film, Carlito remarks, after witnessing the murder of his younger cousin, that there “ain’t no friends in his business”.
With a screenplay that consistently uses the words “friend”, “honor”, and the idea of owing favors to those who help, Carlito discovers that his only friend, David Kleinfeld (played by Sean Penn), a lawyer, had become a bigger mob boss during Carlito’s prison sentence and had sold him out. Carlito’s friendship with Kleinfeld costs him his life after a prison escape gone wrong where the lawyer kills and rips off a mafia leader.
Carlito cannot escape the world of organized crime as it “just comes to “him. Pacino’s Carlito paints a man who understands the mob and one who knows that there are no clean exits. Once again bringing greater clarity to the characters that inhabit the world of organized crime, Al Pacino portrays how people become roped into criminal institutions that can never be left and if so, only at great cost. -Conrad Leibel
Richard Roma – Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)
Although a part of an all-star powerhouse cast including Alan Arkin and Jack Lemmon, Al Pacino nearly steals the show as corrupt real estate agent Richard Roma in this film adaptation of David Mamet’s play of the same name.
As is common with many of his best-known roles, the part of Richard Roma allows Pacino to exhibit some of his finest, over the top theatrics. Whether it’s violent bursts of profanity-filled tirades or subtle and acerbic bits of sarcasm, Pacino makes the swearing and the anger seem like poetry.
None of the main characters are especially likable, and yet through a combination of a great script and forceful performances, these “honorable men” somehow make us side with them. In this movie where each actor shines individually, Al Pacino still manages to stand out most brilliantly, leaving no question as to why he’s one of the greatest of all time. – Michael Vecchio
Scent of a Woman (1992)
The Devil’s Advocate (1997)
Donnie Brasco (1997)
Michael Vecchio is a contributing writer for Before The Cyborgs. A graduate of the University of Alberta, he is a keen follower of events in the world of film, as well as politics and history. You can also hear him podcast about film and politics
Conrad Leibel is a poet, performer, essayist, and musician. He graduated from UVic’s MA in English Literature program with a concentration in medieval and early modern studies and holds a BA in English and Film Studies from the University of Alberta.