From The Godfather to Dog Day Afternoon, it’s probably fair to say it was a good decade for him.
Last week I wrote an article about Jack Nicholson’s 70s oeuvre – about how it is a cycle possibly unsurpassed by any actor ever. In the aftermath of the article I found myself thinking about other actors’ periods of greatness, wondering if indeed anyone could rival Nicholson’s. The first name that sprang to mind, and especially so considering the 70s was at the forefront of my thinking, was Al Pacino. He too had a succession of films in the 70s cinema that were noteworthy for their iconography, their gravitas. With that in mind, allow me to examine Pacino’s own 70s cycle.
Al Pacino’s 1970s started with Panic in Needle Park (1971), a stark, somewhat disturbing picture that is notable for two reasons: firstly, it marked Pacino’s first cinematic performance and – secondly and more importantly – it alerted Francis Ford Coppola and co. to Pacino, a then unknown property soon to be catapulted into the stratosphere as part of perhaps the most acclaimed motion picture of all time: The Godfather (1972).
Thinking about it now, it’s almost impossible to fathom the idea that The Godfather’s creators were reluctant to cast Pacino as the young Michael Corleone, instead wanting a more ‘bankable’ star – Nicholson himself was approached. However, any doubts about Pacino were soon dispelled, and now his name is synonymous with that of Michael Corleone. It’s interesting to note just how restrained Pacino’s performance is in The Godfather, and on re-watching it I found that Corleone is far more willing to enter the family ‘business’ than I remembered; it wasn’t the struggle that I recalled, and Pacino plays Michael as a man who doesn’t agree to take over from his father, but rather insists, telling his brothers, calmly but coldly, that he will take out Sollozo and McCluskey. The closing scenes of The Godfather are memorable for the way that Pacino plays them: he renounces the devil during the famed ‘baptism massacre’ whilst setting himself up to become one, and, as the final words of the picture announce him as the new Don Corleone, he gains the control that he will later lose so spectacularly.
Before The Godfather Part II (1974) however, came Sidney Lumet’s Serpico (1973), a film which I believe to be Pacino’s most important of the decade in relation to Pacino himself. After The Godfather, Pacino – with his beaten good looks, his impeccable hair – found himself subject to Hollywood’s attempts to turn him into a romantic lead, a heartthrob, and the actor was subject to a variety of scripts that looked to procure his services in that vein. But Pacino, recognising the value of artistic integrity, opted instead to take the unglamorous role of real-life New York cop Frank Serpico: a scraggy, bearded ‘hippie’ seemingly outcast for his inability to be corrupted. In doing so Pacino channelled Serpico’s moral fibre into his own acting – and his own persona – ensuring that neither Pacino the actor nor Pacino the man could be turned into a product of Hollywood.
Pacino then returned to the role that made him, again portraying Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part II. It ranks as Pacino’s finest performance. Whereas the Michael Corleone of Part I was a man in control, a young upstart asserting himself in the familial maze of the Costra Nostra, the Michael Corleone of Part II is something closer to evil, a sullen and diabolical man, sunken-eyed with no redeemable features. Death is no more than a fact to Corleone, and Pacino plays it with a passing acceptance. Part II provides Pacino with some of his most iconic moments, perhaps the most-so being the “you broke my heart, Fredo” exchange. However, for all you need to know about Pacino’s acting during the 70s, examine the scene prior to that line. Michael, on finding out that his brother Fredo has betrayed him, wells up silently as the rest of the room continues to party. Look at the way Pacino’s eyes fill, the way his fist clenches and is drawn to his mouth. We are never sure if the overwhelming emotion is anger or sadness, but we are left with the painstaking realisation of how it feels to receive bad news in a full room. Pacino keeps Corleone silent whilst all the time screaming. It is a scene mirrored at the end of the film, when Michael, alone and desolate, looks out over the lake on which he had his brother killed. As the picture fades Michael loses his power whilst Pacino is at the height of his.
On the one hand he is a bumbling klutz, on the other a man failed by his family who wants to do right
Pacino’s most unique performance came a year after, when he again teamed with American master Sidney Lumet for Dog Day Afternoon (1975). Pacino plays real-life bank robber John Wojtowicz, named Sonny Wortzik in the film, in two ways: on the one hand he is a bumbling klutz, an almost Woody Allen-esque character, all New York drawl and misplaced moral sensibility. On the other hand, and as the film progresses, we see Sonny more and more as a man failed by his family, a man who wants to do right even if he’s not sure what right is. Dog Day Afternoon is a fraught film, and Pacino is the embodiment of it. As a political allegory the film is sterling in its attempts to portray America as country divided after Vietnam, but in my opinion this is because of Pacino and not the script, much of which was improvised. Consider Pacino’s spontaneous screaming of “Attica, Attica!” which lends the film a sense of rebellious uprising against the law, or Sonny’s belief that the FBI will shoot innocent people, which serves to heighten the post-Watergate notion of a people who did not trust their government. Pacino is the centre of the movie and totem for what most of it represents.
So exhausted was Pacino after Dog Days’ frantic performance, that he took a two-year break from the screen, finishing his cycle in 1979’s And Justice For All, turning in another fine, ethically-conscious performance that saw him earn another Academy Award nomination – his sixth of an illustrious decade.
Images: Paramount Pictures,