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Al Pacino’s Five Essential Performances

Choosing five essential performances for Al Pacino is nearly impossible. Ask me in a few days time and I may swap out one film for another, because his filmography is such an embarrassment of riches. In every film he’s been in I can never take my eyes off of him. Even in Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood, where he only appears for perhaps fifteen minutes, I couldn’t really concentrate on Leonardo Di Caprio, because Al is just so magnetic.

But I set myself the challenge of trying to pin down what I think are five performances from this master of his craft that you simply cannot miss:

Scent of A Woman

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I’m going to write a full length blog post on this film for this blogathon as well, but I have to highlight that I think that no viewing of Al’s filmography is complete without this film. He is absolutely incredible from start to finish. He plays a blind veteran who has made numerous mistakes in his life, and who struggles bitterly with the fact that he can no longer partake in the world in which he lived so fully. Al gives a simply breathtaking performance that holds your entire attention for the whole movie. And what makes his performance ever more remarkable, is that he makes sure that everyone around him is made better by his performance. He doesn’t steal scenes, but makes them. One of the most poignant scenes in the film is when he shouts “I’m in the dark!”, and you know he’s not just talking about his vision, he’s also expressing his emotional state, how he has completely lost his connection to everyone else, and how he has to find his way back to the light somehow.

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The Godfather

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Although this was not Al’s first film, it is considered his breakout role, and with good reason. He goes from being a young, fresh faced boy to someone who is capable of murder and eventually takes over the bloody family business. The scale of his performance is absolutely breathtaking, and I am consistently impressed with how subtle the shift in his character portrayal is. He starts out as “Mikey”, the younger brother who came back from Korea and just wants to make good, and live an apple pie life. But by the end of the film, he has become Michael Corleone, a man to be feared by his enemies. Al also makes sure that the tragedy of this transformation is not lost on the viewer. At the start of the film, his large, liquid brown eyes are warm and innocent, but by the end of the film, they are darker, colder and completely shuttered.

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The Godfather Part II

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This is a film that is one of the best ever made for various reasons, but one of the main reasons is Al Pacino’s performance. It is in quiet moments, ones entirely devoid of dialogue, such as the one where Michael sits on a chair in the icy chill outside, that Al shows the magnitude of his talents as an actor. As the film goes on, Michael becomes colder and more brutal, but there is nothing OTT or ridiculous about how Al shows this. As with almost all of his performances, it’s in the way he fixes his gaze and his body language. During the scene in which he and Diane Keaton tear each other a part because Kay has had an abortion, he becomes genuinely disturbing, for the first time you are really aware of how deranged Michael can be. And in the end, when he closes the door on Kay, the look on his face is an absolute masterclass in how the actor has to embody the character, how the character has to completely fill them.

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Sea of Love

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This is an incredibly intense film, probably one of the most psychologically complex that Al has made. The way in which he portrays Frank Keller, who may have more in common with the serial killer he’s hunting than may be professionally advantageous, strikes the perfect balance between manic and intense. Where other actors may fall into the trap of shouting their lines and darting their eyes about, Pacino shows the creeping, terrible effect of what it means to have to get into the mind of a human being turned merciless predator. The chemistry between Al and Ellen Barkin is enough to ensure that you need to watch this film with a fire extinguisher close by. But the relationship between these two characters also shows the unhealthy side that intense sexual relationships can take on. Through the brilliance of both of these actor’s portrayals, it becomes a film that shows that we all have the capacity to step over the line that demarcates insanity without even realising it.

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The Devil’s Advocate

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My mom, older brother and I love this film, and all agree that it contains one of Keanu Reeves’ and Charlize Theron’s best performances. But Al really steals the show in this one. One of my favourite scenes is when the camera slowly pans down to show that Pacino is wearing heal lifts, conveying man’s propensity for vanity and how people equate height with power, which Al has always flouted. What really elevates the character of John Milton is the combination between brutality and tongue in cheek humour that Pacino imbues his portrayal with. This is clearly an extremely dangerous man (more than the small town Kevin Lomax can imagine), but the way Al delivers some of the more humorous lines not only relieves some of the pressure, but also makes sure that as the viewer, you are never on a truly comfortable keel. John Milton is the villain of the piece, but Pacino is so magnetic and charismatic, that you want more of him on the screen, and once again, instead of subsuming the other actors, especially Keanu, he elevates their performances with his own presence.

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As I said at the beginning of this post, Al Pacino’s filmography is absolutely awe-inspiring. He has starred in some of the greatest cinematic efforts ever, and has time and time again conveyed why he is rightfully regarded as one of the greatest actors to ever live. If you haven’t seen any of the films I discussed, you’re in for a treat.

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This is my first contribution for my All About Al Pacino Blogathon. Please go here to read everyone’s wonderful tributes to this amazing artist.

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6 thoughts on “Al Pacino’s Five Essential Performances”

  1. I wish I would have stumbled across your blog sooner, as I would certainly have participated in the Al Pacino Blog-A-Thon. 😉

    I went through an intense few months a couple of years ago where I watched almost all of his movies — the good ones, the bad ones, the incredible ones, and I’d agree, these are among his finest performances. Nice write-up. Makes me want to rewatch some of them. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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