A Reminder That Pacino Wasn’t Always Terrible

It’s easy to think Al Pacino is the worst actor alive. Just watch any of his movies from the ’80s onward.

The Film Forum’s film festival “Ford to City: Drop Dead” is now screening Pacino movies like Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon. And audiences can see that before he was a screaming weirdo in The Devil’s Advocate, Scent of a Woman or the dozens of direct-to-Red Box movies he’s starred in recently, he was a singular talent.

It’s jolting watching Dog Day Afternoon or Serpico knowing that he’d devolve into the performative mess he is today. The difference isn’t just physical.

Consider his voice. His voice used to filter through his nose; now it comes from a cigar-damaged throat. In Dog Day Afternoon, he speaks in this soft, nasal chime of a voice that’s nervous, charming and sounds like how a real person. Now, he speaks exclusively from the bottom of his throat, like he’s trying to do an impression of himself.

Unlike the “great ass” weirdo Pacino of Heat and Scent of a Woman, the Pacino of The Godfather, Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon is quiet for long stretches of time. You can see something boiling under the skin but the simmer rarely surfaces. He speaks in whispers, whines and welps.

The exception is Dog Day Afternoon, where the tension spills over and floods the screen. In a scene that’s been quoted and parodied for decades, he riles up the crowd, yelling “Attica.” The camera is pulled far back to show his full body as he addresses the crowd. He’s framed like a stage actor and he plays to the cheap seats. It’s big as hell, but it makes sense for the scene.

His Dog Day Afternoon character is a self loathing bipolar loser who’s made nothing but bad choices. But when propelled by his delusions, he believes he’s exceptional and the crowd reinforces that belief. He’s energized by the negative attention and plays to it. It’s a feedback loop. He invokes the Attica prison tragedy, something that he said earlier in a free associative context, to cast a sympathetic light to his bank robbery turned hostage crisis. In the eyes of the crowd, he becomes a tragic, sympathetic figure.  But, he’s really a sociopath who wants attention.

It isn’t Al Pacino going big and eating scenery. It’s a character going big and eating scenery.

Unfortunately, it seems like Pacino didn’t understand the difference.