Al Pacino: King of the Urban Jungle

We look at Al Pacino's relationship with New York through his movies, including Carlito’s Way and The Godfather.

Taylor Hackford’s thriller, The Devil’s Advocate, sets the expert manipulator, John Milton (played by Pacino) as a majestic, yet demonic presence, portraying the city as a puppet with Pacino as its master. Seen standing on the top of his skyscraper, he stares down at the concrete jungle he knows all too well. Pacino is on top of the world, but how true is this of his other New York based movies?

‘Look at me, underestimated from day one, you wouldn’t think I was the master of the universe now would you?’

Like the man himself, New York City is a versatile actor: The city becomes the victim of the detective as he searches the streets for clues, an accomplice in the gangster film as it hides away its criminals, a confidant for the high-powered businessmen and a scapegoat for the poverty-stricken. ‘The street is watching. She is always watching’. In Carlito’s Way, Pacino personifies the city as female. However, New York is a clear embodiment of masculinity.

Pacino’s many New York based movies often promote a network of drug organisations and underground crime rings, where both sides of the law most commonly clash. Combined with its network of intimidating, phallic buildings and its rugged skyline, the Big Apple is undeniably a man’s world. So, with over sixteen movies set in the Empire State, we ask, how is Al Pacino the man?

Al Pacino is associated with his diverse volume range on screen, or the Pacino blasts. Seen as a way to compensate for his dwarfed physicality, his ability to assert himself vocally has helped steer the thespian towards being Hollywood’s alpha male. The most famous example is his performance as Lt. Colonel Frank Slade, the blind, cantankerous ex-militant in Martin Brest’s Scent of a Woman, winning him his only Oscar. His capacity to beckon emotions at will and allow them to pour across the screen like a volcano eruption, whilst maintaining total self-control, are skills that have helped propel him to the top.

In his many New York based movies, we seldom see Pacino without course. Being born and bred in the Metropolis authenticates Pacino’s never-ending journeys, as opposed to submitting themselves to the artificiality of Hollywood. In Carlito’s Way, Carlito utilises his expert coordination to slither away from the blood-seeking Italians. Similarly, Donnie Brasco’s Lefty navigates the streets without sparing a thought for direction. Al Pacino’s streetwise credibility and familiarity with the many New York boulevards pepper his overall performances with a greater sense of plausibility.

Pacino’s movies introduce us to very unfamiliar sides of New York. Whether it is the queer underworld of Cruising, or the ‘subterranean shit-hole’ of Advocate, Al Pacino is constantly on the beat. He seamlessly travels from one venue to the next, never really knowing where we will end up; where Pacino’s filmography is considered a map, the man himself is the tour guide.

In People I Know, Pacino’s whimsical disposition goes to suggest he is out of depth in the city. The Panic in Needle Park however, shows junkie Pacino steaming with confidence and despite his addiction, naturally appears masculine. He arrogantly barges a passer-by and merely laughs, demonstrating his natural dominance on screen. With The Godfather following soon after, Al Pacino was building a bit of steam behind Mr. Machismo.

The next few years saw Pacino’s career take an unusual turn down some very questionable avenue. Al Pacino put his masculinity at risk by becoming the ‘Hollywood finocchio’ or fag and people began to wonder what that would do for Pacino’s hard-nosed reputation. The 1969 New York Stonewall riots and the fall of the production code triggered the green light for homosexual movies to emerge, and with this came Dog Day Afternoon and Cruising.

Dog Day’s bank, being the one location for which the story unfolds, arguably acts as Sonny’s (Pacino) metaphorical gay closet for which the NYPD implore him to ‘come out’. Miraculously, the film, despite its theme, strangely demonstrated a coherent and cool masculinity, as Sonny grows aggressive towards the Feds, famously shouting ‘Attica!’ Despite being a risky role both politically and personally, the film turned out to be one of Pacino’s most critically acclaimed performances and did nothing but bolster his bid as top tog.

History has labeled the Italian-American as a conformist symbol of male strength. It is seen in Donnie Brasco that the Italian-American Lefty is not so much a figure of ‘strength’ but more of an overpowered push over. Similarly, Frank Serpico is somewhat sensitised by the city, as a guiltless little guy taking on a crazed and corrupt system with nobody in his corner. True of both films, Pacino is seen as a beast constantly coiled for action, but more likely to spring in the form of a fluffy rabbit than that of a python.

It is widely regarded that Pacino’s role as Michael Corleone in The Godfather Trilogy is what shows him in his most masculine suit, as he becomes ‘the head of the most powerful mafia family in the country’. Unlike The Godfather where Michael is at the forefront of the crime scene, Lefty is seen taking a backseat to the action. The mob of ‘cats’ in Brasco escorts a Chinese waiter through to a back room to be ‘dealt’ with, whilst Lefty, being incongruous to Pacino’s typical persona, is left to guard the door. Could it be that the dangerous jungle of Donnie Brasco is perhaps too dangerous for Pacino? He is barely seen as part of the mob, separated by his inability to demonstrate authority and always seems like the next victim – but we all know that in reality, Pacino is the real cat amongst the pigeons.

He goes from law in Serpico to outlaw in The Godfather, to occasionally walking the tightrope in between. Pacino’s extreme level of diversity assigns him with a certain quality that strengthens his status as the biggest fish in the Hollywood ocean. Harold Becker’s classic, Sea of Love, rapidly transpires from crime to romance, but demonstrated through this transition of genre is Pacino’s ability to adapt.

Pacino has crawled from the deepest and darkest cellar of Panic to the fountain of glamour and wealth in Two For The Money. It is, however, the ways of the city that transforms him by giving up its streets to play out such a diverse range of characters. It is unusual how the star keeps his head above the rest, despite the often-unkempt nature of his many sleaze-ball characters.

Across Al Pacino’s New York filmography, he is shown in states of pain, weakness and exhaustion. But there is something about the international icon that won’t allow him to break from embodying this masculine figure. Although Al Pacino’s iconicity is recognised through his position as the Godfather, his masculinity is only amplified by the persuasive unruliness of his other major characters. It has become common ground that Pacino is one of most respected and powerful men on screen and as discovered, the only thing more masculine than the man himself is the city that homes him. Now who can deny that the 20th century was entirely his?

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