Al Pacino is 80: here are his 13 best film roles

A movie legend turns 80 today, and that person is Al Pacino.

Few actors have attained the astonishing prestige and critical kudos that Pacino has. Since graduating from the Lees Strasberg Institute for method acting in the 1960s, Pacino ascended the ranks to become revered as one of the all-time greats.

His range is vast, covering a multitude of classics and genres, with a penchant for highlighting the humanity in unpleasant and difficult characters. To mark Pacino's birthday, we've rounded up his greatest roles. Scroll down to see if yours is included.

1. The Panic In Needle Park (1971)

Before he became Michael Corleone in The Godfather, Pacino offered an early glimpse at his breathtaking talents. The Panic In Needle Panic is an uncompromising look at New York drug addiction, with Pacino delivering a fearless, gritty performance as addict Bobby.

At the same time, the movie is also a tender love story between Bobby and fellow addict Helen (Kitty Wynn), which only enhances the sense of impending tragedy. It was the first of two collaborations between Pacino and photographer-turned-director Jerry Schatzberg.

2. The Godfather trilogy (1972-1990)

Writer-director Francis Ford Coppola had to fight long and hard to get Al Pacino to star in The Godfather. Studio bosses were nervous and unsure about Pacino's abilities, but the talented young actor swiftly and definitively silenced the doubters.

Pacino's subtle and measured performance as war hero turned mob boss Michael Corleone is at the heart of Coppola's sweeping gangster saga, adapted from Mario Puzo's book. As the Godfather trilogy progresses, Michael's sense of corruption calcifies, Pacino chilling the blood with his depiction of a man who has lost his moral compass. 

By the time we get to the heart-wrenching conclusion, Michael's years of cruelty and betrayal reach critical mass. It results in a powerful climax, even if consensus stands that part three doesn't quite match the first two films.

3. Scarecrow (1973)

Pacino's second collaboration with director Jerry Schatzberg is an overlooked indie gem. Scarecrow typifies the experimental and bold Hollywood filmmaking of the early-to-mid 1970s, putting character and atmosphere above all things, the narrative drifting along in a naturalistic manner.

This is especially good news when one considers the central duo is formed of Pacino and Gene Hackman. Just as the former was coming off The Godfather, the latter was basking in his Oscar-winning success from The French Connection. Together, they're electrifying as two men who travel from America's west coast to the east to begin a new business in Pittsburgh.

4. Serpico (1973)

When one thinks of defining cop thrillers, Serpico is at the top of the rap sheet. This is largely down to Pacino's committed and engrossing performance as the titular undercover detective. It remains one of the high points in the actor's career, cementing his ability to get underneath the skin of characters and make them breathe – Serpico is so real, one can imagine walking past him on the street.

Directed by Sidney Lumet, the film adapts the true story of Frank Serpico's attempts to expose corruption in the New York City Police Department. Thanks to the intuitive direction and Pacino's fabulous performance, we're on tenterhooks throughout to discover what the endgame is.

5. Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

Sidney Lumet and Al Pacino were a powerhouse duo in the 1970s. It's a toss-up as to which of their collaborations in the decade was best: Serpico, or Dog Day Afternoon. The latter film features one of Pacino's most iconic performances, playing a hapless bank robber attempting to steal money to fund his partner's gender re-assignment operation.

The movie broke new ground in its depiction of attitudes towards sexuality, while also exploring the complex motivations that exist behind violent crimes. But the acting is what really makes it sing: an Oscar-nominated Pacio is sweaty and overwrought as Sonny, and he's matched scene-for-scene by John Cazale as fellow robber Sal.

6. Cruising (1980)

Pacino found the making of this controversial William Friedkin thriller so gruelling, he's rarely spoken about in in the years since. Or maybe it's down to the eye-watering nature of the central role, playing a New York cop who goes undercover in the city's gay scene to catch a sadistic killer.

It's definitely surreal watching the weathered and imposing Pacino navigating the underground culture of Manhattan at the time. And dark questions are raised throughout as to whether his character is actually responsible for the murders. Maybe the combination of uncomfortable psychology, graphic sexuality and savage violence made Pacino uncomfortable? That was certainly the case with audiences at the time, but the film stands as an intriguing outlier in the actor's career.

7. Scarface (1983)

The quiet intensity of Pacino's early roles was replaced with roaring madness in this notorious gangster movie remake. The sheer, raspy-voiced volume of Pacino's Scarface portrayal was to inform his approach in most films going forward – it's a volcanic, borderline-caricatured depiction of evil that nevertheless sucks us in with its sheer energy.

Directed by Brian DePalma and scripted by Oliver Stone, Scarface is bathed in cocaine, violence and MTV-flavoured excess, as Pacino's title character Tony Montana ascends from Cuban immigrant to feared mobster. The flamboyance of the role is etched in the minds of viewers, as are many of the quotes. ("I'm Tony Montana! You f**k with me, you f**k with the best!")

8. Scent Of A Woman (1992)

This was the movie that, remarkably, got Pacino his first Oscar. Scent Of A Woman finds him in garrulous, shouty form as blind military veteran Frank Slade, who coaches a young prep school kid (Chris O'Donnell) in the ways of the world.

It's a shame that Pacino didn't win over the Academy with his more subtle, layered portrayals from the 1970s, but the "hoo-hah" bluster of Frank just about wins us over. Despite the character's excesses, it takes an actor of real skill to convey depth of feeling behind eyes that cannot see anything. It's a reminder of Pacino's skill in locating empathy in even the most flawed of individuals.

9. Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)

Arguably superior to Pacino's role in Scent Of A Woman was his implosive, Oscar-nominated performance in Glengarry Glen Ross. This claustrophobic drama of warring real-estate salesman was adapted by David Mamet from his own successful stage play. And it offers Pacino a plum role as grandstanding salesperson Richard Roma, riding high above his colleagues who are under the gun and under threat of being fired.

Pacino's soliloquising and air of macho bravado is compelling. But it's also a selfless performance, frequently ceding the spotlight to an astonishing ensemble cast comprised of Jack Lemmon, Kevin Spacey, Ed Harris, Alan Arkin and Alec Baldwin. Not only does it remind us of how good Pacino is, but it also shows how effectively he bounces off his contemporaries.

10. Carlito's Way (1993)

Pacino's second (and, to date, final) collaboration with Scarface director Brian DePalma could be considered a companion piece to the earlier movie. If Scarface was about the frenetic excesses of a younger man learning the ropes in the gangster world, Carlito's Way is a more sombre tale about living with one's mistakes.

At the start of the movie, Pacino's character Carlito is released from prison and attempts to go straight. But he cannot disentangle himself from the criminal lifestyle, which is accentuated by a memorably nervy Sean Penn as Carlito's coked-up lawyer. The movie actually begins by showing us Carlito's eventual fate, which invests both the movie and Pacino's performance with a rich sense of melancholy.

11. Heat (1995)

In the first of his two collaborations with writer-director Michael Mann, Pacino goes toe to toe with contemporary Robert De Niro. Heat is, famously, the first time the two screen icons appear in the same movie – they had both starred in The Godfather: Part II, but in separate scenes that were divided by decades.

Pacino dips into his noisy bag of tricks to portray strung-out Los Angeles detective Vincent Hanna. It's his mission to bring down De Niro's calculating robber Neil McCauley, and when they eventually meet, Mann's atmospheric thriller locates its centre. At the heart of a disconnected LA, two men from different sides of the tracks find they have more in common than they think. And the rugged portrayals from both actors not only leave us spellbound, they have us shedding a tear by the end.

12. The Insider (1999)

Pacino's second collaboration with Michael Mann may well be the superior film. The actor dials down the bluster and the yelling to portray real-life CBS journalist Lowell Bergman, who hits upon the story of his life. When Bergman makes tobacco industry whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand (a terrific Russell Crowe) the subject of his next expose, it sends shockwaves throughout the world, and Bergman is eventually forced to confront his own ethical principles.

Mann's fantastic and involving movie hinges on the queasy partnership between two very different men – the same theme that earmarked Heat as a rich experience. And although Pacino largely stays quiet, there are a couple of characteristically volcanic scenes that knock us back in our seats.

13. Insomnia (2002)

Christopher Nolan is renowned for getting strong performances out of his actors. And there was never any chance that Al Pacino would let him down when agreeing to appear in this remake of a moody Swedish thriller.

The actor is memorably frazzled as a cop who travels to Alaska to investigate a murder. Pacino's character Will Dormer already has skeletons in his closet, having accidentally shot his partner. And his psyche comes undone in a landscape of perpetual light – such scenes allow Pacino to go to the ragged edge as only he can. But the most memorable moments are when Pacino goes head to head with an unlikely antagonist in the form of Robin Williams – method intensity meets a comedian-turned-serious-dramatist, and the sparks really do fly. 

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