Brooding & Pop-Eyed
by JAMES CAMP
At the start of the 70s, Al Pacino had exactly one role in a major motion picture under his belt. The movie, Me, Natalie, was small, the role minuscule: in forty-six seconds, the twenty-nine-year-old actor approaches, appraises, and spurns the Natalie of the title on a dance-floor. Taking her in his arms without looking at her, Pacino is all hips and come-ons and cocksureness, too hopped up on the possibilities of the night to ask Natalie’s name, let alone sweet-talk her. "You’ve got a nice body, you know that?" he offers. When she tries to respond, he interrupts her: "Do you put out?" But she doesn't and he is off, eyes flaring, to seek his kicks among broads of broader mind.
By 1980 Pacino was among the most laurelled film actors in the land, a forty-year-old man up to his neck in his own mythology. Though he hadn't yet won an Oscar (that would come later, for his turn as a blind debauchee in The Scent of a Woman), Pacino had been nominated, already, for five.
Lesser honors abounded. The decade brought him two BAFTA awards and a Golden Globe. It also inaugurated the ever-flavorful tradition of Pacino homage. In Saturday Night Fever, John Travolta's Tony Manero, clad only in briefs and Scientological self-assurance, sashays down the stairs chanting Attica, drawing a shriek from his shrunken grandmother. (In Dog Day Afternoon, Pacino’s Sonny Wortzik electrifies a crowd by chanting this.) Tony Manero keeps a Serpico poster on his wall.
Film Forum spent a week revisiting Pacino’s golden decade in a retrospective called, straightforwardly, Pacino's 70s. The movies, which vary in quality from the indelibility of the Godfathers to the idle melodrama of ...And Justice for All, are vivid reminders both of Pacino's consistency and of his range.
As a rule, Pacino's roles are divided between the neurotically anxious and the neurotically cool, the nervous and the numb. Stress, however, torments them all. Like suavity for Cary Grant or bathos for Marlon Brando, stress is Pacino’s medium, the idiosyncratic element in which his characters come alive. He is a technician of the twitch, the eye-bulge, the temple-rub. He is also a technician of the blank stare. It reminds you why New York City, something like the kingdom of chronic stress, has always treated Pacino as royalty.
Michael Corleone, the frozen-hearted heir to his father’s empire, is neurotically cool. Frank Serpico also. "Well, am I invited to the wedding?" Serpico asks when the woman he has been dating, fed up with his delays, threatens to marry another man. Lionel, on the other hand, the vulnerable drifter at the center of Scarecrow, is all nerves and nervous suffering, as are Arthur Kirkland of Justice and Sonny of Dog Day. Bobby, the protagonist of The Panic in Needle Park, is a composite, as scheming as he is pathetic.
Yet these characters who begin as orderly types end by disarraying them. If the heart, for the Pacino of this era, has always gone too hard or too soft, by the end of each movie it is strangely difficult to say which. Late in The Godfather: Part II, Michael Corleone realizes that his older brother, Fredo, has betrayed him. It is New Year’s Eve, 1958 and they are in Cuba. The country is Castro-stalked, coup-poised, decadent. The Corleones are watching a troupe of exotic dancers when Michael catches Fredo, who does not know his brother overhears him, in a lie.
Standing in an amphitheater, the two actors face the same direction, Pacino above and behind John Cazale; the camera faces them. As Fredo natters on to his pals, Michael staggers. He must choose between his brother and the family business. His eyes bulge, brim moistly, then go blank. It is a scene of exquisite contrasts — the nude dancers, off-camera but reflected in the lusting eyes of the audience; Fredo, fluent in his duties as party-host, oblivious of his fatal error; and Michael, never more in love with his brother than against the backdrop of the need to bump him off. For the knowledgeable viewer, the moment is additionally fraught with the imminent failure of the Batista government. "It's my favorite moment," Pacino told an interviewer, "but it's subtle."
Confronted, Fredo bolts. He is not gone for good. Michael may be unmerciful, but he is not impatient, and eventually he tempts Fredo home with a promise of forgiveness. Forgiveness is fleeting. When Fredo goes fishing one evening, Michael has him murdered. As the fatal gunshot dwindles to silence in the blue-black void of the Nevada twilight, we see Michael brooding, slumped in the semi-dark, enthroned and alone.
When the movie came out Newsweek called it "arguably cinema’s greatest portrait ever of the hardening of a heart." But this is imprecise. Has the trauma of life really hardened Michael’s heart, or has it broken it down, pulped it? A harder heart — a greater gangster — would have dispatched the feckless Fredo without remorse; a softer heart — a greater man — would have spared him. Which shortcoming Michael regrets in himself is the mystery of the film.
Something similar happens in Scarecrow, when Lionel’s estranged wife tells him she had a miscarriage after he left her (this is not true, a lie prompted by spite brought on by abandonment). Lionel receives this information in a phone booth, his eyes widening as if to accommodate the size of the bad news. Yet Lionel's gaping look of feeling will shortly become the mask of its absence. Soon after the conversation, Lionel goes into catatonic shock, where he stays for the rest of the film. Lionel’s expression — pop-eyed, blown apart with suffering — doesn't change.
In Dog Day Afternoon, Sonny involves his friend Sal in a bank robbery to finance a sex-change operation for Sonny’s gay lover, Leon. The robbery immediately goes awry and the two robbers are trapped in the bank, obliged to take its employees hostage as insurance against the police massing outside. Sal is played, again, by John Cazale. (Pacino: "All I wanted to do was work with John for the rest of my life. He was my acting partner.") He is a sympathetic character, a nervous sweet fool hiding out behind a wafer-thin front of thuggishness. The smarter, more calculating Sonny is sympathetic in a different way. Yet Sonny is also irresolute, and as the standoff stretches on he may betray Sal to the FBI.
Sidney Lumet, the director, keeps it unclear; it is not even certain that Sonny himself knows what has happened. At the end, after Sal has been shot and Sonny arrested, Pacino’s face alternates looks of vacancy with looks of anguish. Sonny is a man of great, even spastic emotion, yet it is impossible to tell whether he is in the grip of remorse or resigned indifference.
Is an audience that reacts to tragedies of emotional confusion with confused emotions of its own also tragic? By the time John Cazale got shot, the woman beside me had nodded off. She may have been snoring; it may have been somebody else. I turned in my seat, disturbed but also restless, checking an impulse to check the time. Pacino did his brooding, pop-eyed, twitchy thing. When John Cazale got shot in Dog Day Afternoon, the woman beside me laughed. Others wept. Pacino did his thing again. Again, I turned in my seat. These are long movies.
It is not surprising that city-dwellers will be too stressed-out to absorb the moral of a movie, or movies, when this moral is that they are too stressed-out to absorb the moral of anything. Indeed, it is an unconscious tribute to the star of these films. At his best, Pacino embodies the inability of the way we feel to keep pace with the way we live, of the heart to bear up under the hassle of modern urban life.
In The Panic in Needle Park, Pacino’s first major film, he plays Bobby, a raffish heroin addict who falls in love with Helen, a young artist. The two are as headlong in love as getting high, and the movie unfolds as both a scruffy romance and an ordeal of deepening addiction. (The panic of the title refers to a heroin drought.) First catching Helen’s eye in the hospital ward where she is recovering from an abortion (!), Bobby proceeds to seduce her, bed her, introduce her to heroin, and compel her into habit-sustaining prostitution. Unfathomably (and perhaps unfortunately), their love survives it all, even when Helen betrays Bobby to the fuzz and he goes to prison.
In the final scene of the movie, Helen waits for Bobby outside the prison where he has been incarcerated. Bobby is due for release, and when he emerges, cigarette in mouth, he is dumbfounded by Helen’s presence and stalks off angrily. But eventually — inexorably — he slows down, waiting for her. When Helen hesitates, Bobby snorts: "Well!"
Of course he is impatient. We, too, are impatient. The logic of the heart is beside the point when you have a city to get back to and a panic to beat, when you’re rushed and stressed. As Pacino himself has said, remembering Brecht, "People are strange, stinking animals."
James Camp is a contributor to This Recording. He is a writer living in New York. This is his first appearance in these pages.
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