Al Pacino: Two scenes from the first two Godfather films shows that Pacino is the greatest actor of his times

A  scene each from the first  two Godfather films shows that Al Pacino is one of the greatest actors ever to appear in motion pictures.

Watching Francis Ford Coppola’s restored version of the Godfather trilogy was an awesome experience. I have seen the film countless times before, but the prints were never good enough, some too dark, some too white etc etc. But this one was close to perfection. The first two Godfather films are obviously the apex of cinema , but more than the filmmaking , the restored version brings into focus the extraordinary performance of Al Pacino in the role of Michael Corleone. A lot of the detailing in his performance that was missed earlier, particularly with regards to his eye movements and body language – which was not too visible due to too much darkness in earlier prints – are on full view here

The question:What makes a great actor?,or rather, what constitutes great movie acting? ,always triggers  interesting discussions. . In cinema, an actor basically uses three major tools to convey the character he is essaying. His voice , his facial expressions and his body language. There are separate forms of shots to enhance each . Facial expressions comes into play for the closeups. In a long shot its  body language, while a medium shot can be used to convey both facial expressions and body language together. The voice comes into play in delivering dialogues  . Its also potent in cases of  ‘off screen’ voice over or the subjective shot from an actors perspective where we hear only his words and the camera is focused on something or someone else A great performance is where an actor uses all these 3 tools to maximum effect.

On the basis of his performances in the first 2 Godfather films, Al Pacino could be considered one of the greatest actors in the world or rather this performance could be considered one of the greatest in the history of cinema, if not the greatest. Al plays the very powerful mafia don Michael Corleone and the beauty of the performance is enhanced by the fact that he hardly screams or shouts to assert the power and moral corruption of the character. He goes the opposite way, by using subtlety, nuance and underplaying to  get to the heart of the character.  The performance is also a masterpiece of ‘modulation’, both physical and vocal, as the character ages about 15 years and transforms, from a moral, virtuous war hero to an  immoral cold-hearted mafia don, through the course of the 2  films

 

 

The first scene is from The Godfather released in 1972. The scene has Michael coming to Las Vegas to take over the casino Business . He has decided to move the family out of New York . He intends to buy out the Mob’s manager, Mao Greene’s shares in the casino  so that the it can be completely owned by the Corleone family

The scene is a perfect example of how a great actor uses all the above mentioned tools at his disposal. The scene begins with him ticking off his elder brother Fredo for getting a musical band and girls to what is a a business meeting . But he does it very subtly , trying not to hurt his brother with a little pat on his back. Then he talks shop (or appears to be)  with his father’s Godson Johnny Fontane about his film career. but basically he is forcing him to sign a contract to appear as an entertainer at the family’s casinos.Pacino plays these two interactions with a firm, but mild tone of voice throughout . His body language is more casual though businesslike and he conveys both the affection and familiarity of a fellow family member as well as the firmness and slyness of a tough businessman

The real shift in his performance happens when he talks business with Moe Green. Notice how  the conversation  begins. Michael puts his cigarette case and lighter on the table.By the way, the cigarette and lighter will be an important prop for him throughout his performance in both the films.  He starts on a friendly note even though he is talking about buying out Green.  As the conversation gets heated up, his voice tend to rise, but you could see he controls himself at the point where he says , we are talking business lests talk business..when it comes to ‘You straightened my brother out“, his voice breaks and goes real low, conveying the extend of the anger and his sense of humiliation at the treatment meted out to his  brother. His body language mainly constitutes of  rapidly moving the lighter on the table, to convey his anger and restlessness. He finishes the conversation with a stern warning to Green; It is marked by Michael picking up the cigarette case and lighter from the table and putting it back in his pocket. His facial expressions throughout the conversations hardly changes, he is very stoic and intense, But his eyes convey his fury, The whole performance has such great structure, such rhythm,  Its like a (separate) musical performance on its own with a beginning , middle and an end

The second scene is from The Godfather part II and it is again set in Las Vegas. The performance here is a continuation from the first film.But he is much more older and it shows in his body language. Pacino is a much more experienced actor here and he looks more confident, which benefits the character immensely. His movements are much more expansive, much more balletic. He uses his hands a lot more. His mastery over  ‘The method acting” technique is  obvious here particularly in this scene with his ability for “sense memor” and using of props to indulge in ‘actorly business’ to convey emotions and creating interesting perspectives for the character.

Michael has just returned from  Havana, Cuba where he had to encounter some life altering events. He has found out his brother Fredo had betrayed him to his rival Hymen Roth , A betrayal that almost cost him his  life.

From the walk into Michael’s den, Pacino conveys the tiredness of the long journey as well as the after effects of the events that has unfolded in Cuba. He fetches a wet towel and asks his capo bodyguards to step outside. its interesting to note the tone of his voice when he tells them to leave , its more like a friendly request. In an earlier scene with the senator Pat Geary, we have seen him insist that his bodyguards stay,  as he trusts them with his life and so has no secrets from them. but here he is going to discuss ‘personal’ family matters with his brother Tom Hagen about another brother Fredo who has betrayed him. Hagen is quite evasive to his queries as he knows what has transpired in Cuba. More than that, he is carrying a secret that he knows is going to hurt Michael severely.

 

The major props that Pacino utilizes here is the wet towel and (again) the cigarette , and lighter.   He talks about Fredo in a rather dispassionate, yet concerned voice . He decides to forgive his brother for the betrayal as he didn’t know that Roth was going to kill Michael. But Hagen has something much more serious to tell him, but, he delays saying it, which exasperates Michael.  Its just terrific how Pacino expresses it. with the words “what, come on what“. Without raising his voice above a whisper. Its more effective than if he had shouted it out, and the scene isn’t finished yet. Pacino keeps the emotional explosion for the last

Kay, Michael’s wife . has suffered a miscarriage and she lost the baby. Michael is stunned by this news, but Pacino plays it in a very casual way, not appearing to bother too much about it , until the next question where he asks whether it was a boy. Hagen tries to evade again , but this time Michael gives him hell. In a rare display of emotion , he asks him for a straight answer. The scene finishes with him nervously smoking his cigarette through which his pain is easily visible. Like the earlier scene from the first Godfather, this scene again is a great showcase for Pacino’s skills, how he builds up his performance gradually in relation to the scene , topping it of with an effective climax.

Obviously,One cannot discount the contribution of the director Francis Ford Coppola in all this, perhaps the greatest director when it comes to directing actors, as well as for his mastery at staging and cutting scenes involving actors. A generation, or may be, two generation of star\actors came out of his films, from Pacino, De Niro to Matt Dillon, Tom cruise, Nicholas Cage etc. The first two Godfather films has the director and the actors working at the height of their powers.You would notice that i have not gone into The Godfather Part III at all. its because , the character of Michael Corleone changed completely from the earlier two films and so did Pacino’s performance.

Pacino would go on to essay a wide variety of roles in his illustrious career. But somewhere along the line , by the mid 1980’s , he would become more  of an over the top actor. Not that he was bad, but the sheer poetry and realism that was there in his 70’s performances was missing, except for a Donnie Brasco here or an Insomnia there. His voice also changed , which affected his performance.  The Godfather III performance encompasses all these changes. His performance is more external, more histrionical than the tightly coiled internalizing that made the character and his performance so legendary.  But one can always go back to the first two Godfathers to see the sheer genius of this master of acting.

 

15 thoughts on “Al Pacino: Two scenes from the first two Godfather films shows that Pacino is the greatest actor of his times

  1. MANK, great article. But you should have included the scene of Michael’s reaction to Kay’s abortion. I remember Pacino’s face shaking the first time I watched it. It was captivating.

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  2. Jayaram, thanks

    And I did include that scene, also the sollozzo shooting scene. I think those four scenes are his best. But then it became a 13 min read. I didn’t want to bore the readers, it’s already a seven minutes read. So I decided to go with one scene each and both set in lad vegVe, so there is continuity there. Maybe I’ll write a part2 to the article some day and I will include them

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  3. Yes jayaram I got it. His entire body language is extrodinary in that scene, the way he paces about, the way he drinks water. That “don’t you know me don’t you know the man I am” dialogue. It’s just mesmerizing

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  4. Wonderful write up. Yes, both the Godfathers are masterpieces and Pacino’s acting in both a masterclass of the art. Never really dug Part 3. I also agree that somewhere from the late 80s or so, his shtick got sort of predictable and repetitive. I still love Devil’s Advocate from that era because the role made his over the topness appropriate. But him playing Lowell Bergman in typical Pacino mode in Insider was symptomatic of why the 90s was in hindsight a disappointing era for Al fans.

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    1. Thanks Madan. Yyes Tthe Devil’s Advocate was fun . It was a very over the top movie, but i would have loved to see how the 70’S Pacino would have played the devil

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