On April 25, acting legend Alfredo James “Al” Pacino turns 81 years young, and with dozens of films and nine Oscar nominations (and one win for “Scent of a Woman” (1992)) on his resume, this Manhattan native has plenty of fabulous and celebrated movies to watch on his birthday. My personal favorite Pacino performance is his masterful turn as Carlito Brigante – a career criminal trying to go straight – in Brian De Palma’s “Carlito’s Way” (1993), but let’s look at three other films. This cinematic trio might not reside on the first page of Pacino’s catalog, but his work and these movies are proud events in Al’s glorious 52-year big-screen career.
“Scarecrow” (1973) – Pacino starred in five movies from 1972 through 1975, and The Academy nominated him for four Oscars for his Herculean efforts in “The Godfather” (1972), “Serpico” (1973), “The Godfather: Part II” (1974), and “Dog Day Afternoon” (1975). Well, his fifth film during this petite period of grand honors – a road trip picture named “Scarecrow” – didn’t win Oscar gold, but it did take home Cannes’ 1973 Palme d’Or.
Well, the two lead characters in director Jerry Schatzberg’s award-winning flick haven’t won anything in their lives, but Max (Gene Hackman) and Lionel (Pacino) – drifters by “trade” –connected via a pseudo-happy accident while hitchhiking east. These dysfunctional opposites did attract, and Max, a cantankerous ex-con, recruits the boyish, happy-go-lucky Lionel for a business proposition. Our recently-freed jailbird has an implausible dream of opening a car wash in Pittsburgh, which is an awfully long ways from their current position in Bakersfield, Calif.
For most of the 112-minute runtime, Schatzberg places this 1970s Mutt and Jeff team in the middle of nowhere – without another visible soul for miles – or into working-class neighborhoods, where verbal or physical assaults solve random disputes. Max calls himself “the meanest son of a bitch alive,” and who could argue with his imposing 6’ 2” frame and short fuse. Thankfully, Lionel – a Navy vet whose first name is actually Francis – is a full-time pacifist goofball, a court jester who attempts to diffuse any hint of conflict with weird faces or a Three Stooges routine. Hackman and Pacino hook our interest with the makeshift entrepreneurs’ everyday dynamics because their protracted pace on their prolonged Promise-Land path promotes profound uncertainties.
Can they get past Denver, let alone Lionel’s vitally important stop in Detroit before their eventual landing in the Steel City? Max’s combustible persona might blow up their plans before crossing The Great Divide. Well, geographically speaking, “Scarecrow” is an American story, but it’s also a demonstrative one, a tale filled with hard knocks, the freedom to make questionable choices, and an unlikely friendship.
“Sea of Love” (1989) – New York City Police Detective Frank Keller (Pacino) reaches 20 years on the force, and his colleagues start whispering, “Retirement.” Hey, let’s face it, no one murmurs in NYC, so yes, he hears their calls. Walking away with his pension has its appeals, but Frank’s a homicide detective through and through. He has no plans to open a B&B in Clearwater Beach because solving murder cases is his life’s work, and he’ll have to roll up his sleeves for this puzzling new one.
In director Harold Becker’s whodunit, someone forces a Manhattan man to lay face down on a bed and then shoots him in the back of the head while Phil Phillips’ “Sea of Love” (1959) 45 record plays on a repeat loop. No, that’s not the best way to fondly “remember when we met.”
When a similar shooting occurs across town, Queens Det. Sherman (John Goodman) joins Keller to find their suspect, and they discover that both victims put ads in “NY Weekly Magazine” for blind dates. Hey, this was 1989. Match.com and eHarmony.com weren’t invented yet. Anyway, Sherman and Keller decide to place a fake advertisement in the same paper to lure this femme fatale out in the open. When an alluring lady, Helen Cruger (Ellen Barkin), arrives with a red leather jacket and plenty of attitude, they may have found their killer, but Frank – still trying to get over his ex-wife – starts dating her.
Oh, walk away, Frank!
“Sea of Love” arrived in theatres two years after “Fatal Attraction” (1987), so the threat of a murderous blonde girlfriend feels a little familiar, but Pacino and Barkin sell this anxious relationship. Barkin’s Helen seems dangerous in the dead of night and broad daylight. Still, she has emotional and physical holds on Frank, and his attraction to – and fear of – the flame easily translates from the screen to theatres and living rooms everywhere. Should Frank propose or call for backup? It’s a great question because let’s not forget why Frank and Helen met.
“Insomnia” (2002) – Christopher Nolan has directed some of the 21st century’s most celebrated big-budget blockbusters. Which one do you prefer? “The Dark Knight” (2008), “Inception” (2010), “Interstellar” (2014), or “Dunkirk” (2017) might be your first choice, but one of my favorites is his guarded, tightly-wound psychological thriller set in the tiny village of Nightmute within the nation’s biggest state. In “Insomnia”, the local police chief calls up Los Angeles detectives Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan) and Will Dormer (Pacino) to help crack a disturbing murder investigation. Dormer enjoys a great deal of fame in law enforcement circles for his no-nonsense approach and impeccable record, and a local upstart officer, Ellie Burr (Hilary Swank), thinks a rock star just arrived in her small seaside town.
Well, Dormer doesn’t even finish “his first set” when he already lays a trap for the murderer, but this crystal clear case suddenly becomes desperately foggy – literally and figuratively – during the pursuit. Nolan’s “Insomnia” is a most worthy remake of director Erik Skjoldbjaerg’s 1997 movie – starring Stellan Skarsgard – and both films feature a critical character native to the Alaskan and Norwegian summers: 24 hours of daylight. The constant sun hampers Dormer’s sleep, and when the case doesn’t fall into open-and-shut crime-solving spaces, his head is soon filled with paranoia, doubt, and worse. Slumber is impossible, and his judgment becomes increasingly dubious. This is new territory for Will, and as Nolan’s narrative slowly sides down a slippery slope, our lead feels the earth swallow him up.
Think of Pacino’s bold, confident Lt. Vincent Hanna from Michael Mann’s “Heat” (1995) falling into brutally compromising quandaries and suffering massive emotional and physical tolls as a result, and that’s Dormer. Pacino delivers a gut-wrenching performance, and Robin Williams is equally convincing as an unexpected villain, although that same year, he also played a troubled antagonist in “One Hour Photo”, so he took quite a departure from “Mrs. Doubtfire” (1993) in 2002. Complete with a gorgeous backdrop of our 49th state, this twisted morality tale is one of Nolan’s best efforts and Pacino’s too.
Trailer credits: Movieclips Classic Trailers and Warner Bros.