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Ranking Al Pacino's 10 greatest performances


Gruff, rough and all-around intense, Al Pacino has become known as one of the greatest screen actors of all time, thanks to several iconic performances throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Working alongside such directors as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Quentin Tarantino, as well as Hollywood superstars like Robert De Niro, Marlon Brando and Leonardo DiCaprio, Pacino has made an indelible mark in the history of cinema.

Having enjoyed a career spanning over half a century, Pacino has a wealth of achievements under his belt, telling The Talks in a past interview: “You don’t think of those parts as achievements. You think of the roles you play, the paintings you’ve made. You know, resting on your laurels, you get a nice big check, take another profession on… But for some thick reason, I keep wanting to go back and do this stuff”. 

Looking back on a staggering career under the industry spotlight, it’s truly difficult to rank the performances of Al Pacino, with many more than ten performances being considered worthy of ‘greatness’. Despite this, let’s pick apart the career of the iconic American actor and look into his top ten screen performances of all time.

Al Pacino’s 10 greatest performances:

10. Donnie Brasco (Mike Newell, 1997)

This might be the first mob movie to make the top ten list, but it certainly won’t be his last, with his appearance in Mike Newell’s Donnie Brasco being one of his greatest and most surprisingly gentle performances. Playing the role of an ageing hitman who becomes the mentor of a young jewellery thief called Donnie Brasco, played by a young Johnny Depp, Pacino leads a thrilling crime drama. 

Rather unfairly omitted from praise at the Academy Awards due to his relatively recent win five years prior for the drama Scent of a Woman, Pacino’s performance remains one of his very best. 

9. Heat (Michael Mann, 1995)

Still recognised as one of the greatest crime heist movies of all time, Pacino stars in the film alongside a staggering ensemble cast that includes the likes of Robert De Niro, Val Kilmer, Natalie Portman and Tom Sizemore. Placing Pacino opposite De Niro as a LAPD detective tracking down the professional bank robber and his team of criminals, both influential actors shine in Mann’s iconic thriller. 

Concluding in a diner scene that sees the two stars face-off, the trio of De Niro, Pacino and Michael Mann help to keep the intensity of the three-hour film at a constant high.

8. The Irishman (Martin Scorsese, 2019)

No doubt, Martin Scorsese is a director made for thrill, violence and class, mastering the gangster film with his 2019 film The Irishman. Reuniting Robert De Niro and Al Pacino for the third time since their roles in The Godfather and Heat, the actors are joined by Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel, Stephen Graham and Jesse Plemons in this three-and-a-half-hour epic. 

As if a recreation of the crime films that made the director so famous, The Irishman plays off familiar beats following a hitman who looks back on his life as a loyal member of a crime family, whilst also evaluating the lives of such men under a contemporary microscope.

7. Scarface (Brian De Palma, 1983)

Brian De Palma’s iconic remake is most likely Al Pacino’s most memorable starring role, playing the cocaine-fuelled gangster Scarface whose greed to become a drugs kingpin leads him to his own demise. Featuring alongside Michelle Pfeiffer, Steven Bauer and F. Murray Abraham, Pacino gives one of his most fervent and intense performances, starring as a gangster you can’t help but love. 

Inspiring countless other reimaginings, Scarface is due for a Hollywood remake by Italian filmmaker Luca Guadagnino, no doubt thanks to Pacino’s timeless performance. 

6. Scent of a Woman (Martin Brest, 1992)

Winning Pacino an Academy Award in 1993 ahead of the likes of Denzel Washington, Clint Eastwood and Robert Downey Jr, Scent of a Woman remains one of the actor’s finest performances. Playing a blind man who is being looked after by a prep school student, Pacino gives an incredible performance, dedicating himself physically to the role as he commands the screen. 

Shining in amongst an ensemble cast that also includes Chris O’Donnell, Bradley Whitford and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, Al Pacino’s Oscar-winning performance still impresses. 

5. The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972)

One of the most defining movies of the 1970s, and indeed of all time, Francis Ford Coppola’s gangster crime drama told the story of an ageing mafia crime dynasty and its leader Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), who begins transferring power to his reluctant son, Michael (Al Pacino). Helping to paint a picture of a mafia family where blood is thicker than just about any material gain, Pacino somehow managed to hold his own against the might of Brando’s performance.

Though Pacino’s character would be handed far more responsibility in the film’s celebrated 1974 sequel, his performance in the 1972 original cannot be ignored. 

4. The Panic in Needle Park (Jerry Schatzberg, 1971)

Celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2021, Jerry Schatzberg’s The Panic in Needle Park is far from Al Pacino’s most memorable role with his emotional portrayal of a heroin addict and small-time dealer being one of the most traumatic of his glittering career. Featuring alongside Kitty Winn and Alan Vint, Pacino leads the movie with his extraordinary performance in this brutal drama. 

Only the second film the actor ever did, Pacino’s performance in the movie remains his most important and most hypnotic, embracing the tragic emotional turmoil of a tense drug addict. 

3. Serpico (Sidney Lumet, 1973)

Experiencing a truly extraordinary run of form through the early 1970s, with a successive run of films including The Panic in Needle Park, The Godfather and Scarecrow, continuing in 1973 with Serpico. Playing an honest New York Cop who uncovers a ring of rampant corruption in the police force, only for his team to turn against him, Pacino’s performance ties together a thrilling crime drama. 

Based on the true story of NYPD officer Frank Serpico, a whistleblower who caused great change in the New York police force, Pacino’s titular performance brings masterful tension to the classic movie.

2. Dog Day Afternoon (Sidney Lumet, 1975)

Considered by many to be one of his most quintessential performances, Pacino plays Sonny Wortzik, a bank robber whose simple plan is foiled and his situation becomes increasingly more complicated. Leading the movie with terrifying hysteria, Pacino fuels the film with intensity, perfectly filling the shoes of his manic character whose situation becomes more and more captivating as the film goes on. 

Starring alongside John Cazale, Sully Boyar, Carol Kane and Penelope Allen, Pacino helped the film win the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay in 1976.

1. The Godfather, Part II (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974)

One of the few examples of a sequel that may be even better than its original, The Godfather, Part II takes all the compelling aspects of the iconic original and heightens them as a sequel should. Playing Michael Corleone in undoubtedly his best on-screen role, Pacino’s extraordinary transformation from a man stuck between his identity as a gangster to an unforgiving criminal is baffling. 

So profound is his transformation from the first film, that Michael becomes a heartbreaking character, with Pacino filling the shoes of the character with a passionate rage and regretful longing.