Outta Order: Al Pacino and 1970s New York City
Between 1970 -1979, Pacino starred in four films set in contemporary New York City
Al Pacino took up smoking when he was nine years old. By the time he turned fourteen he was drinking heavily. For most of his teen years, a gang of cronies would follow him around the South Bronx neighborhood they called home, and he was nearly expelled from high school for fighting with his teachers. He was also an uncommonly sensitive kid who, unbeknownst to his friends, idolized Paul Newman in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and loved seeing plays with his mother. Legend has it that, during a high school production that called for his character to feel sick, he made himself so nauseous that he almost threw up onstage.
It was Pacino’s good fortune—and ours—to be born at a time when rebelliousness wasn’t regarded as an obstacle to a great acting career but as its key ingredient. In 1966, he was accepted into the Actors Studio in Manhattan, where he studied with Lee Strasberg (often considered the father of American method acting). By the time Pacino arrived, Strasberg had already trained a legion of great performers with his controversial interpretation of the ideas of the Russian theater practitioner Konstantin Stanislavski, emphasizing the need to construct a character from the “inside out,” beginning with the performer’s profoundest emotions and memories. Strasberg’s detractors complained that, in order to master the fiery, hyper-masculine roles in which the Actors Studio trafficked, a method actor would first need to have a traumatic, action-packed childhood. For Pacino, this wasn’t a problem.
Between 1970 -1979, Pacino starred in four films set in contemporary New York City, all of which will be playing at Film Forum in July as part of a month-long series on New York in the 1970s: The Panic In Needle Park, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, and Cruising. All four were directed by notable New Hollywood auteurs, drew extensively from nonfiction sources, and revolve around the quintessentially cinematic battle between cops and criminals. In spite of their vast stylistic differences, there are moments when the films, viewed back-to-back, seem like installments in one epic meditation on New York, masculinity, and—implicitly—acting itself, with Pacino modeling, critiquing, and occasionally spoofing the performance style he mastered during his time at the Actors Studio.
Anyone who’s ever moved to New York from a small town—and, of course, plenty of people who haven’t, too—knows that big city life toughens you up. NYC forces its inhabitants to rethink the faces they wear on a crowded street, becoming intimidating enough to discourage canvassers, confused tourists, and those irritating CD salesmen in Times Square. In all four of Pacino’s 1970s New York features, his characters perform the age-old ritual of acting tougher than they really are. In The Panic in Needle Park, his first film as a leading man, Pacino plays Bobby, an addict and dealer who brags that he’ll be running the heroin market soon and steals a cheap TV for no other reason than to impress his girlfriend. He is, in other words, a familiar Neorealist archetype: like Il Matto in La Strada or Ilya in the recent Heaven Knows What, he breezes through his days, disobeying society’s laws with gleeful impunity, only to be yanked suddenly and painfully back to earth.
Panic was the sophomore feature of Jerry Schatzberg, a Vogue photographer turned director; his career has attracted considerable attention in recent years partly because, as with so many talented filmmakers of the era, it more or less ended in the ‘70s. In Panic, there’s a fascinating tension between Schatzberg’s removed, third-person aesthetic, and Pacino’s intense, method approach, resulting in a performance and a portrait of New York City unlike anything else in either man’s filmography. Midway through the film, when Bobby discovers that his girlfriend has been prostituting herself, Pacino gives the first of the “freakouts” that quickly become his trademark; just a few seconds later, however, we see him lying in bed, drugged out and docile. Rather than delving into Bobby’s secret compulsions, desires, and drives, Panic prefers to study its characters from the outside in, showing how their emotions—indeed, their entire selves—ebb and flow with the availability of heroin. Strasberg’s method acting aims to create the illusion of a fully formed human being. Panic suggests that Bobby and his peers can’t become full human beings: they’re slaves to the caprices of the drug market and of New York itself.
The same year Panic was released, Francesco Vincent Serpico of the NYPD was shot by a drug dealer in Williamsburg. At the time, Serpico was the most famous cop in the country: He’d been instrumental in gathering evidence of bribery and extortion in the NYPD, and after the shooting he testified before the Knapp Commission on Police Corruption. Serpico, the first of the two 1970s New York films Pacino made with Sidney Lumet, begins with the news of Serpico’s shooting and then circles back to examine his long career in the NYPD. One of the great pleasures of watching the film is learning how the young Serpico, whom Pacino plays as a young, naïve rookie, grows into the stoic whistleblower we’re told about in the prologue—a slow transformation that commands one of Pacino’s subtlest, most psychologically acute performances.
A sizeable chunk of Serpico has aged poorly. Mikis Theodorakis’s score is especially grating, Waldo Salt and Norman Wexler’s screenplay doesn’t always move deftly between comedy and drama, and, as with so many Pacino films, the female characters are mostly forgettable. Serpico features one of the clumsiest uses of New York in any Pacino movie, alternating between grotesque, poorly lit interior scenes and exterior shots of trains and bridges that tend to function as green-screens rather than essential parts of the film. Dog Day Afternoon, Pacino and Lumet’s second, vastly superior collaboration, refines most of what felt disjointed and contradictory in Serpico: comedy and drama, interiors and exteriors, scripted action and improvisation. In Serpico, Lumet seems to hold New York City at arm’s length. For Dog Day Afternoon—and, for that matter, the many other New York films he made after 1975—he adapted to the city’s rhythms, sounds, and its unique brand of humor, rethinking the stagey style he’d developed over the first two decades of his career.
Frank Pierson’s screenplay for Dog Day Afternoon was based on the true story of John Wojtowicz, a half-Italian, half-Polish Brooklynite who tried to rob a bank to pay for his girlfriend’s sex reassignment surgery, and briefly became a TV sensation when he took some of the bank employees as hostages (a 1972 Life article noted that Wojtowicz looked a lot like Pacino). As befit a story about the blurring of reality and entertainment, Lumet opted for a more improvisational shoot than he’d permitted in his earlier work, drawing on the inherent randomness of New York City. Learning his lesson from Serpico, he forbade non-diegetic music of any kind and enlisted more than three hundred extras to stand outside the First Brooklyn Bank—in the end, more than a thousand other New Yorkers showed up for free.
It wouldn’t be implausible to suggest that Lumet figured out how to film New York by figuring out how to film Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon. For the first time as a filmmaker, Lumet allowed his cast to improvise long stretches of dialogue and then worked their changes into the script—many of the film’s most famous moments, including Pacino’s “Attica!” speech, and his long phone call with Chris Sarandon, playing his lover, made it into the final cut in this way. Midway through the film, Pacino asks a stone-faced FBI agent if he’d like to kill him. When the agent replies, “I will if I have to,” he shoots back, “The guy who kills me, I hope he does it because he hates my guts, not because it’s his job.” The exchange—improvised, then incorporated into Pierson’s screenplay—may be the defining moment of Pacino’s 70s New York quartet. In a single line, he unleashes a flurry of emotions, chiefly contempt, fury, and frustration, summing up the city in the mid-seventies: contempt for the police—those cold, pre-method performers who do their jobs, stick to the script, and don’t allow themselves to feel what they’re doing, fury with New York, and the way law and gentrification have sterilized the old, vibrant neighborhoods in which Wojtowicz—and Pacino—grew up, and above all, frustration with himself, unable to affect enough toughness to fight back.
A lot happened in the five years between the releases of Dog Day Afternoon and Cruising, the last and strangest of Pacino’s ‘70s New York films. The Son of Sam killed six people, and a lightning strike robbed most of the city of electricity, prompting a night of looting that caused more than a hundred million dollars in damage. Earlier that same year, Studio 54 opened its doors; a gaggle of glittery discotheques followed soon after. From its first scene, Cruising, directed by William Friedkin, makes the point that was on every New Yorker’s mind in 1980: New York by night is a wilder beast than New York by day. Friedkin (who also made The French Connection, a radically different portrait of 1970s NYC) paints the nocturnal city in expressionistic purples and greens, so that it bears more of a resemblance to the alluring, terrifying New York Cities of Eyes Wide Shut or Paul Schrader’s remake of Cat People than to anything in a Lumet or Schatzberg movie.
Even before its release, Friedkin’s film came under fire for homophobia. It didn’t help that Cruising was based on an outrageously dated novel, by the New York Times reporter Gerald Walker, about a bigoted cop who goes undercover in the S&M scene to track down a serial killer. Seen today, Cruising doesn’t seem as offensive as activists predicted it would be. Even so, Cruising is a frustrating mess of a movie, with some scenes bordering on genuine transgression and others trying too hard to avoid offending liberal or conservative audiences.
As a film about homosexuality, Cruising is a headache. As a film about acting—the ins and outs of getting into character, committing to a role, and, given enough time, becoming someone else—it’s something of a closing statement for the first decade of Pacino’s remarkable career. In order to track down a gay serial killer, Sergeant Steve Burns, the undercover cop played by Pacino, goes through every stage of the method actor’s process: doing extensive research, perfecting his mannerisms and vocal patterns, and, especially in the Director’s Cut, connecting his role back to his own life experiences. The film’s ending strongly implies that Burns has become a gay serial killer in the process of trying to catch another one. In this respect, it dramatizes a concern that’s as foreign to the average person as it is familiar to a great actor: becoming so committed to a role that you can never go back to being yourself.
In each of Pacino’s four ‘70s New York roles, he seems to be fighting a battle with his city, struggling to assert his selfhood to the crowds and the drugs and the cops. At the end of Cruising, he finally seems to submit, allowing the city to eat him alive. Pacino would appear in many other New York films, but none feel as strongly rooted in a specific place and time as his collaborations with Schatzberg, Friedkin, and Lumet. Partly as a result, his late New York performances—Scent of a Woman is the prime example—sometimes come off as unmotivated and over-the-top, as if he’s sparring with an opponent who’s long since left the ring. Times have changed since Pacino wrapped his first starring role: Needle Park is a cute date spot, Greenwich Village has gone mainstream, and the city as a whole sometimes feels too vanilla for its own good. As far as Pacino’s acting is concerned, that’s a shame—1970s New York, with all its intoxicating danger, brought out the best in him.