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The Greatest Performance of All Time: Al Pacino in The Godfather

5 min read

Tom Mimnagh looks at why as is one of – the first in a new series looking at the greatest.

The cultural impact and influence of The Godfather is undeniable. It is easily one of the most loved and lauded motion pictures of the twentieth century. In fact, you only need to see how often the film's big set pieces are referenced and parodied in popular culture to understand the impact Francis Ford Coppola's masterpiece had. Whether it's a horse's head, or an offer that cannot be refused, the appeal and resonance of The Godfather is enduring. With the 4k Blu Ray restoration getting a re-release to mark the 50th anniversary of the film's initial release in cinemas, there feels like no better time to discuss Al Pacino's portrayal of in The Godfather, and why it is without doubt the best acting performance of all time. A lofty claim? Perhaps, but not one without merit.

A masterclass from start to finish

Pacino's performance is a masterclass from start to finish. As the film begins, he conveys a childlike innocence, and a fresh-facedness, with Michael close to the family but not within the family business. He embodies the heroic ideals of post-WW2 America, full of sacrifice and hope. However, the family business begins to pull Michael in, and as the involvement with the murky underworld his father and brothers inhabit chips away at that innocence. Michael is torn between two worlds, something Pacino manages to demonstrate to the audience through the way he gives his lines, but also the way his eyes pierce the screen. There's an unspoken reluctance, a reticence that slowly, gradually is ebbed away by loyalty and duty. It's a subtle shift, and an internal conflict within Michael that seeps through the screen. 

Perhaps the most pivotal scene in the film, and one of Pacino's finest moments, comes when Michael is tasked with the assassination of Sollazzo and Police Captain McCluskey. Naturally it's a scene that has been praised over the years for its tension and unique use of sound design, but it's Pacino' s facial expressions that sell the gravity of his situation. From the audience perspective you can see the darkness slowly engulfing him, although his inexperience also betrays his nervousness. Even the way he drops the gun, not as instructed, but with a sense of shock and confusion over what has just transpired continues to add layers to the performance. It is instantly obvious that his life is forever changed.

However, it is during Michael's time in Sicily that Pacino really transforms. The sprawling countryside and tiny villages offer a stark juxtaposition to the urban jungle of New York. An ease and a self confidence that was previously missing begins to  present itself in Michael, again not through anything overt but via the subtlety of Pacino's performance. It's something in his eyes, his smile – as if something is changing within him. The old Michael begins to disappear, replaced but the man who will eventually lead his family to dominance.

When Michael's newly found love is killed in an attempt on his life, the metamorphosis is complete, with a cold, dead stillness emerging from behind his gaze. It really is astonishing to see Pacino's transformation here, seemingly ageing in front of the camera by a decade, suddenly burdened by the weight of the underworld. While the film's events take place over roughly that period, it's a testament to the job Pacino does here that it is so evident that Michael has matured into the heir to Don Vito's throne right in front of the audience's eyes.

The return

The Michael that returns from Sicily is almost unrecognisable from the man who left, and even more distant from the dutiful army hero we are introduced to at his sister's wedding. There's a calculating, violent undertone to his actions and a seriousness and menace to his words that wasn't present before. When Michael speaks to his father upon his return it is with an authority and presence that shows his growth into the head of the family, easily capable of succeeding his father, especially after Sonny's death. The delivery of some of Pacino's lines in the final act of the film are borderline chilling. When he warns Fredo about where his loyalties should lie after their meeting with Moe Greene in Las Vegas, it carries an aura of threat despite a lack of aggression in the tone he uses. His assured certainty is in many ways the greatest threat of all.

As The Godfather reaches its conclusion, and Michael unveils his plan to eradicate the various enemies of the Corleone family in one foul swoop, his transformation is complete. The baby-faced, optimistic youthful exuberance is replaced by the cold, dead eyes of a calculated killer. It's a phenomenal performance that still holds up fifty years later.

Heavyweights with incredible pedigree

Al Pacino's portrayal of Michael Corleone is partly so spectacular because of the way he is able to interact with his co-stars. The relationships he creates on screen are incredibly believable and the variety of chemistry he strikes up with his peers really makes it feel like they are a real family. His interactions with Sonny, and the chat with Don Vito when's in the hospital; and again in contrast when he returns from his exile in Sicily are genuinely emotional moments that light up the screen. Don Vito Corleone has to be considered one Marlon Brando's most iconic roles, and despite that Pacino is still the biggest star in every scene he inhabits, simply due to the strength of his performance. The same could be said for his scenes with fellow heavyweights James Caan, Talia Shire and Diane Keaton. These are huge names with incredible pedigree, but Pacino outshines them with intensity and a sense of authenticity. 

The chemistry

Speaking of Diane Keaton, her chemistry with Pacino is outstanding, and her character's outsider perspective to the family family business provides a brilliant counterpoint to Michael's ever-darkening mafia boss in the making. The final shot of the film underlines this brilliantly, as Michael fulfils his destiny as the new Don Corleone, and she is left aghast as the door closes, shutting her out of his business dealings forever. It's a fantastically simple scene, but it is so effective because of the two actors who convey so much, with merely a look. 

When you think about Michael Corleone, obviously you think of Al Pacino. Although with some roles you can imagine how another actor could possibly take on that part, or could even bring a fresh spin to that character in a remake or a reboot. Dustin Hoffman, Robert Redford and even Martin Sheen were considered for the role. Yet not one of these actors feel like they could have pulled this off in the same way Pacino did. It's almost perverse to imagine the idea of anyone else as Michael Corleone, such is the iconic nature of what Pacino achieved with this film. Although it's far from his only legendary performance, and it may lack the bombastic, scenery-chewing moments that have come to characterise his acting style in certain other roles, Michael Corleone is perhaps his greatest triumph. 

The Godfather Trilogy available on 4K UHD and Digital now