The eyes, Chico.
They never lie.
These lines were spoken by Al Pacino as Tony Montana in Brian De Palma’s 1983 crime epic Scarface. They apply to every performance ever given by the great Al Pacino, and have special resonance in the film that they made together a decade later, Carlito’s Way.
Al Pacino has always been one of the most revered male actors in American cinema. I grew up watching him on television in the big films like The Godfather, The Godfather part 2, Dog Day Afternoon, and Serpico. Later on, with the convenience of VHS tape rental stores, I went back and found the lesser-known gems like Scarecrow and The Panic in Needle Park. I then saw any film of his that I could in theaters. Pacino can make a poor or mediocre film worth watching, just for his performance. It has been said of his acting that if he is on the screen, you can’t take your eyes off of him. Some actors just have this gift.
THE GODFATHER (1972)
Pacino can do more with his eyes than most other actors can do with their entire body. Recall the tense scene from the first Godfather film where he sits with Sollozzo and the Police Chief at the restaurant table after grabbing the gun from the bathroom. He was instructed to come out shooting, but instead he sits down and considers/stalls the actual descent into becoming a killer. His eyes dart around nervously and the audience agonizes along with him as he teeters on the edge of the businessman/criminal dichotomy. At this point he could fall back into normalcy or cross the line into murder that can never be uncrossed. This is one of those major character-defining moments. We then watch through all three Godfather films as Michael Corelone embraces the killer’s cold heart while still trying to appear as a businessman.
The Godfather’s famous climax juxtaposes the images of Michael’s son being baptized with the heads of the other five families being assassinated, all to the soundtrack of some relatively ominous church chamber music. It is a genius scene where Pacino only says things in response to the priest like, “I do.” But his eyes are amazing. While he is trying to be present and participate in one of the milestones of his life, his mind is elsewhere wondering if all five hits are going successfully. As the priest asks him if he renounces Satan and all of his works, Pacino’s eyes look conspiratorial and evil as he affirms the baptismal statements. It’s one of the greatest montages in all cinema. And Pacino’s eyes are the windows into his now-blackened soul.
The Godfather part 2 ends with a slow zoom in on Pacino’s face after making several decisions that have forever changed him. His hand covers his mouth as he contemplates recent deaths and betrayals, leaving only his eyes visible. I’ve watched this movie probably 30 times, and each time I see a different emotion in his eyes in this scene. Regret, sadness, self-hate, isolation, emptiness, loneliness, stubbornness, justification, shame, and doubt. This powerful ending is where Michael won what he wanted, but completely lost his soul. His eyes contain it all, and show us everything he is thinking as he counts the costs.
In Scarface, Pacino plays a character whose soul is already gone. Tony Montana is pure violent ambition and machismo, out for financial success whatever the cost. He is an assassin, drug user, thief, and drug dealer. Tony is a narcissist, an egomaniac, selfish, and exceptionally jealous. He is responsible for getting everyone close to him killed, including his sister and his best friend (who he actually kills himself). He achieves everything his wants only to then lose it all, making mistake after mistake and going out in a hail of bullets.
Pacino has said in interviews that of all the characters he has played, Tony Montana was the most fun. Perhaps he wanted the challenge of playing a despicable character in such a way that we still like him and root for him. Most actors enjoy playing the villain more than the good guy, and Tony is pure bad in this one. But let that sink in for a moment. The actor who has played Michael Corleone (Godfather trilogy), Sonny (Dog Day Afternoon), Vincent Hanna (Heat), Lefty (Donnie Brasco), Ricky Roma (Glengarry Glenn Ross) and the Devil himself (Devil’s Advocate) cites Tony Montana (Scarface) as his favorite character of his career. You can see why, as he gets to go batshit crazy. De Palma must have at one point said something like, “Al, I trust you, turn it up to 11 if you want to.”
An infamous scene in Scarface is the chainsaw scene. During a drug deal with Columbian drug dealers in hotel room, the Columbians take Tony and his gang hostage and decide to kill them all with a chainsaw. This is the scene that initially got the film an X rating. Honestly, De Palma doesn’t show you much, and when he does it’s just blood splattering on the shower curtain, the chainsaw, or Pacino’s face. But it’s what your mind imagines with the sound effects and horror of the scene that makes it so unforgettable.
During this scene, the leader of the gang, Hector the Frog, wants Tony to watch as he uses the chainsaw on his friend Angel. He hopes that Tony will tell him where he hid the money. As he begins murdering Angel, Tony understandably tries to turn away from the carnage. Another gang member pushes a gun into Tony’s face and moves his head back to witness the carnage. I feel like this is symbolic of De Palma himself making the audience watch this violent scene. And it’s all about Pacino’s eyes. He is being forced to watch the violence just like De Palma is forcing the audience to watch it in the movie.
CARLITO’S WAY (1993)
Carlito’s Way is the spiritual sequel to Scarface. I always felt that it was an alternate universe continuation of the Tony Montana character had he somehow survived the events at the finale of Scarface. If you played the Scarface video game (like I did), you remember that was exactly the whole premise. But, unlike in the game, Carlito isn’t trying to gain all of his territories and power back and get revenge, he’s trying to stay straight and retire on a tropical island with his lady.
Made a decade later, the similarities are too many to overlook. Not only do you have the lead actor and director reunited, but the story is quite similar. It involves the character arc of a criminal going after what he wants and inevitably failing. Any crime film with De Palma directing Pacino will feel like a ripple or echo of Scarface. Some lines are even repeated in both films. In Scarface, Pacino memorably calls someone a ‘fucking cock-a-roach.’ While in Carlito’s Way when Pacino says that someone is a friend of his, Frankie says, “He’s a fucking cockroach.’
Two important supporting actors appear in both films. Actor Angel Salazar played Chi Chi, a member of Tony’s gang in Scarface. He also appears in Carlito’s Way as Walberto. Actor Al Israel played Hector the Toad in Scarface. He was the Colombian drug dealer who took a chainsaw to Tony’s friend. He appears in Carlito’s Way as Rolando. Both of these characters died in Scarface, but whether we consciously remember them or not, our unconscious registers their faces. Their return into the life of the Tony/Carlito character feels like ghosts from the past haunting him. This is no random accident of casting. De Palma knew exactly what he was doing by adding them to the cast.
There is extensive use of mirror images in this film that I won’t get too deep into here. But briefly, there are many shots that are exact mirror images of each other. The close up of Pacino’s face nose to nose juxtaposed with with Benny from the Bronx, the arrogant younger version of himself. A double reflection can symbolize the duality of man, the good and evil, the young and the old. Carlito struggles with his two sides all throughout this film. His criminal past versus his dreams of the future. His old violent ways versus forgiveness. The use of the mirrored sunglasses of the bad guy in the pool hall. He shoots the main villain in front of a mirror. Carlito escapes into the bathroom of the pool hall after the shootout and we see his reflection in the mirror as he taunts the remaining villains outside. It happens of frequently it makes me think of him being haunted by his own ghost. The scene with Carlito and Gail in the mirror, that Pacino ends up smashing in anger, distorting the image of himself just as is happening in the story.
But his eyes….the great emotive Pacino eyes. Two scenes in particular have always stuck in my head from this film. The first scene is in the pool hall as he realizes something is wrong with the simple pick up that his cousin asked him to come along for. Carlito is leaning back against the red bricks and calculating a way to gain access to a weapon and trying to save his cousin and himself. His eyes dart around again, similar to in The Godfather, as he thinks under pressure of a way to gain control of the situation. No need for narration. His eyes are expressing the fear, panic he is trying to conceal, and a smart criminal mind figuring out a way out. Then he peels himself off of the wall and moves to engage the group and gain control by entertaining them with the distraction of a pool trick.
The second scene is where Carlito opens the safe in his nightclub and found his money missing. He figures out who likely took it and walks through the club to find and confront him. At this point in the film everything is falling apart, and any character is expendable, so we expect Carlito to murder Ron right in front of a full capacity crowd in the club. Pacino storms out across the floor and De Palma has a hand-held camera right in front of him so we can see his rage building. His anger is palpable in his walk and his glare. Pacino’s eyes are communicating everything, and it’s a scene that you cannot look away from.
In writing this Pacino piece, I realized that each of the major films I discussed have a pretty memorable scene that happens in the bathroom. In The Godfather, Michael goes into the bathroom to get the gun left there for him. The sound of the elevated traincar outside rumbles loudly, intensifying his upcoming moment of murder. In Scarface, Tony and his gang are brought into the bathroom where the chainsaw murder occurs. And in Carlito’s Way he runs into the bathroom and yells out various bluffs, remembering how to be the tough guy he once was, even with an empty gun.
I love Al Pacino and hope that we get to keep looking into his eyes for a long time to come.
Some favorite Al Pacino films of mine:
THE PANIC IN NEEDLE PARK
THE GODFATHER PART 2
DOG DAY AFTERNOON
SEA OF LOVE
GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS
THE DEVIL’S ADVOCATE