Steve Wood/Hulton Archive/Getty Images Steve Wood/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
By Jon Friedman

No modern actor screams New York quite like Al Pacino. Raised in the Bronx, he never ‘went Hollywood’ and has maintained his residence in the metropolitan area ever since he made his mark on 1971’s Panic In Needle Park — and was there a more quintessential movie title than that one at the time?

Pacino has been a movie star for four decades. But to me, he is personified by the two films that use New York as its backdrop, 1973’s Serpico and 1975’s Dog Day Afternoon. It doesn’t matter that Pacino plays lead parts as divergent as a good cop in Serpico and a bungling bank robber in Dog Day Afternoon two years later.

What about that little slice-of-life-Mafia-family picture (pictures!) that Pacino did around the same time? You know, The Godfather and The Godfather, Part II? Yes, Pacino was brilliant as Michael Corleone in both of them. He carried the epic films. Sure, Brando, DeNiro, Duvall, Caan and Cazale et al were each terrific in the films, but both movies centered on Michael’s human disintegration. If Pacino had failed to convince us the movies would have flopped, but characteristically, he rose to the occasion.

Now, the burning question: Serpico or Dog Day Afternoon?

Movie fans have strong opinions about this otherwise innocuous question ideally designed to help pass the time on a rainy day in a bar. When I posed it on Facebook a few days ago, I got, well, strong contrasting opinions. Which movie you prefer says a lot about you.

Serpico is a romantic story without any hint of romance. Frank Serpico, in his quest to curb corruption in the NYPD, is a text book narcissist. While his cause is noble and admirable, he is not. As his partner in justice, played skillfully by actor Tony Roberts, he is what Roberts calls him in the movie: a spoiled child. He becomes so utterly obsessed by his crusade that he loses the best woman he was likely  to attract — someone who was pretty, kind, sensible and completely devoted to him — and drove her away with his endless tirades about his helplessness regarding corruption. It was Serpico’s tragic flaw.

On the other hand, Pacino’s Sonny in Dog Day Afternoon was a bad guy you wanted to root for because of his humanity (and how cosmically cool was it that Pacino coincidentally played a character named Sonny, of all names, only three years after the release of The Godfather?). This Sonny was robbing a bank to help pay for the sex-change operation of Chris Sarandon’s character. The movie seemed to be shot in one take, with more realism than artistry, though Sidney Lumet (the New York film genius who directed both of Pacino’s grand NYC movies) exhibited tremendous care from scene to scene.

Now, to the point of what you are, depending on which film you prefer. I’d say, if you liked Serpico better, you’re probably someone who:

  • has been accused of being a narcissist yourself
  • gets obsessed about whatever is driving you crazy
  • is occasionally difficult to be around because the whole world has to revolve around you

If Dog Day Afternoon grabbed you, then you:

  • on occasion take exceptionally foolish chances just to try to get what you want
  • have ben accused of having no class
  • are so focused on meeting your goal that you don’t care what happens or who gets thrown under the same bus

OK, so, which one are you? Forgetting for a moment my little dime-storepsychological babble, which movie do you like better — and why?

Feel free to tell us at New York Natives. We want to hear from you.

P.S. OK, OK, I prefer Dog Day Afternoon, in a photo finish because of Pacino’s tour de force of acting. “Atica! Attica! Attica!” That memorable scene alone should have netted him his first Oscar — sorry, Cuckoo’s Nest fans. I think Pacino deserved it more than Jack Nicholson. Pacino was so charismatic in Dog Day Afternoon that despite the amazing twists and turns in the plot, I was there with him on his journey. His humor in the movie is poignant, such as when his dim sidekick John Cazale, when asked by Sonny what country he wants to escape to, says, “Wyoming.” You really feel sorry for Pacino in that moment because you realize he was so dumb to pick his idiotic sidekicks that he never had a chance in the first place.

Regardless of your selection, this question stands a s a monument to Pacino’s brilliance. There has never been anyone quite like him. Robert DeNiro is also an actor of special New York chops. So is Dustin Hoffman, who moved here from LA as a young man to pursue an acting career. Travis Bickle, Jake LaMotta, Lenny Bruce, Ted Kramer (vs. Kramer), and so on are unforgettable New Yorkers of various distinctions.

But Pacino is his generation’s the quintessential New York actor.

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