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The Irishman: Pacino and De Niro Are Better Apart

Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman finally brings together the two cinematic legends: Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. Why have they been kept apart for so long? In this video, we take on the very few times these icons have shared the screen—and how The Irishman has built upon their history of separateness.

TRANSCRIPT

Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman stars two of the world’s best-known and best-loved actors, who both emerged from the adventurous studio films of the 1970s: Al Pacino, and Robert De Niro. These men are very much associated with each other, so it might come as a surprise just how few movies they’ve actually made together. Before The Irishman, these stars, who’ve both been acting for more than half a century, shared the screen only three times —in The Godfather Part II, Heat, and Righteous Kill.

Neil McCauley: “We’ve been face to face, yeah.- Heat (1995)

Over a decade passed between each of these movies, and in two out of the three, they have few, if any, scenes together. For a long time, this was a source of frustration to fans of both actors. These two icons seem like such compatible co-stars. They’ve both played a lot of cops, they’ve both played a lot of crooks, and they’ve both worked with some of the same filmmakers. So why haven’t they overlapped more over the years?

The Irishman finally delivers the DeNiro-Pacino team-up that viewers have long been denied — but it works because it builds on the pair’s cinematic history of separateness, at first strategically keeping the actors apart, and then using restraint and tension in their onscreen togetherness. Here’s our take on how Al Pacino and Robert De Niro are more powerful when they’re kept apart.

The Godfather Part II: Separated by Time:

Apart is how De Niro and Pacino first co-starred. For 1974’s The Godfather Part II, they couldn’t share any scenes, because their characters were separated by time. De Niro plays Pacino’s father, Vito Corleone, as a young immigrant, in flashbacks that intercut with the continuing story of Pacino’s adult Michael Corleone.

Throughout this epic film, it’s poignant to watch Vito make choices as a young man that will change the course of his life, and the life of his son. De Niro doesn’t appear in The Godfather Part II for almost 45 minutes, and, technically, he’s first seen with Pacino director Francis Ford Coppola dissolves from a close-up of Pacino’s face into De Niro’s first scene. These dissolves are a motif in the movie, first used to transition from Michael talking with his son to Vito and his infant son, and used again to move between Michael learning about the loss of his unborn child to Vito looking over Michael as a baby. The transitions link the characters across the decades, finding emotional parallels and continuity between past and present.

Back in 1974, keeping them apart was not a choice based on the actors’ fame, as their reputations

didn’t precede them in the same way as they do now. But these first shared images of DeNiro and Pacino somehow bound together, but distinctly apart, were unwitting precursors of what was to come in the duo’s cinematic relationship.

Heat: Separated by Design:

In the twenty years between Godfather II and Heat, Robert De Niro and Al Pacino developed pretty different signature acting styles.

Tony Montana: “Say hello to my little friend. - Scarface (1983)

Pacino is known for going bigger and hammier, playing characters who are larger than life, while De Niro is known for going quieter and more internal, playing characters who are less prone to rococo speechifying. That said, they’re both capable of assuming each other’s typical characteristics. De Niro can certainly ham it up, while Pacino knows how to dial it down.

If anyone ever tries to tell you that either of them lacks range, consider that all four of those examples you just saw are from movies that came out in the same year —1997. For their second film together, Heat, writer-director Michael Mann casts them both to type. De Niro is the softer-spoken but icy professional criminal, while Pacino is the flamboyant cop on his trail.

Just like in Godfather II, the movie cuts between their storylines. But this time, they’re not separated by time; Pacino’s cops are always right on the trail of De Niro’s criminals. There’s constant tension between the storylines, and especially for fans of both actors, who spend a lot of the movie wondering when they might actually cross paths. The two legends finally meet just past the halfway point. After nearly 90 minutes of cat-and-mouse pursuit, Pacino’s Vincent Hanna pulls over De Niro’s Neil McCauley and asks to sit down with him, taking a “time out” from their jobs.

Neil McCauley: “What do you say I buy you a cup of coffee?” - Heat (1995)

What follows is a six-minute scene that doesn’t have a lot of traditional firepower. There’s no violence, no dramatic change; neither actor even really raises his voice. Pacino and De Niro are seen together on screen for the first time, but still, their faces are mostly kept apart. Michael Mann shoots them both over the shoulder, meaning that when De Niro’s face is visible, Pacino’s back is to the camera, and vice versa. This scene has the only real dialogue the two actors share in the entire movie, and Mann doesn’t always keep the camera on whoever is speaking. Mann makes these characters listening to each other the focus of the scene. The honesty of their dialogue is even more powerful when we’re looking at one face at a time, reacting as well as speaking. And even though visually the characters remain separate, they’re closer than they’ve ever been.

Vincent Hanna: “I don’t know how to do anything else.” - Heat (1995)

It’s just one scene together, but the simple weight of that quiet conversation hangs over the rest of the movie.

Righteous Kill: Together Without Tension:

So what happens when De Niro and Pacino aren’t limited to a single scene? The answer is Righteous Kill, which came 13 years after Heat. This time, they’re both cops, dealing with a serial killer who’s murdering criminals. On the surface, Righteous Kill gives fans of the actors exactly what they want: Pacino and De Niro, on-screen together, constantly. They banter on the job! They attend softball games! At the end, they confront each other over a dumb twist ending!

Rooster: “I couldn’t stop. Finally, I didn’t want to.”

Turk: “And what am I gonna do my friend, partner, arrest you?” - Righteous Kill (2008)

And yet the big Pacino/De Niro partnership starts to feel routine. It’s confusing because both actors have been good in plenty of non-classic movies.

Al Pacino: “You want cream and goodness, I’m your friend. Say hello to my chocolate glaze.” - Jack and Jill (2011)

Why can’t they elevate a middling thriller like Righteous Kill, especially with the novelty of them teaming up? The answer is the lack of tension. Righteous Kill puts its stars together immediately. Director Jon Avnet goes out of his way to put them side by side, even when they’re not in the same physical space. And sure, it’s exciting to see De Niro and Pacino side by side at a firing range over the opening credits. But the fan-service choice to give audiences all this much longed-for DeNiro-Pacino togetherness erodes the drama that derives from their distance.

No matter how many scenes they share, the actors’ generically crusty buddy cop characters don’t have much of substance to say or do. Instead of real back-and-forth or exchange, there’s a bunch of monologuing.

Rooster: “A righteous man before me stands. A hero, in these filthy lands.” - Righteous Kill (2008)

So in 100 minutes of all this proximity, there aren’t any scenes as quietly powerful as the dialogue-free showdown in Heat.

The Irishman: Together for Real:

Which brings us to The Irishman. As De Niro’s Frank Sheeran, a union man, and mob enforcer, becomes close with Pacino’s Jimmy Hoffa, Martin Scorsese uses the actors’ onscreen history to give their scenes greater impact than if they had been more frequent co-stars all these years. The movie upholds the tradition of keeping the stars apart, by having their first meeting happen not in person, but over the phone.

Frank Sheeran: “Glad to meet ya.”

Jimmy Hoffa: “Well glad to meet you too, even if it’s over the phone.” - The Irishman (2019)

This contact doesn’t happen until a little over 45 minutes in — a wait that might remind us of the Godfather Part II — except this time it’s Pacino who doesn’t appear for around three-quarters of an hour. Scorsese even interrupts their first conversation to show Hoffa in his natural habitat, speechifying to a bunch of teamsters.

Jimmy Hoffa: “I wanna write it in the sky: Solidarity!” - The Irishman (2019)

Later, the first sit-down meeting between Hoffa and Sheeran is shot something like Heat. Their bodies share the frame, but their faces never do, as Hoffa sizes up his new lacky, with another character positioned between them. In the next scene, Pacino and De Niro really share the frame for the first time in a decade. The intimacy they’re experiencing as colleagues is limited—but very noticeable. That’s even more evident in a later scene where Hoffa berates a room full of flunkies.

When Sheeran leaves in a huff and Hoffa follows him to apologize for lumping him in with the others, they’re framed making actual physical contact, and it has a disarmingly tender, funny effect.

Jimmy Hoffa: “Aw, c’mon, Frank, you know me better than that. You just know me better than that.”

The confrontational nature of past De Niro and Pacino roles, and their lack of mutual screen time, primes you to expect a face-off. But, like Michael Mann, Scorsese understands that this build-up does a lot of the work for him. When these actors do share the screen, they can be lower-key. For example, they can spend a scene quietly getting ready for bed, wearing grandpa pajamas. They can give each other a reassuring hug. They can discuss the finer points of meeting etiquette.

Jimmy Hoffa: “This isn’t right, this isn’t right. You don’t do this, you don’t keep a man waiting.”

Frank Sheeran: “I know, I know.” - The Irishman

These are moments that might seem inconsequential with less iconic actors. But Pacino and De Niro performing them together is significant. That significance gets heavier as the movie goes on. Hoffa becomes more at odds with the mob, and Sheeran tries to smooth things over.

Instead, he’s eventually tasked with killing Hoffa. In a scene leading up to Hoffa’s murder, Hoffa and Sheeran ride together in the back of a car. From this vantage point, the natural set-up is to have them sharing the frame, and Scorsese does, creating an uneasy intimacy. There’s a sweetness to Hoffa’s trust and palpable discomfort from Sheeran, who knows what’s coming. Their chummy old man physical contact is echoed, faintly, when they share the frame together for the last time. All this lead-up — based on decades of cinematic history— makes the sudden burst of violence especially chilling. And fittingly, as Sheeran leaves, we see Hoffa’s body alone in the frame.

In the movie’s final scene, too, we leave DeNiro all alone — but he’s left the door open. The film closes with this image of longing — as if Sheeran is hoping that the spirit of his lost friend might slip in through the crack. With its de-aging technology, The Irishman ultimately feels like an attempt to go back and rewrite history to unite these two. Yet even within the story, the result is a distance that neither can cross, despite their mutual fondness and respect.

We might imagine an alternate cinematic past in which Pacino and De Niro could have been a frequent duo. But that wasn’t the way it happened. What we got instead is a relationship built in middle-age and beyond, with the weight of both actors’ storied histories behind it. The movies are fewer, but the moments are greater—and their decades apart pay off spectacularly with their work together in The Irishman. Even if it is the last time.

Neil McCauley: “Well maybe we’ll never see each other again.” - Heat (1995)