Dog Day Afternoon

Dir: Sidney Lumet, 1975. Starring: Al Pacino, John Cazale, Chris Sarandon, Charles Durning, James Broderick. Drama.
Dog Day Afternoon

Known for his New York street realism, director Sidney Lumet opens Dog Day Afternoon with sunny shots of the streets of Brooklyn while Elton John's "Amoreena" plays on the soundtrack. Creating a documentary-like feeling under the fluorescent lights of an urban bank, Lumet creates a tense "you are there" feeling. Doing so, Lumet has made one of the great bank robbery films, as well as a powerful character study and a taut drama. Apparently based on a true story, it marks career peaks for Lumet and the young Al Pacino, in maybe his most likable performance.

Trying to raise money for his boyfriend's sex-change operation, Sonny (Pacino) and Sal (John Cazale) rob a bank (there is a third cohort who gets cold feet and walks away at the start). After wasting time letting the bank employees use the bathroom, the police get involved and turn a simple robbery into a hostage situation. With news crews hovering, this was the beginning of instant news turning criminals into stars. Sonny plays to the crowds who have gathered to gawk outside the bank by yelling at the cops and shouting Attica (a prison riot that turned into a massacre by a trigger happy state trooper, that was still hot in the day, another reason for folks to question the authority of "the man."). The working class Sonny also has a big fat shrew of a wife (whom he abuses) and a ton of kids, as well as a pushy, emotional mother - you can see why this Vietnam vet is so tightly wound.

The (mostly female) bank employees who become hostages come to like and admire Sonny and the stone-faced, but sensitive Sal, though credibility is pushed when they are allowed to hold the robber's guns. In its day, making the hero of the film a swish-free homosexual was ahead of its time, though upon learning of his sexuality the crowd outside the bank turns against Sonny. The audience watching the movie doesn't, and in some ways it makes his plight more sympathetic. Sonny’s naive optimism for finding a happy ending in his dire predicament almost borders on black comedy, as does his harrowing phone conversation with his damaged and fragile boyfriend, Leon (Chris Sarandon), who plays like a Tennessee William heroine. Lumet and screenwriter Frank Pierson (Cool Hand Luke), dare the audience to root for the survival of these two criminals.

Sonny and Leon had been married in a ceremony; this was decades before such acts made for political fodder. With the exception of Peter Finch in John Schlesinger’s Sunday Bloody Sunday five years earlier, it was very rare for a major actor and a major director to make a film about a male homosexual, who, though he may be a "loser," was not a psycho (of course dozens of films hinted at a character’s homosexuality, like Paul Newman in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof or Marlon Brando in Reflections in a Golden Eye, but it was never out and out declared). Pacino would go even further into gay controversy a few years later, with the ultra-ugly Cruising, a film that had a much more negative take on its character's controversial sexuality.

This was Pacino and Lumet’s second film together after the excellent cop drama Serpico (over Pacino’s five decade career, to my counting Pacino has played some form of police officer seven times, while playing a crook at least a dozen times). In this period Pacino had just had his mesmerizing star making role of Michael Corleone in the first two Godfather films. By the mid-'70s, Pacino was part of a new generation of actors for a new Hollywood, where the superstars like Jack Nicholson, Gene Hackman, and Dustin Hoffman where considered "everymen" - they didn’t look like Clark Gable or the leading men of the past and they had serious theater backgrounds giving them an intense respect for their craft. Pacino’s post-Dog Day Afternoon career for the last 35 years has been hit or miss. He's been good in a handful of films including Glengarry Glen Ross and The Insider, but more often the quiet intensity of Sonny and Michael has given way to a hammy, over-the-top style with loud performances in films like Scarface and his Oscar winning performance in scenery-chewathon Scent Of A Woman. Pacino has never been as good as he was in Dog Day Afternoon.

As well as Pacino’s powerful work, the supporting performances in Dog Day Afternoon are excellent. The bank employees, Sonny’s family and boyfriend, the overwhelmed cop who negotiates with Sonny (the always great Charles Durning), the cold FBI agent who takes over negotiations (James Broderick, father of Matthew) all lend to the film's authenticity. But as Sal, the great John Cazale steals the film. With his nervous face under long, sweaty hair and exposed forehead, we are told Sal will kill everyone, but you can sense what a scared and sensitive man/child he may actually be. Sal is a tragic character, his outcome feels inevitable. Cazale would appear in only five movies before his death of lung cancer, five major, important films as Fredo in The Godfather and The Godfather Part II, The Conversation, The Deer Hunter, and Dog Day Afternoon. Five for five. What an amazing but short career. Had he lived who knows what other great characters Cazale would have left us with?

Lumet would continue to make more memorable films including Network, Prince Of The City, Running On Empty, and most importantly, The Verdict. It’s too bad he and Pacino didn’t work together again; he may have been able to bring Pacino’s style back to realism. Seventies realism is what this film is about. It’s up there with the gritty films of that period about American underdogs like Midnight Cowboy, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, and even Rocky. Most of these characters, underdogs who reach to overcome their odds in search of some form of dignity, don't actually accomplish their goals, but it’s their effort, no matter how misguided, that moves and inspires us.

_________________________

Dog Day Afternoon won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay (Frank Pierson). It was nominated for an additional five Oscars: Best Actor (Al Pacino), Best Supporting Actor (Chris Sarandon), Best Director, Best Film Editing, and Best Picture.

Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Dec 27, 2010 5:49pm
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