Retro Review: Dog Day Afternoon

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Retro Review:  Dog Day Afternoon

Another “hot” movie, Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon, starring a young Al Pacino, is worth sweating over.

Retro Review:  Dog Day AfternoonContinuing our month long look at movies with hot titles, we decided to look at the Oscar nominated crime thriller, Dog Day Afternoon.  “Dog Days” itself is a reference to the dog star, Sirius, that makes an appearance in our sky in August, so this movie is doubly fitting.  I was familiar with director Sidney Lumet and actor Al Pacino’s other match-up, Serpico, but had never watched Dog Day Afternoon.  That is a damn shame, since this movie is amazing.  The acting, the directing, the characters, and the seething subtextual nature of the film are all top notch.  You’re going to enjoy the heat when you fire up this film.

Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

Retro Review:  Dog Day AfternoonSonny (Al Pacino) and Sal (John Cazale) are two young Vietnam vets who attempt to rob the First Brooklyn Savings Bank.  Sonny had previously worked as a bank teller, and was aware of all of the traps banks use to catch robbers.  As the robbery starts, their third man chickens out, and Sonny discovers that all of the money in the vault had already been removed for the day.  As he and Sal try to think of a way to salvage things, the police arrive, creating a hostage situation.  For 12 long hours Sonny plays a game of brinksmanship with the cops and FBI, trying to find a way out without prison time or violence.

Young and Restless

Retro Review:  Dog Day Afternoon
Pacino really sweats the details.

Al Pacino is fantastic as Sonny.  From the first moment you meet him, you get a feeling of an essentially honest but volatile person trying to make sense of his life.  His mannerisms and speech all convey subtle information, giving you backstory as the events unfold.  His interactions with the hostages, Sal, and eventually with his two wives are genuine and expressive.  There isn’t a wasted line of dialogue or physical movement to Sonny.

Sonny’s opponent, Sargent Moretti (Charles Durning,) is likewise expressive and interesting.  He’s keenly aware of what a powder keg 1970’s Brooklyn is culturally and is striving against public opinion as much as against a pair of rookie bank robbers.  He also comes across as multi-faceted and likeable, making the story a human drama instead of just a law and order procedural.

Sarandon evinces a tired dignity in his performance.
Sarandon evinces a tired dignity in his performance.

The rest of the cast is filled with excellent small parts.  A young Carol Kane (The Princess Bride, Scrooged) plays one of the tellers and fairly hums with anxiety.  The head teller, Penelope Allen, is brash and loyal and wonderful.  Lance Henriksen plays an FBI agent, and it is cool to see him very early in his career.  My favorite extra was Chris Sarandon, who plays Sonny’s current wife, Leon.  Leon is a preoperative transexual who has been institutionalized for a suicide attempt, and Sarandon handles the role deftly, avoiding falling into stereotypes.  He and Sonny have some electrifying conversations, and his participation humanizes Pacino’s Sonny in a moving way.

All the Small Things

Sidney Lumet manages the heck out of this production.  Twenty minutes into the story, I was wondering how the film could last two hours.  Two hours later, I was wondering where the last 120 minutes had gone, because this film is paced expertly.  Lulls allow for adroit character development and then explode into conflict that drive the narrative.  Every character feels real and believable, and nobody is given short shrift (well, maybe poor Sal gets the short end of the stick, but is nonetheless interesting.)  Lumet also manages to take a crime drama and weave cultural tension all throughout it.

Retro Review:  Dog Day Afternoon
Sonny’s cry of “Attica!’ sets the crowd on fire against the police.

The backdrop of this robbery, based upon an actual occurrence in 1972 just three years before the film was made, is the Vietnam War, civil unrest, and a culturally divided city.  Lumet litters his drama with references to many of the social hot-buttons of the time, but only as they further the story and the characters.  He talks about the nascent LGBT community in NYC, the racial tensions smouldering under the surface, the growing rebellion of the younger generation against authority, and the tension between police and citizens, but never comes off as preachy or provocative.  His camera catches all of these aspects to the human story without comment, allowing the people themselves to provide the commentary.

Heat Lightning

Dog Day Afternoon is an excellent movie.  It was nominated for six Oscars, and it is shame it only won for best screenplay.  Al Pacino may never have been better, and I’m saying that having sat through all nine hours of The Godfather.  Sonny is a man for his time, and he’s brought to life superbly.  Sidney Lumet shows such control and finesse with every aspect of this movie, I can hardly think of a wasted moment in the film’s two hour run time.  Every little interaction matters, and he gives importance to every character, no matter how trivial.  The film is a cheap rental, so if you’re looking to beat the heat, you could do worse than holding up with Dog Day Afternoon.Retro Review:  Dog Day Afternoon

 

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