by MP Bartley
How great were the 1970s? Ask any budding film buff for the best films of the 1970s and the chances are they'll reel off Star Wars, Taxi Driver, Chinatown, The French Connection and The Godfather amongst many others before even getting to Dog Day Afternoon. Yet, it is a gripping, powerful film with one of the best central performances you'll ever see, and it's not even regarded as one of the true greats of the decade. That's how good the 1970s were.One hot, sweltering, New York day, Sonny Worczik (Al Pacino) and Sal (John Cazale) stroll into a bank, armed with rifles, with the intention of holding it up and making quick their escape. However, things donít go to plan and after the police are alerted, Sonny, Sal, the bank manager and the tellers are cornered in the bank, as Detective Sergeant Moretti (Charles Durning) tries to secure a peaceful end to the day. The situation is complicated, however, by the arrival of the media, which turns Sonny and Sal into unwitting celebrities, and by the growing crowd outside the bank, eager to catch a glimpse of the dramatic events inside. These are all based on true events.
"So, Al Pacino and John Cazale walk into a bank..."
Dog Day Afternoon begins like many film versions of bank heists do, as a comedy of errors. Thereís initially a third robber with Sonny and Sal but he bottles it and runs out, nearly taking the keys for the getaway car with him, the heist is interrupted not just by the police, but by irate husbands phoning the bank and asking Sonny when their wives are likely to be home as dinner hasnít been cooked yet, and Sal is more worried that he will be termed a homosexual on the news than he is about getting out alive. Sidney Lumet and Frank Piersonís screenplay donít play this just for laughs however, as they balance the tone between farce and true life events perfectly. A recent discussion on these boards about Sidney Lumet asked the question if he had any easily distinguishable characteristics (apart from making really, really good films obviously) in his films, and the general consensus was that he doesnít. This is not necessarily a criticism however, as he has a Howard Hawks like ability to slip in and out of any genre comfortably, and let the story tell itself, trusting in the inherent drama of it. He doesnít oversell the story with unneeded flourishes and just places us in the hands of great writing and great acting. Again, though, this sounds like damning with faint praise, when itís really not. This is a film about a bank heist that has only two gunshots in it, no bloody shoot-outs and no police storming the building at the first opportunity, yet Lumet makes it an incredibly taut, tense and utterly engrossing experience. He wrings every last drop of potential out of every scene, whether it be dramatic or comic, and is the kind of director at complete ease with letting the dialogue tell the story.
The result of this is that beneath the true-life drama, there is a palpable undercurrent of satire. Lumet has sympathy for both the police, simply trying their best to do a tough job, and for Sonny and Sal, two dim-witted guys, who are breaking the law, but who are also doing their best, not to hurt anyone whilst they are doing it. No, Lumet jabs instead at the media and their obsession with their story, and the gawping crowd outside, eager for blood. From the crowd outside cheering Sonny and booing police, to the pizza delivery boy who screams ďIím a goddamned hero!Ē to the watching world as he takes food to the bank and to the tellers who wave happily to the tv cameras as they sit inside the bank, these are the true targets of Lumetís criticism, people eager for a real-life situation to go horribly wrong so they can claim they were there and grab a piece of the news for themselves.
The film also reminds us how astonishing the 1970s were for showcasing the arrival of new acting talent. There are many, many fans of The Godfatherand The Godfather Part 2, yet itís probably this performance here that is Pacinoís finest hour. For once, Pacino is playing someone not in true control of the situation and someone outnumbered by intellectual superiors. Heís not the smooth, efficient bank robber he thinks he is, and he even plays it a little goofy at first, reminiscent of Woody Allen and Dustin Hoffman, as he tries to get a handle on the growing crisis. Pacino internalises the growing panic within him, as events spiral out of control, with the only clue to this, his wildly skittering and twitching eyes as he tries to regain his control over the bank and over the police. Itís a potent, powerful, human performance that bites with the tang of reality, and doesnít just come across like a lesson in sweaty hysteria. The only time we see the dervish inside Pacino and the hysteria inside Sonny, is when he steps onto the streets outside to whip the watching crowd up into a frenzy, with his cries of ďAttica! Attica!Ē
You canít take your eyes off Pacino, yet thereís room for other great performances. Durning is superb as the increasingly frazzled Moretti and Chris Sarandon makes a huge impression as Leon, a character who brings an added layer of poignancy to both the film and Pacinoís performance. But letís take a moment to salute John Cazale here. James Dean will have his fans, as does River Phoenix, and more recently Heath Ledger, but Cazale is surely the most tragic early loss that Hollywood has ever suffered. The guy was a contemporary of Pacino and De Niro and everyone else of that era, but more importantly was their equal. Itís important to remember that, especially as the characters he played (tragically, he only made 5 films), were often weaker than, or subordinate to, the Pacino or De Niro characters. The distinction however is important Ė thereís a great difference between being a weaker actor and being overshadowed by Pacino, and being an acting equal who simply portrays someone who is weaker than Pacino. With Cazale, he is clearly Pacinoís equal, and the whole farcical, desperate and sad situation of that day can be summed up in one moment from Cazale. When Sonny asks Sal what country he wants to escape to in a plane, what is Salís answer? ďWyomingĒMuch, much more than the bank heist film to end all bank heist films, Dog Day Afternoon stands as a wonderful summation of what was great about 1970s American cinema. With great writing, directors who knew how to tell a damn good story and superb performances, it's a film good enough to grace any decade.
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originally posted: 02/07/08 05:16:41