DOG DAY AFTERNOON
Frank Pierson (Article by P.F. Kluge, Thomas Moore)
Al Pacino, John Cazale, Charles Durning, Chris Sarandon, Sully Boyar, Penelope Allen, James Broderick, Carol Kane
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Faced with an increasingly unpopular war and with political activism at a high, 1971’s deadly riot at Attica Correctional Facility in New York became almost as famous as the war in Vietnam during that period. Dog Day Afternoon‘s narrowly-focused story became emblematic of the country’s sense of dissatisfaction with the police and the government.
In 1972, two men, faced with mounting debt and an uncertain futures, attempted to rob a small bank in New York City, hoping to escape with just enough to make their lives better. When Their plans slowly begin falling apart as the police surround the building, the two men become hostage-takers who must try to survive at all costs without betraying their ideals. Al Pacino stars as Sonny Wortzik, the mastermind of the robbery who speaks with the police attempting to arrange his and his partner’s safety while escaping with the money they have so far acquired. His partner Sal (John Cazale) is afraid of the ramifications of their actions and is constantly reminding his partner of all the limitations they placed on themselves when they agreed to commit this crime, including a desire to do no harm. Sonny works hard to keep his commitment, but the constantly elevating situation threatens to undermine his goals.
His first contact with the police department is Detective Sergeant Eugene Moretti (Charles Durning) who tries his best within the confines of the situation to not only assure the safety of the hostages but also to keep Sonny and his collaborator safe in an effort to bring them in peaceably, avoiding a similar situation to the one that had occurred at Attica the year before. Their negotiations go relatively smoothly until an overzealous FBI Agent (James Broderick) takes over the case and begins maneuvering behind Sonny, seemingly concerned more with bringing him down than saving those in the bank.
Director Sidney Lumet seems to have a very hands-off approach when it comes to narrative structure and fancy camera movement. Although many of his contemporaries would have used oblique camera angles and quick, brazen edits to convey tension and balance, Lumet often plants his camera and allows the actors to convey the complexities of the narrative. And this style has helped bring out a number of wonderful performances from Lumet’s films. Not only are Pacino, Cazale and Durning impressive in this film, the actors in films as disparate as 12 Angry Men, Long Day’s Journey Into Night and Murder on the Orient Express propel their films to higher levels without so much as a fancy camera shot. That doesn’t mean his choices of composition and pacing don’t contribute well to the body, but his movies would be mere husks without the quality of performances he elicits.
The film itself plays rather lethargically. Few filmmakers would evoke a sense of breadth in this way, forcing the audience to feel every excruciating minute as if they were trapped in this bank with Sonny. Yet, despite the pacing, the effect seems fitting. You could get a rough estimate of how difficult it is to be trapped within a bank fearing for your life from films that are more visceral and speedy, but to take the audience on such a journey takes a bit of bravery. This technique could easily have created one of the more bland silver screen offerings, but you never get bored thanks to Al Pacino.
Pacino hasn’t been one of my favorite actors. His performances in the last two decades have been so manic and excessive that I had begun to wonder if he has any ability for restraint. Here, he displays a measure of self-control that tempers his more wild and expressive moments. For every crowd-riling outburst there’s a tender moment where he considers his actions as they impact his friends, his family and his hostages. And when the film reveals that Sonny has been in love with a gay man (played by Oscar-nominated Chris Sarandon in a solid performance) and is carrying out this reckless scheme in order to afford his partner a sex change operation, the film takes on a whole new level of meaning. For a filmmaker of this prominence and an actor of this magnitude to take such a brave stance in a period of history where homosexuality was still reviled and degraded is rather amazing. That they do so without pandering to the audience is even more astounding. That audiences responded with a surprising $50 million theatrical run showed just how strong the film itself was.
Less than twenty years after the film was released, culture and technology had changed, the government’s tendency towards extreme actions and short-sighted decision making continued. In Waco, Texas the FBI made a rash decision to assault the compound, starting a fire that would end seventy-six lives. And now more than 30 years after Dog Day Afternoon and 40 since the incident in Attica, our soldiers are once again involved in wars in foreign countries, the government has condoned the torture of purported terrorists, and Americans are allowed to let their prejudices and fears dictate their actions and permit the government to increase the control of their lives. The lessons that Lumet’s film attempted to speak about have seemingly been forgotten. Perhaps its time more people sat down to watch this 1975 classic and conjure up memories of that old adage one of my grade school history teachers taught me: if we forget the past, we are doomed to repeat it. Dog Day Afternoon is as important today as it was 36 years ago.
April 10, 2011