This month Warner Brothers is releasing a trio of great films from the 1970s under the banner "Controversial Classics, Vol. 2 - The Power of Media" (available collectively as a boxed set), but the name of the series is slightly misleading: The first two films included (Network and All the President's Men, which I reviewed last week) are razor-sharp observations (one fictional, the other all too real) on the role of the media during a decade of political and social turmoil. The third film in the set however, Dog Day Afternoon, is far more than a critique of the media. In fact, it's a magnificently constructed web of themes and characterizations that blends personal storytelling and general social observation like few other films.
Dog Day Afternoon is a very special movie. It's a film of depth and complexity that, on the surface, looks stripped-down and simple. It has influenced an absurdly diverse swath of films and filmmakers and it contains flawless work across the board from its cast and crew, both stocked to the hilt with masters in their professions. It belongs in that rarified category of films that are truly, truly loved.
The inspiration for the film comes from a real-life melodrama that played out live on television screens in New York and across the country. While live coverage of bizarre and dangerous news stories is commonplace today, in 1972 it was virtually unheard of. Two men entered a Brooklyn bank at closing time with the intention of grabbing the cash from the vault and hitting the road. This poorly-planned robbery, however, resulted in a day-long stand-off with hundreds of heavily-armed cops, detectives and FBI agents surrounding the building and the robbers taking the bank's tellers and manager hostage. The media caught wind of this and, using the bulky location broadcast equipment of the day, broke into the daytime soap opera schedule with live, on the scene reporting of every little detail of the unraveling story.
Thanks to the disorganized response of the police force (mass hostage situations like this were unheard of in this country at that point) and the increasingly bizarre background of the lead robber that unfolded throughout the course of the day, it became a media frenzy unlike any other. By the time the robbers were provided a bus to the airport by the FBI viewers and listeners were riveted.
Given the immediacy of the subject matter, screenwriter Frank Pierson and director Sidney Lumet take the exact right approach in their adaptation. The script takes each character seriously, no matter how outlandish or disturbed. Lumet's treatment of Pierson's writing is humanistic and naturalistic. That is to say that there is a real sense of empathy for the characters and their individual emotion and that there is very little in the way of intrusive cinematic convention. Even though there isn't a "docudrama" feel to the camerawork the setting still feels authentic and genuine. Lumet draws out real, unique characterizations from just about everyone in the film, from the leads down to characters who appear in only one scene. There are nearly two dozen characters that become real people, often with no more than a few lines to their part.
Lumet's genius here is to design the film's environment so that his outstanding cast can really embody their roles. While much of the dialog has an improvisational feel, the film is very carefully structured to build at a certain pace. There is a real| sense of unstoppable momentum (every error made by either the robbers or the law just sends us further down the path of disaster) the film also creates the slow-burning sensation of a situation that at times just drags on. The editing by Dede Allen and Lumet's direction create one of the best examples of why film is such a unique art form. The way the film moves draws you into it as much as any of the performances.
It is the performances, however, that have contributed to the film's staying power. Most notable, in the lead role as Sonny is Al Pacino, giving possibly the very best performance of his legendary career. Hot off his smoldering and corrupt performance in The Godfather Part II, the Pacino we meet here is one of the most magnetic performers ever to grace the screen. His Sonny is by turns outwardly manic and inwardly reflective. He bustles with undirected energy but also harbors deep, conflicted emotions. There are times during the film that Pacino's face just seems of the verge of crumbling from grief and confusion. Dog Day Afternoon reveals Sonny's complex inner life bit by bit, slowly over time (with bombshells still dropping long after the film's halfway mark) and Pacino does an incredible job of playing the complete character. There are things in his past that those around him don't know, but he's not necessarily hiding them as secrets. He just is who he is. When other characters find out revelations about Sonny there are no easy pyrotechnics from Pacino. Just a smirk and an obtuse line like "You shouldn't let something like that spoil your fun." Pacino's Sonny is an enigma because there are as many contradictory elements in his life as there are conflicting pressures bearing down on his shoulders.
The genius of Pacino's performance, and in the way that Pierson and Lumet set up the Sonny character, is that the defining thread that runs through all the various parts of his personality is his innate need to make everything right for everyone else. While the film brilliantly doesn't make a big point of it, you can see it in every scene, from offering to let the hostages use the restroom to ordering them dinner to his motivation for attempting the robbery in the first place. Sonny's desire to help others fails him at every turn, however, as every decision he makes results in calamitous consequences. He becomes loveable to the audience as well as the other characters in the film. While Stockholm Syndrome is a part of hostage situations like this one, the film shows a real bond form between Sonny and the bank employees over time and Sonny's personality is the reason.
Sonny's partner Sal is played by the late, great John Cazale, who played Fredo in the Godfather films. Cazale's film legacy was cut short in 1978 when he died of bone cancer, but every film on his resume is a classic (he was also in The Conversation and The Deer Hunter.) There is a deep sadness to Cazale's Sal, and his performance here is rich and mysterious. Sal is frighteningly conflicted but when it comes to Sonny he's loyal to a fault. The nature of their relationship isn't spelled out (it's not clear how well they knew each other before the robbery) but the way they learn about each other over the course of the film is moving and deep. At one point, Sal reacts to a threat Sonny makes to the cops (about killing the hostages if they try to storm the bank.) The distraught Sal, almost on the verge of tears, asks if Sonny was serious. When Sonny tells Sal that that's just what he wants the cops to think, the unhinged Sal responds with the exact opposite of what the audience expects to hear. Cazale creates a character who doesn't have the clarity of mind to understand what he's feeling or how to fully express himself. He's really a tragic figure and at times seems almost childlike in his inability to process the situation. It's a magnificent performance.
The film also allows actors in many of the other roles to create complex, detailed characters. Charles Durning and James Broderick play a detective and FBI agent, respectively, and, while the film doesn't resort to any easy rivalry between the two, they brilliantly explore the differences between the blue collar detective and the slick, analytical fed. They each interact with Sonny in their own way, drawing him out with different tactics and varying degrees of success.
Sully Boyar plays the bank manager whose relationship with Sonny transforms several times over the course of the day. A decent man who primarily wants to make sure that his employees survive the stand-off, he reprimands Sonny for his use of foul language and then later explodes in frustration with his own. The head teller, played by Penny Allen, develops her own interesting relationship with Sonny as she plays den mother to the women of the bank. (A few excellent actors who became more famous later on have small but effective roles: Carol Kane, Dominic Chianese and Lance Henrikson in his first film performance.)
None of these relationships are overplayed. The film, as much as it explores a sensationalistic situation, doesn't over-hype the interpersonal relationships. The honesty and subtlety with which Lumet and his collaborators approach these relationships shows in his exploration of Sonny's personal life as well. Scenes with Judith Malina, Susan Peretz and Chris Sarandon as various members of Sonny's family could easily turn into melodrama or camp but the superb work of these actors and the human-level drama developed by the filmmakers keeps this tangled tale rooted in reality. We are joining complex lives mid-stream but they feel like they've been playing out for years.
This tremendously sophisticated treatment of the characters and their relationships makes the film gripping on a personal level. As a specific story of a specific occurrence on a specific day, Dog Day Afternoon is without rival for its ferocity and immediacy. But the film uses these characters and their lives as a jump-off point to explore countless themes and threads of American life in general. Never didactic, never preachy, and never condescending, the film weaves many different American experiences into this tale.
Sonny, a Vietnam vet, displays a paranoia and distrust of authority that was the hallmark of the era. It may be one of the most famous scenes in film history, but Sonny's "ATTICA! ATTICA!" tirade, inspired by a notorious prison riot that ended with officers shooting numerous prisoners in the back, speaks to his disgust with law enforcement and the system in general. The robbery may have happened in August 1972, only two months after the Watergate break-in, but by the time the film was produced Nixon was out and Sonny's view of authority was no longer counter-culture mysticism; It was a mainstream public view.
The public, as portrayed in the film, consists of the ever-growing throng of civilians who gather at each end of the block behind police barricades. Each time Sonny comes out of the bank to talk with the cops his celebrity grows until the crowds are cheering him as he throws fists full of bank cash into the whirlwind kicked up by police helicopters. The film is very smart about the way the crowd gawks at Sonny, then begins to idolize him, and finally turns into a conflicted, roiling mass, teetering on chaos. The turmoil of the times is captured in the confused, angry tone of the masses.
The humanity that Lumet accentuates in the story helps him also explore a gay relationship in the film with a frankness and lack of judgment that must have been surprising at the time and is still uncommonly honest today. Without resorting to any clichés, Lumet and his cast incorporate this provocative subject matter into the overall film with total honesty. As with much of the rest of the film, the only statement that Lumet seems to be making is that people, no matter how flawed, confused, angry or deluded, are people and they share a common humanness, whether they're an Irish cop, an ex-con bank robber or a suicidal transvestite. It's this sense of empathy and character-driven humanity that gives the film both its gravity and its incredible sense of humor. It's what separates Dog Day Afternoon from the countless bank robbery films that have stolen from it in the years since. A filmmaker like Quentin Tarantino may convincingly mimic elements of the film without ever scratching the surface of what makes the film so special.
Stylistically Lumet makes all of this work with amazingly intuitive camera work (courtesy of the brilliant cinematography of Victor J. Kemper), and spare, brutal audio design. Kemper has a knack of framing each shot in a way that draws the viewer's eye to key details of the setting but without ever feeling obviously composed. Main characters become obscured or fall into shadows, all of which draws the viewer into the action even more. And the soundtrack, after the opening credits, contains absolutely no music at all. The sounds of the locations, the imagery, the pacing and the performances work together in perfect synchronicity to make the film a living, breathing whole. The film sucks you in so completely that you feel the rush and the panic that Sonny himself feels once he realizes the situation he's gotten himself into. And that engaging quality seeps into every moment, every character, every frame of the film. Even though One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest won every major Oscar that year, and it's a brilliant movie too, I can't help but feel like Dog Day Afternoon takes the qualities that make both films great and just goes that extra step. It's so perfectly executed that it almost feels like the wall of art is being pulled back slightly, revealing the reality of life, in all its messy, contradictory, confusing wonder. And that makes it not only a masterpiece, but timeless as well.
The anamorphic widescreen video is stunning. Film negatives of this era are notorious for having degraded quickly but the transfer here is close to perfect. The images are impressively sharp, film grain is present but surprisingly subtle (even dark night scenes are crisp) and colors are true to the film's harsh, realistic lighting design. I have to say that this is one of the most fantastic visual presentations of a somewhat older film that I've seen in a while. The previous barebones disc (an early DVD release) actually looked pretty good, but this disc looks great.
The audio situation is not as clear-cut. On his commentary track Lumet specifically talks about the film having been mixed in stereo so that the street crowds on either end of the block could have their own channel and sort of banter back-and-forth. But the packaging states that the audio track is Dolby Digital mono and my DVD player agrees. While it's possible that Lumet could confuse the post-production process of one film for another, especially after so many years, the specificity of his anecdote makes that highly unlikely. If I find the answer to this mystery I'll post it here.
For a mono track, however, it is very good. Obviously there's a certain dynamism that's lacking but the voices are clear and the excellent use of atmosphere and sound effects still works brilliantly. There are also English, French and Spanish subtitles available.
The first disc of this two disc set contains the film and Sidney Lumet's excellent commentary track. The veteran director talks eloquently about the film from virtually every angle. He covers the origins and history of the project, his directing methods, the cast, technical details, and a host of other topics. He's rarely quiet for more than a few moments and shares countless fascinating tidbits on the film. (And, as a DVDTalk trivia bonus, if you listen long enough you'll hear him say my last name when he credits then-Senator and my distant relative Jacob Javits with helping secure Kennedy airport as a shooting location.) The first disc also includes the film's trailer.
Disc two features an outstanding four part hour-long documentary on the making of the film. While it was most likely broken up in order to avoid being classified as a feature in its own right (which would require additional payment to the participants) this segmentation is handy since it allows the producers of the supplemental material to break the piece into shorter pieces on the history of the project and screenplay, the casting process, the production, and the aftermath of the film. (It can still be watched as one long documentary.) Most surviving participants from the film take part, including Lumet, Pacino, Pierson, Sarandon and Allen, and all provide excellent insight into the film and the times that surrounded it. Lumet repeats some of his stories from the commentary, but overall this is a truly excellent special feature.
The second disc also includes a vintage featurette on the film's production. This is a well-produced short that gives a very nice sense of what the location shoot was like and includes some terrific footage of the director running back and forth, commanding his huge crew and cast with as much energy as Sonny in his attempts to orchestrate his escape.
Dog Day Afternoon is definitely one is of the finest American films of the modern age. It contains definitive performances from great actors, heartbreaking storytelling, stunningly simple imagery and so much great thematic material that audiences might not even know what aspect of the film to discuss first. It's the rare film that you can watch and then immediately rewatch and discover a host of wonderful new moments. This special edition treats the film like the cinema royalty that it is and hopefully whole new audiences will discover this gem.