Sidney Lumet may be one of the most underrated directors in all of Hollywood. He's directed several film classics, including 12 Angry Men, The Fugitive Kind, Long Day's Journey Into Night, Serpico, Murder On The Orient Express, and Network. And yet you never see his name getting bandied around when people discuss great directors. It's a damn shame, and Dog Day Afternoon, perhaps his best work, serves as yet another reminder that his name should be appearing next to the likes of Martin Scorsese, John Ford, and other widely praised filmmakers.
Dog Day Afternoon details the real life events of a 1972 bank robbery. Sonny (Al Pacino) and his pal (John Cazale, who also worked with Pacino in The Godfather) attempt to rob the First Brooklyn Savings Bank. Unfortunately, they don't work quickly enough, and the police catch wind of what's going on. Not just the cops, though, but every TV station, magazine, and newspaper in the area sent in their reporters. Massive crowds stood watch, cheering on Sonny in what they saw as a desperate last stand. What they didn't know was that Sonny was robbing the bank to pay for a sex change operation for his male lover (Chris Sarandon).
Dog Day Afternoon is cinema at its best. There are so many factors that contributed to the excellence of this film that it's almost impossible to list all of them. Frank Pierson's screenplay is superb; it combines humor with suspense in such a believable way that it feels totally human. But it wasn't just the script that gave the work that human touch. Lumet encouraged improvisation through the entire production, using first takes whenever possible. Lumet understands how to direct a movie in confined spaces (look at 12 Angry Men), and the film never feels stagnant due to a lack of variety in the locations. And yet, despite Lumet's assured directorial hand, the film looks and feels like it's unfolding on the fly, like the ultimate documentary.
Al Pacino was an unbeatable actor in the 70's, between The Godfather films and smaller pictures like Panic In Needle Park, his star rose faster and higher than just about any actor since Marlon Brando seared the screen in A Streetcar Named Desire. Looking at his career lately, it's almost hard to remember why he was so acclaimed. Dog Day Afternoon makes it easy. Pacino gives what may be the performance of his career as Sonny. This is no mafia don or idealistic cop. Sonny is nervous, trapped in a situation that he has no idea how to handle. You can see Sonny thinking on the fly, and Pacino as well. Lumet constantly challenged everyone on the cast to come up with something unexpected, and Pacino takes it all in stride and in character. Entire acting courses could be taught based on Pacino's performance here alone.
The rest of the cast, while not exactly hitting the heights Pacino was reaching, still hold their own. John Cazale is most notable as Sonny's accomplice Sal. He's clearly the brawn of the operation, and he doesn't even do that too well. His interplay with Pacino, honed through two Godfather films, is impeccable. Charles Durning has a thankless role as the police officer in charge of containing the situation, but he gives a memorable and sympathetic performance. Perhaps the toughest performance in the picture is that of Sonny's lover, played by Chris Sarandon. Sarandon had to play a pre-operative transsexual at a time when homosexuality was not a widely accepted practice in America. Sure, there had been films like The Boys In The Band, but they were few and far between. And they never had an actor of Pacino's stature portraying a gay man. Sarandon does a fantastic job of making himself more than a caricature. He creates a fully realized character that the audience can relate to. So when he talks to Sonny on the phone, it really is heartwrenching. And I have to mention Lance Henrickson, because, hell, it's Lance Henrickson.
Dog Day Afternoon has all of this and more. It's a one of a kind movie that, like its director, cannot be rated highly enough. This is essential viewing.
The HD DVD:
Dog Day Afternoon is made to look like a documentary, with grainy imagery and more of an eye to flow than correct composition. With that in mind, I felt the VC-1 1.85:1 transfer on this disc to be an excellent representation of the film. The grain is there without a doubt, but the overall image is strong. Colors are intentionally muted, but the transfer does an excellent job of preserving the look of the film. I was surprised at how strong the level of detail was, given the amount of grain and film stock used. Overall, I was pleased with this transfer.
Given the off-the-cuff nature of the shooting of Dog Day Afternoon, it's not surprising that this Dolby Digital Plus 1.0 track offered here is less than stellar. With the exception of the opening sequence, there is no music in the entire film, so we're mostly hearing dialogue, crowd noise, and a gunshot every now and then. The dialogue generally sounds fine, but every so often it can get slightly distorted, probably due to the source material. Nothing special.
Commentary with Director Sidney Lumet: It's a real treat to be able to hear Lumet comment on this film, as he's an extraordinarily intelligent man who knows exactly what to say to keep the track interesting. Most of the commentary is scene-specific, with Lumet providing a lot of insight into what it was like working on the set.
The Making of Dog Day Afternoon: A four-part documentary that looks at everything from the casting to the filming to the events that inspired the movie. New interviews with Lumet and Pacino are the highlights in these informative sets.
Lumet: Filmmaker: A vintage promotional piece. Too short to be of any real substance, it's still better than a good portion of period promos.
There's also the theatrical trailer.
Most people only know Dog Day Afternoon for its "Attica!" scene, but it's a truly magnificent film. This is essential viewing for anyone who hasn't seen it, and still essential for everyone that already has. And this HD DVD is the way to do it. Highly Recommended.
Daniel Hirshleifer is the High Definition Editor for DVD Talk.