Dog Day Afternoon Special Edition Review
Any film which begins by telling us that "What you are about to see is true" is clearly setting itself up for a fall, so it's a tribute to Sidney Lumet's Dog Day Afternoon that we never question the authenticity of what we're watching. Right from the opening montage of New York, set to Elton John's 'Amoreena', this compelling, witty dissection of one hot August afternoon in Brooklyn is one of the great New York movies and a powerful study of the ways in which people behave under stress.
The film is a dramatisation of events which took place in Brooklyn on the afternoon of August 22nd 1972. A young unemployed man named Sonny Wortzik (Pacino)and his friend Sal (Cazale) walk into the First Brooklyn Savings Bank just before closing time, produce weapons and demand that all the money in the vaults be turned over to them. A simple bank job in other words but things rapidly become complicated. There are only a thousand or so dollars in the bank since the security truck has just visited, the ageing security guard collapses with acute asthma and an attempt to burn the register leads to unfortunate interest from across the street. By which time not only have Sonny's nerves collapsed but the police have responded to the manager's secret alarm and are staking out the bank in ever increasing numbers.
Lumet's film is that rare beast, a character study which is successfully broadened out into a coherent vision of society. The character in question is Sonny, brilliantly portrayed by Pacino as a man whose basic goodness isn't enough to redeem a life which is rapidly spiralling down into some kind of hell. As the film proceeds we discover that his motives for the robbery are more complex than they appear at first. His claim that he's doing it for the money is quite true but the reasons he needs the money are far from clear-cut. He has a wife, Angie, and two children, along with the mother from hell, but, despite being an apparently good father, his real affections lie elsewhere. He has another "wife", a transexual named Leon (Sarandon), to whom he has been 'married' in an illegal ceremony by a defrocked priest, and he wishes to use the money to pay for Leon's sex change operation. Sonny is a marvellous character and Pacino relishes the chance to play up his ambiguities and contradictions. He sometimes seems in cool control and sometimes clearly has not the slightest clue what to do next. His frustrated love for Leon is expressed through violence and anger, while his inability to explain his feelings to his wife has led to their estrangement. Pacino realises, and this is his brilliance as an actor, that Sonny is the anti-hero of the film, and he makes him riveting to watch. The moments when he talks to Leon are close to heartbreaking, as he tries to use a five minute phone conversation to make up for years of disappointments and violence, and his constant assertions that "I can make it happen" do little to hide the fact that, fundamentally, he can't. Trapped in dreams of something better that can never come true, Sonny is as tragic a hero as can be found in contemporary movies. What makes this saddest of stories bearable is the wit and humour in the performances. Once Sonny gets outside the bank, ostensibly to negotiate with Moretti, he becomes a performer soaking up the adulation of the crowd. Bearing in mind that this film is set shortly after the policing disasters at Attica and the National Guard disgrace at Kent State, it's no surprise that the crowd are on Sonny's side and he plays up to them for all he is worth. Pacino is hilarious, strutting up and down making demands and leading a crowd chant of "Attica" like some demented carnival barker. His everman dreams of becoming a somebody come true for a brief moments and he shows himself to be a natural celebrity - albeit one who is to be forgotten all too soon.
As for the wider social context, the events are portrayed with a jaundiced humour that is sometimes funny and sometimes rather abrasive. The arrival of the police is followed by that of the even more inevitable crowds looking for excitement to while away a suffocatingly hot afternoon. The more armed police turn up - and they turn up in busloads - the more the scene degenerates into a farce where nobody knows what anyone else is doing. The man in charge, Det.Sgt Moretti (Durning) begins the afternoon in icy control of things but becomes increasingly deranged as events slip out of his control and into the hands of FBI Agent Sheldon (Broderick). Armies of journalists turn up on foot or by helicopter, all of them trying to turn the situation to their advantage as it changes from a simple bank robbery to a human interest drama and then into some kind of 'freakshow' (as they see it) once Leon turns up. The fact that Leon, far from being a freak, is a confused and sad human being doesn't matter to them one way or another - the attempts to turn the hostage drama into some kind of gay rights statement is particularly resented by Sal who keeps protesting that his sexual orientation is strictly straight. Lumet sometimes loses control of focus in trying to portray all the strands of the occasion but he rarely makes a serious mistake and there is a sense of realism here which is genuinely overpowering. The location work, always a Lumet strength, is an astounding example of a director and cinematographer - Victor J.Kemper - in total control of their material and you can sense, particularly in the opening montage of New York life, Lumet's relief at being back home after the difficult shoot, largely within one set on Murder On The Orient Express. Frank Pierson's flavoursome, often obscenely funny dialogue aids this sense of reality while subtly undermining it. The film plays with the whole "true story" idea, on the one hand giving us a pretty authentic picture of events and on the other revelling in the larger-than-life aspects of the story. This is particularly noticable towards the end when the inevitable tragedy is foreshadowed, even though what happens isn't quite what we expect.
Al Pacino is at his best here. He's always been an unpredictable actor who is exciting to watch because of his volatility but, and this is the downside, capable of horribly hamming it up if given the opportunity. It's a tribute to both him and Lumet that Sonny remains a carefully controlled performance - watch his subtlety in the poignant scene where he dictates his will to one of the bank tellers. The supporting cast are all impeccable, drawn largely from New York theatre, but it's John Cazale who stands out as the quiet and restrained, if incomprehending, Sal.
Cazale's quality of not quite fitting in is used as part of the character here and his remoteness works very well in contrast to Sonny's direct, aggressive charisma. Nice work from the underrated James Broderick - appropriately anonymous but totally lethal as Sheldon - and the always interesting Charles Durning - Moretti is an interestingly unconventional cop, refusing the easy giggles and laddishness of his men and trying to understand, but eventually resorting to shouting just like Sonny.
Dog Day Afternoon is renowned as one of the definitive film portrayals of New York life and that reputation is well deserved. Perhaps only Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing has done as good a job at catching the combination of lazy indolence and near hysteria that the summer steam heat and humidity can create, and while the intentions of the directors are very different both are surprisingly indulgent of the flaws of their characters and both are willing to find the difficult, messy truth of an initially straightforward situation. Like Lee, Lumet refuses to let the audience off the hook at the end - Lee straddles the fence with two quotations which directly contradict each other as if to challenge his liberal viewers' Pavlovian reaction while Lumet leaves us with a banal human tragedy to which there is no easy answer or pat sympathetic response. For a short time, Sonny is a celebrity but only up to a point and his tragedy is not to understand that once his fifteen minutes are up then all bets are off and all his efforts to control the situation will prove futile. Everything that happens in the last ten minutes is, on reflection, inevitable from the start and the film leaves us with an uncomfortable feeling that, for all our sympathy and maybe even hope that he'll triumph, losers like Sonny are destined to remain losers. This cynicism at the end of Lumet's earlier Serpico betrayed the historical truth and was inappropriate but here it plays beautifully. This is one of those wonderful films which makes you laugh but then suddenly moves you to tears and leaves you thinking. It's Lumet's finest movie and judging by the stuff he's been making recently - Gloria anyone ? - it's likely to remain so.
I first reviewed this movie in 2002 and my feelings about it are just as enthusiastic as they were four years ago. If anything they are more intense. The more I see Pacino hamming it up every chance he gets in whatever old shit comes along, the more I relish his great years when every performance seemed to matter. His two films with Lumet are among the best work he ever did and he desperately needs the same kind of challenge to re-energise his acting. His performance crackles with excitement, as does the movie. It's very difficult to work completely on location without producing very sterile docu-drama but Lumet has always done his finest work when out on the streets, whether the mean streets of suburban England in The Offence or in the midst of New York. His visual sense which becomes calcified when trapped inside in dark rooms, as in most of Equus or Deathtrap, but springs to life when he's out in the fresh air. Occasionally, given the right cast, he can make vital drama out of static dialogue - Murder on the Orient Express and, of course, Twelve Angry Men - but when you think of Lumet at his best, you think of memorable locations used to maximum effect. What I also noticed on this viewing was how intelligently the film studies the subject of homosexuality. It's not sentimental or manipulative but treats it as a banal fact of life which can be observed just like anything else. The emotional wallop which the film provides is entirely earned and the very best scenes - the phone call, Sonny dictating his will - are just as powerful as they were thirty years ago.
Dog Day Afternoon was one of the first DVDs I ever bought on Region 1, way back in April 1999. Back then, I thought it looked fantastic and it still looks a fairly good transfer all these years later. However, this new 2-disc Special Edition improves on every aspect of that first release (and the Region 2 which I reviewed in 2002).
The transfer is anamorphically enhanced and framed at 1.85:1. It's a very nice transfer indeed with plenty of detail and impressive clarity. There is quite a bit of grain present but that's characteristic of how the film was intended to look. Colours are impressive throughout and a lot more striking than they were on the 1997 disc. Some critics have suggested this might be the same transfer but I found it a considerable improvement. The mono soundtrack is also excellent and an improvement on the somewhat muddy track from the original release. No unnecessary simulated stereo effects, no unnecessary remix. The dialogue is eminently clear throughout and the only music in the film - the opening Elton track - sounds fantastic.
Right at the start of the commentary, the main extra on the first disc, Sidney Lumet describes his flm as "One of the terrific adventures I've had in movies" and his enthusiasm is infectious. He's a bit luvvieish at times - Elton John is 'wonderful', Dede Allen is 'magnificent' - but that's simply because he genuinely appears to like absolutely everybody. His commentary track is a fund of information about the making of the film and is a riveting listen. There are some dead spots, mostly when he gets involved in watching the film. Also on the first disc is the theatrical trailer, somewhat damaged but presented in anamorphic widescreen.
The second disc contains a new four-part documentary and a vintage featurette from 1975. The latter is one of those ten minute Warner pieces which acted as a training ground for new filmmakers and it has a genuine period charm.
It largely focuses on Lumet's direction of one of the bigger crowd scenes and he comes over well - although some may wonder whether it's entirely seemly for a man in his fifties to wear a denim jacket. Apparently, his "energy on the set gets everyone going" which is the kind of thing that brings unspeakable images to mind. This piece is presented fullscreen and looks grainy as hell - but it's certainly watchable.
The new documentary runs about an hour in total and can either be watched altogether or one part at a time. It's a Laurent Bouzereau production so you know what you're getting - a very schematic run through the making of the film, lots of clips and some annoyingly literal transitions (someone says "I got a phone call" and we a clip of Pacino answering a phone). Most of the surviving players are interviewed including Lumet, producer Martin "Bregman" Bregman, Al Pacino, Victor J. Kemper, Charles Durning and screenwriter Frank Pierson.
It's a very solid piece and tells you some of what you want to know but as always with Bouzereau, I'm left wanting a bit of scurrilous gossip or some sign that people didn't always like each other so much. Nor am I entirely convinced that we need quite so many clips from the film in order to pump the running time up to an hour.
The film is subtitled but, as usual with Warners, the extra features are not. When there is this amount of talking on a disc, it would be nice if hard of hearing viewers were catered for.