Dog Day Afternoon 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. 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 was rather 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.

The Disc

A great movie but far from a great DVD. There really isn't much to say about Warner Brothers' R2 release of this film apart from bemoan the wasted opportunity which it represents.

The film is presented in anamorphic 1.85:1. Ignore the cover statement that it's fullscreen - this is usually early Warner speak for anamorphic 1.85:1 as on Bullitt. It's not a bad picture at all. I found that the image was fairly sharp with a reasonable level of detail and crisp shadow detail. No serious edge enhancement and only a small amount of artifacting. The smattering of grain on the image is characteristic of the original film and shouldn't be regarded as a problem.

The soundtrack is the original mono. No problems with this although there is a certain amount of distortion on the opening Elton John song - that's not a dig at Reg by the way, since it's from one of his early albums and a pretty good number. Dialogue is clear and distinct. There is no music score after the opening credits, by the way, something which I never notice until the film is over.

There are no extras on the disc apart from some biographies of the main cast and some of the crew. We don't even get the trailer which was on the "Maverick Directors" VHS released in 1997. This is obviously ridiculous given the enormous amount of potential for a film such as this but it reflects early Warners policy on their back catalogue releases - not that they do much better now, as a rule.

We get static menus, some amusingly off-key film recommendations and 29 chapter stops.

This is one of those films which is so good that it's easy to recommend the DVD even though Warners haven't exactly pulled out even half the stops on the release. Essential viewing.

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