Thursday, October 14, 2010

Review – Dog Day Afternoon

October 13, 2010

Dog Day Afternoon – U.S., 1975

Sidney Lumet’s masterful film Dog Day Afternoon begins with a series of shots of ordinary people doing what they normally do, and it is in these opening moments that one of the film’s themes is firmly established. What we are about to see occurs in a world divided into dualities. There’s the rich and the poor; the young and the old; those who days consists of eight-hours of sweat and toil and those whose hours are spent joyfully riding the waves. And then there are the neighborhoods themselves – some are poorly-lit and littered with scraps of discarded newspapers; others are so clean that the rays of the afternoon sun create an almost immaculate glow around them. Later, additional contrasts are presented to us, and as the film progresses, it becomes clear that the events that we are witnessing are in a way an irrational reaction to the inequality and the injustice that those contrasts in society have created. This does not excuse the actions of the film’s main characters, yet it does put them into a somewhat sympathetic light. Right reasons – wrong response.

Dog Day Afternoon is the true story of a bank robbery gone wrong. In the film’s opening scene, three men walk into a bank just before closing time with the intent of walking out ten minutes later with a bag full of cash. It’s a disaster from the very beginning. Sonny Wortzik (an amazing performance by Al Pacino), the ringleader of the group, has a hard time getting his shotgun out of a box; another member of the group gets cold feet just seconds after the robbery begins and asks to leave. Only the third one, Sal (Jon Cazale), is composed – too composed, in fact. From the very beginning, we sense that this is the dangerous one, the one most capable of making a bad situation much worse. And things indeed get worse. Most of the bank’s money has already been picked up, the female bank tellers are unwilling to go into the vault when asked to, and then there’s the unexpected call from a police detective (Charles Durning) across the street telling him that the bank is already surrounded. None of this bodes particularly well for Sonny and Sal, and yet the afternoon is just getting started.

In addition to its perfect pace and the incredible performances of the entire cast, one of the things that makes Dog Day Afternoon so intriguing is the way it leaks information about Sonny and Sal slowly. At first, they seem like everyday thieves, but as the film progresses that picture slowly begins to erode. We learn that they both fought in Vietnam, that Sal has been in jail and doesn’t want to go back, that Sonny has a wife and two kids, and, perhaps most alarming of all, that Sal and Sonny have a pact – It’s success or death. Much more is revealed which I won’t spoil. I will say though that with each revelation, the tragedy of what is unfolding in front of us grows exponentially.

Dog Day Afternoon came out in 1975, eighteen years after A Face in the Crowd, Elia Kazan’s film about Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes, a man who alone succumbs to the corruptive nature of money and suffers extreme delusions of grandeur. What’s interesting about what we see in Dog Day Afternoon is that everyday people, ecstatic at getting the opportunity to be on TV, gladly take part in Sonny’s delusions. A pizza delivery man declares himself a star simply because he delivers pizza to Sonny and the employees of the bank; the senior bank teller cheerfully answers questions from a reporter while still being held hostage. When she returns inside the bank, she can’t resists excitedly telling her co-workers that she was on TV. News anchors even calls the bank and conduct live interviews with Sonny, a man that they know is armed and dangerous. As for Sonny himself, he begins to take on the persona of a lively and comic “man of the people,” as if he is somehow fighting for the underdogs of the world. The crowd outside, as well as the ladies on the inside, does his no favors by responding and encouraging Sonny’s distorted image of himself, for it lulls him into a false sense of security, allowing him to think that everyone but the authorities is behind him. This is simply not the case.

One of the truly remarkable things about Dog Day Afternoon is how little time has affected it. Sure, it looks like it is taking place in the 1970’s, but it’s easy to see a situation like this occurring in New York in the 1980’s or Los Angeles in the 1990’s. In addition, the crowd’s inability to turn away from the train wreck they are witnessing and the obsession with fame that some of the characters in the film have are eerily similar to the actions of some people during the recent tragedy in the Philippines and of many of the people who yearn to be on reality TV shows, reveal family secrets on daytime talk shows, or put videos of themselves on YouTube. Perhaps Dog Day Afternoon captured the beginning of this fixation.

The end of Dog Day Afternoon reminded me a bit of the final scene in Michael Curtiz’s 1938 film Angels with Dirty Faces starring the great James Cagney. In that film, the audience must decide for themselves whether James Cagney’s character, Rocky Sullivan, is pretending to be afraid or not, and there’s no easy answer. Nor is there an easy explanation for the tears that flow at the end of Dog Day Afternoon. Who are they for? What do they imply? I suppose the answer to that will ultimately determine how you view Sonny, yet I don’t think there will ever be a consensus of opinion. Sonny is just too complicated a character for that to be possible. (on DVD)

4 and a half stars

No comments: