Thursday 8 May 2014

Movie Review: Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

Based on a true story, Dog Day Afternoon is about a low-key bank robbery that goes wrong and turns into a media circus. It's a sizzling cinematic achievement, and among the finest of the New York based dramas of the 1970s.

Former bank employee Sonny (Al Pacino), the highly stressed Sal (John Cazale), and the hesitant Stevie (Gary Springer) walk into a bank with a vague idea of how to rob it. Stevie immediately finds the pressure too much and bails. Sonny realizes he chose to rob a bank that has barely any money: the vault deposits were transported out earlier in the day. As Sonny and Sal scramble to empty the cashier tills and then needlessly converse with the bank manager Mulvaney (Sully Boyar) and the team of cashiers, precious minutes are wasted. By the time Sonny and Sal are ready to leave, the small bank is surrounded by hundreds of cops. Sonny and Sal are now besieged hostage takers.

As a large crowd gathers and the media descends onto the scene, Sergeant Moretti (Charles Durning) tries to negotiate with Sonny, but Moretti is as incompetent as the robbers, the negotiations go nowhere, and the assembled crowd start to cheer on Sonny's anti-authoritarian rhetoric. As the hours pass, the robbery takes a bizarre turn when Sonny's motives for the theft are revealed, and his complex private life becomes suddenly very public. With Sal losing patience and everyone sweltering in the heat and humidity, FBI Agents Sheldon and Murphy (James Broderick and Lance Henriksen) take over the site, determined to bring down the curtain on the spiralling spectacle.

A small story that takes on epic proportions, Dog Day Afternoon is about losers lost in an uncaring world. Director Sidney Lumet crafts the film around a hopelessly out of his depth Sonny, and creates a tragedy around a man with modest criminal ambitions but who finds every facet of his misadventure falling apart. One accomplice flees, the other is a dangerous combination of dim and murderous, the money isn't there, his own mother and wife can't tolerate him, his hostages keep falling ill, and the heat grows ever more intense literally and figuratively in the form of half the New York police department waiting to pounce.

Although Sonny's afternoon starts badly and just gets worse, Dog Day Afternoon is also about the emerging culture of throwaway fame, Sonny getting a few hours of publicity and becoming a temporary hero to the massed crowd by whipping up anti-police sentiments. It's a small victory in a miserable afternoon, but it feels good to Sonny while it lasts. When it emerges that Sonny's private life is a sideshow all onto itself, the bank robbery almost gets pushed to the background as his bizarre personal relationships unleash a second wave of supporters and opponents shouting each other down.

Working from a Frank Pierson script that celebrates peculiarities and makes them normal, Lumet keeps the movie agile and hot despite most of the two hours taking place at the bank and its immediate surroundings. Lumet colours the bank's small corner of Brooklyn with shades of yellows and browns to emphasize the unrelenting heat. When the lights and air conditioning are turned off late in the proceedings to increase the pressure on the hostage takers, Sonny's sweat spills off the screen, while Sal just broods darker and refuses to ever take off his jacket.

Al Pacino gives an intense yet powerfully sympathetic performance as Sonny, the robber quickly becoming human, filled with self doubt and forced to try and think his way out of a much stickier situation than he ever bargained for. It is one of Pacino's most perfect performance, controlled aggression and real doubt filling his eyes and dominating his actions.

John Cazale supports with few words but plenty of menace, Sal carrying a potent rifle, and unlike Sonny, seemingly ready to use it. More fatalistic than Sonny and ready to sacrifice rather than negotiate, Cazale allows Sal's coiled frustration to emerge as the wildcard of the afternoon. Chris Sarandon as a member of Sonny's family has a small but key role, while Carol Kane appears as one of the tellers held hostage.

Dog Day Afternoon chronicles a farcical situation where no one was in control, where anything could have happened, and the crackling heat was the only certainty.

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