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Dog Day Afternoon Print E-mail
Sunday, 01 July 2007

ImageAl Pacino was recently awarded the American Film Institute Life Achievement Award—and “Dog Day Afternoon” is one of the movies that got him that honor. As gentle-natured bank robber Sonny, Pacino gives what may well be the finest performance of his career—certainly the finest for many of the years that followed. He gets completely into the somewhat warped soul of this earnest little man, who is in way over his head before he even announces to the startled employees of a bank that this is a holdup. Sonny could easily have become a silly, pathetic figure, but Pacino keeps him sympathetic and likeable, right to the tragic end.

“Dog Day Afternoon” is based on a real-life incident that occurred in August, 1972, when John Wojtowicz along with Sal Naturile and another man entered a bank in Brooklyn and demanded money. Wojtowicz—Sonny in the movie—wanted enough money to finance the sex-change operation on Ernest Aron, the pre-operative transsexual he loved—and whom he had married, in a ceremony in a Catholic church. Things quickly went wrong as the police, then the media, learned of the attempted holdup. Wojtowicz kept the clerks in the bank as hostages, television cameras swarmed to the scene, the police tried to negotiate, even bringing Aron to the scene. It was a major media event, almost stopping New York in its tracks to watch this oddball spectacle. The crowd that formed on the street outside largely sided with the inept would-be robbers. Although details—including character names—have been changed and a few events added (in real life, Wojtowicz’s mother wasn’t brought to the bank), Sidney Lumet’s engrossing, funny and weirdly touching movie is better than the truth would be. It’s full of terrific performances and is graced with memorable characters and scenes. Lumet was riding high at the time—his most recent movie was “Murder on the Orient Express” and his next would be “Network”—and this is one of his best movies, as well as one of the best of the 1970s.

One of the outstanding features is John Cazale as Sal, Sonny’s accomplice. The real life character was a teenager, and as Lumet’s commentary and the documentaries explain, screenwriter Frank Pierson (who won the Oscar) wrote Sal to be played by a “Botticelli” teenager. Cazale was anything but, a tall, gawky guy a bit older than Pacino, but his Sal is funny, sad and even menacing at times. Cazale appeared in only five features before his early death; it’s no coincidence that all five were nominated for Best Picture. (The others: “The Godfather” and “The Godfather Part II,” as Michael’s loser of a brother, “The Deer Hunter” and “The Conversation.) At one point, Sonny asks Sal that if their demands are met, what country would he like to be taken to? Sal thinks a moment, then offers, “Wyoming.” This may be the best-remembered line of the movie, and it was improvised by Cazale.

Sonny occasionally rises to the occasion. Outside the bank, he parades up and down (waving a handkerchief) chanting “Attica! Attica!”, reminding onlookers of the shameful massacre at Attica prison not long before. The crowd goes with him, repeating the chant, sometimes calling out Sonny’s name.

Chris Sarandon had one of his earliest movie roles as Sonny’s lover/wife, here called Leon. Although his mannerisms don’t hide his gayness, he also doesn’t camp It up, keeping Leon believable—even though Leon doesn’t really grasp what’s going on here. His telephone conversation with Sonny is funny, touching and even a bit tragic. (In reality, Ernest Aron did get his sex-change operation—paid for not by loot from the robbery, but by the money Wojtowicz earned from the success of “Dog Day Afternoon.” After the operation, she used the name Elizabeth Eden; she died of pneumonia in 1987.)

Charles Durning gives another of his powerful, sympathetic character portrayals as the cop in charge who sees an untenable situation become nearly impossible during the long, hot day. Meanwhile, Sonny fails to realize that the police regard him as an actual menace, not even when the FBI becomes involved. (One agent is played by Lance Henriksen in his first movie performance.)

The movie is precisely made; the bank set was constructed in a real building on a Brooklyn street, and the production took over the area for the duration of the shooting. The film has a kind of washed-out look, perfectly suited for this hot August afternoon, but the film has no background music at all, a very good idea. We don’t need music to guide us in how to respond to these characters; the actors and the excellent dialogue do all that.

In his interesting commentary track, director Lumet explains that he left out the music in order to make this nearly unbelievable story seem realistic and believable—and it works. You never doubt the reality of the situation, and the authenticity adds to the bizarre humor that threads through everything.

Lumet explains that the screenplay was reached by an unusual (for an American movie) combination of writing and improvisation by the actors; they invented much of their dialogue in the three weeks of rehearsal, while overall the movie kept to Pierson’s structure. British director Mike Leigh usually works this way, but it’s rare for an American movie to be treated in this manner.

The commentary track also points out interesting details. Penelope Allen, playing the head teller, was essentially Al Pacino’s adoptive mother. As a teenager, Pacino lived with her and her actor husband as he went through the early stages of becoming an actor himself. Lumet cites the great character comedian Carol Kane as one of the other bank clerks.

A documentary on the film is among the extras; it was made recently, and so has a more objective view than the made-at-the-time piece on Lumet himself. “Dog Day Afternoon—Casting the Controversy” is the first part of the documentary, but the second part is more interesting, and includes recent comments by Sarandon, Henriksen and editor Dede Allen. The third part, “Recreating the Facts,” is also interesting. One odd feature of the older piece on Lumet is that supporting players and members of the crew are interviewed.

But this is a Hi-Definition DVD, you say. So how is it as high-definition? The sound is excellent; Lumet was scrupulous about the sound being directional and realistic, especially since there’s no score, and this carries over very well to the DVD. However, in terms of visual resolution, the film is not a triumph. The original photography, due largely to what was available at the time technically, is slightly soft and lacking in crisp detail; those are precisely where high-definition video shines, so it simply wasn’t possible for this HD-DVD to be outstanding in that area.

But in this case that is of little concern. The movie itself is so engrossing, so entertaining and so memorable that it overrides technical deficiencies. And Al Pacino has never been better—which is a major accomplishment.

A final note: John Wojtowicz was sentenced to 20 years in prison, but released after seven. Though he made money from the sale of his story to the movies, he was impoverished when he died of cancer in 2006.

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