The American Film Market: Day Two

After missing yesterday’s opening day, I made sure to get myself down to Santa Monica to soak up information on hundreds of movies from around the world. Part of me would love to say I was looking for the proverbial needle in the haystack, that big-budget title with an A-list cast and director, but where’s the fun in that? I’d much rather go hunting for movies that look interesting, or at least could be ironically interesting, that won’t be as heavily covered by other outlets.

And, boy, did I find some!

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Dog Day Afternoon

Dog Day Afternoon

Nothing beats a great summer movie, especially when the temperatures outside make the idea of sitting in a well air-conditioned theater a very appealing way to spend an evening. Unfortunately, this year’s studio releases have so far fallen short of appeasing the public’s desire for a truly satisfying movie going experience. But there’s a great alternative available to you this week at the Arclight: Dog Day Afternoon will be presented on the big screen as part of the American Film Institute’s 100 years, 100 movies screening series. This is a not-to-be missed opportunity to see a truly invigorating, engrossing, exciting, and thrilling nail-biter of a heist film. With a young and magnetically engaging Al Pacino in one of his early roles, all you need to complete this perfect movie going experience is a large soda and a bucket of extra-buttery popcorn.

The movie poster tagline proclaimed that, “Anything can happen during the dog days of summer. On August 22nd, 1972, everything did”. Based on true events, Dog Day Afternoon is about some poor schmuck’s failed attempt to rob a Brooklyn bank on one of the hottest days of the year. And director Sidney Lumet does a good job of establishing that feeling of stifling heat and blistering unrest, introducing Brooklyn through a series of documentary-style establishing shots. He immediately draws the audience into the world of the working class neighborhood, showing the joys of a quick dip in a public pool and spreading out on the cool grass of a cemetery lawn, all the while existing in the shadows of the most symbolic image of successful capitalism: the Manhattan Skyline. It’s clear that in this part of the big city the poor stay poor and never seem to get a break – unless they make one for themselves.

So, Al Pacino’s down and out “Sonny” comes up with a plan to resolve his desperate situation. He’s an average man with no discernible way of making a decent living in order to support his wife and kids, let alone earn enough money to pay for his gay lover’s sex-change operation. His only option is to rob a bank, and that’s where the narrative begins, with Sonny and his partners waiting quietly outside a bank for the three o’clock closing time. From this moment on, Lumet uses no more music to enhance the mood, but rather, he lets the sounds of the environment – loud and invigorating or noiseless and tense – speak for itself.

The robbery was only supposed to take a few minutes – a quick in and out. But right away we see that Sonny is too kind-hearted for his own good, and it is his generous nature (compassionately personified in Pacino’s deep brown eyes and frantic bursts of dialogue, “I’m Catholic. I don’t want to hurt no one”) that leads to his ruin. What actually happened would later come to be known as the most bizarre bank siege of its time. One simple misfortune after another conspires to complicate matters exponentially, so much so that four hours later the bank becomes the center of a media circus. The growing attention draws the support and admiration of the public at large and a crowd gathers outside the bank, cheering like crazed fans in support of the social revolutionaries.

Al Pacino’s critically acclaimed performance as Sonny Wortzik has been highly praised and abundantly honored with numerous awards and many nominations. Although Pacino’s sensitive and vulnerable turn as a first time criminal with issues has been described as a tour-de-force performance, it’s somewhat blase to categorize his portrayal as such. After all, critics often tout that Pacino always gives the best performance of his career. But in this case it’s not just critical hyperbole, for it’s unlikely anyone but the acclaimed actor could possibly have played such a complicated character without overplaying the part, without taking the obvious choices, and create such depth through the most subtle of nuances. Many professionals consider Pacino’s effort here as one of the top performances of all time for the craft he displayed in creating such a difficult character. This is especially notable, since most actors of the day avoided similar characters like the plague, and the actor himself struggled with the decision before accepting the challenge of playing a bisexual man. This was a choice that might have left a stigma on a lesser actor, one less confident in his abilities to tap into the universal appeal of an Everyman regardless of his sexual orientation.

With twenty titles to his name, Sidney Lumet was a well-seasoned director when he re-teamed with Pacino after Serpico for this riveting drama that also stars Charles Durning, John Cazale, and Chris Sarandon. Durning (best know as Jessica Lange’s romantically challenged father in Tootsie) gives a pitch-perfect performance as the policeman who is overwhelmed with the chaos that ensues when his efforts to quickly contain the situation fail miserably. In many ways, Durning’s character is much like Pacino’s. He is a minor cog who is at the mercy of the powers that be in a society that has little use for the little cog. A little affable, a little bumbling, he’s trying to do the best he can with what he’s got when the situation is taken out of his control and placed into the hands of “more important” men – the FBI.

John Cazale’s role of Sal was originally intended for an 18-year-old, the age of Sonny’s real life partner in crime. But it was Pacino who insisted that Cazale be cast. In fact, Pacino influenced the casting of many of the superfluous characters, repaying debts to those who had helped him achieve the success he was now enjoying. It’s hard to imagine a younger actor capable of conveying the wide range of emotions that Cazale brings to the simple minded but neurotic Sal, a character who begins to crack under the pressure. Your heart will ache with empathy when Sal realizes that they have hemmed themselves into a corner and he struggles to keep from completely losing it. His foppish hair and puppy dog eyes lure you into believing he is an emotionally unstable young man by nature who will tragically place his trust in anyone who offers him an option. It’s easy to feel the pain and angst of these two guys. You’re right there with them, sucked in by the intense performances of these two masterful actors. Sadly, this was only one of five impressive roles (The Godfather, The Conversation, The Deer Hunter) that Cazale completed before his brief but brilliant career was cut short by his passing from bone cancer only a few years later.

Chris Sarandon is a revelation in this, his first feature film performance, as Leon, Sonny’s transsexual lover. Better known for his work in The Princess Bride and the voice of Jack Skellington in The Nightmare Before Christmas, he is nearly unrecognizable as he has an impassioned phone conversation with Pacino in the middle of the siege. Although screenwriter Frank Pierson (Cat Ballou, Cool Hand Luke) deserves most of the credit for his Oscar winning script, this segment was completely improvised. This begs the question: why wasn’t this a breakout role for such a talented young actorr Speculation suggests that, unlike Pacino, Sarandon was not nearly as well established as an actor and therefore found it difficult to shake the stereotyping involved with portraying such a controversial character. Thirty years ago, such a role usually meant the kiss of death to an actor’s career, no matter how many awards or accolades he may have received. This seems to be the only likely reason for such an incredible talent to be so underutilized in the years since.

It’s interesting to note that even though this film is about a bank robbery, Frank Pierson wrote the entire script around only twelve sequences. The award-winning screenwriter was undoubtedly recognized for his skill at effortlessly combining intimate interior scenes full of crisp exposition with large expansive crowd-packed exteriors. Another interesting aspect is that even though firearms are wildly prevalent throughout the whole film, only two shots are actually fired, thus masterfully creating a sense of rampant violence without graphically demonstrating hardly any at all.

The brilliant script, combined with the talents of a good director and a terrific cast, make this heist movie more than just a shinning example of its genre. Dog Day Afternoon will forever represent the value of great film making; the ability to capture the social and political events of the day and the value of presenting it in an entertaining, yet meaningful way that has a lasting impact on the art form in which it was created.

Dog Day Afternoon received the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for Frank Pierson’s streetwise screenplay, and was Oscar-nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor (Al Pacino), Best Supporting Actor (Chris Sarandon), Best Director (Sidney Lumet) and Best Editing. Other notable cast members include Charles Durning (who received a Golden Globe nomination along with Cazale for Supporting Actor), Lance Henriksen (Millennium), and Carol Kane (Taxi, Scrooged).

Rating: A+
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