Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

hero_EB19750101REVIEWS501010313ARFood: This week I ventured into the West Village with some friends to try a new spot called Rosemary’s. Open and airy with exposed brick and dainty greenery, it sits at the corner of Greenwich and 10th and we arrived just before the end of Happy Hour. I drank their Strawberry Basil Frosé, which I recommend, and we all split some share plates. We ordered the beets which included bitter greens and hazelnuts, the chitarra vongole salad made with house made pasta, manilla clams, garlic, fresno chili, basil and white wine, the summer market salad (heirloom tomatoes, smoked onion, cucumber charred corn, basil, house made burrata, magic spice vinaigrette, baby greens) and the crostini toscana. It was all incredibly tasty and I need to immediately go back for a full meal.

Film: “Dog Day Afternoon” is not a comedy, it is a thriller/drama/crime film, but to be clear, this film is hilarious. It’s irreverent and sort of ridiculous. It’s a heist gone wrong. It’s chaotic and full of really fascinating characters. And the story is true. It’s a melodrama, based on fact. The New York Times called it, “a gaudy street-carnival of a movie.” This film entertains the same way Americans love Dateline and Reality TV.

Taking place in the 1970’s in the smoggy and cramped streets of New York, the opening credits feature several shots of everyday life in the city. None of this was staged – director, Sidney Lumet, just shot footage around town. In the editing room, the team was listening to Elton John, and felt that it ended up weaving the scenes together nicely, and they decided to include the song, as though it were playing from a car radio. Seamlessly, the film has begun and we watch as a couple of guys go into First Brooklyn Savings Bank with intimidating guns and the intention to rob. Quickly, though, everything begins to flounder. Sonny, played magnificently by Al Pacino, frantically roams around with his weapon in tow, trying to think of a Plan B, frequently spouting the line: “We’re moving right along here, moving right along.”  His strange and stoic partner, Sal (John Cazale), stares blankly with his long face, and holds his gun at the hostages.

Cazale and Pacino had previously worked together in “The Godfather” (1972) and also on the stage, and it was evident that they have chemistry. However, Lumet pictured Sal as being a completely different looking man and thought that there was no way John Cazale could be right for the role, but Pacino fought for him to get the opportunity to read. After he read only a couple of lines, it was clear that the part was meant for him. The characters are portrayed as a couple of friends who really do not know each other very well, but are now learning about each other intimately in such a high pressure situation, and their ability to convey this was crucial. Lumet describes the connection between the these two as “phenomenal and very touching.”

Sidney Lumet’s “Dog Day Afternoon” involves so many contradictory elements and plot twists, it turns itself on its own head multiple times, making it so much more fun than I could have expected. He touches on many typical gangster movie cliches, but toys with them.

Sonny is a fascinating character. He is a Vietnam veteran, a ‘Mama’s boy,’ a family man – with a wife and young kids, and a homosexual lover who is trying to get money for his partners sex-change operation.  As Ebert said it best, “Sonny isn’t explained or analyzed — just presented.” Screenwriter, Frank Pierson, was unable to get an official interview with the real Sonny Wortzik, John Wojtowicz, because he did not feel he was being paid enough for the film to be about him, so he had to interview people who knew him. Pierson quickly realized a man who wanted to take care of everyone, like a magician, but often could not fulfill his promises. Al Pacino innately understood this character and, despite not initially being interested in the part, read the script a final time and said that after reading so many other scripts so often, he felt that “they are never up to that kind of quality, that intensity, that writing, and characters, all the characters in this piece… I just put the script down and said, ‘I’ll do it.'”

Beyond being a crime movie, this movie is about society and our relationship to the media. Lumet portrays how “exciting” the whole experience seems to be, even for the hostages, who giggle about their opportunity to be interviewed and position themselves in the background of the newscast. The whole spectacle draws an enormous crowd. Gawkers treat Sonny as a rock-star, as he screams “Attica!” referencing an event in (then) recent history, where police officers abused their power against protesters. When Sonny’s lover arrives and the media outs him as gay, the crowd turns their back on him, only to be replaced by a throng of new supporters, turning the scene into a pseudo gay pride parade.

Lumet incorporated several moments of improvisation, when he felt that it fell in line with the characters. When Sonny first pulls his gun out at the bank, he scrambles as the gun gets stuck and it helps to emphasize the inexperienced nature of the robbery right off the bat. Another point in the film, when Sonny has a confrontation with his mother, Al Pacino was asked to improvise, while the actress who plays his mother, Judith Malina, had to stick to the script meticulously, even when her responses do not make sense. The result epitomizes their relationship: two people speaking and not listening to each other. John Cazale’s line about Wyoming being a country he would like to visit was also improvised, and Lumet recalls having to cover his mouth to keep himself from gasping because he felt the line was so startling and funny, but equally heartbreaking.

It is a little long towards the end, but this film is engaging and well-paced. Pacino delivers an effortless and memorable performance and the surrounding cast, especially the female hostages, add a lot of comedy and color. Chris Sarandon is phenomenal as Leon, Sonny’s lover – bringing vulnerability and sincerity to her person. The whole piece is portrayed without any musical score, and feels almost like a documentary. It will grip you. It is a city about to implode on a hot August day which started as a day like any other. It is what can happen in New York City on any given dog day afternoon.

 

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