Friday, August 18, 2006

Wyoming's not a country.

The only music in Dog Day Afternoon is Elton John's "Amoreena," which plays over an opening montage of a summer afternoon in Brooklyn in the early 1970s. The music and images establish the tone of the film, which is a perfect distillation of the zeitgeist - anti-authoritarian sentiment, radically changing social politics, police brutality, etc. - in a way that never feels didactic or forced. The opening titles inform us that the bank robbery we are about to see really took place in 1972, and it feels inevitable; there's a sense of momentum even in these early, seemingly irrelevant images. And Dog Day Afternoon never loses that momentum - it's like a runaway train.

Director Sidney Lumet and screenwriter Frank Pierson tell the story of Sonny Wortzik (Al Pacino), who decides to rob a bank in order to pay for his wife Leon (Chris Sarandon)'s sex change, with precision, starting right outside the bank as Sonny and his partners enter. Things start going wrong almost immediately - one of Sonny's partners bails, leaving him with the intense, dull-witted Sal (John Cazale). Before Sonny knows it, the bank is surrounded by cops and he finds himself buying time with the earnest, affable Det. Sgt. Eugene Moretti (Charles Durning). The standoff quickly becomes a circus, with television cameras circling and massive crowds cheering Sonny on. Lumet and cinematographer Victor J. Kemper create remarkable tension as the camera constantly weaves its way through the bank and the street outside. This is a masterpiece of filmmaking designed to not call attention to itself; each cut is perfectly timed, and each lighting cue is at once natural within the setting and illustrative of the emotional motivation behind the scene. This is the sort of movie they should be teaching on day one of film school: it is totally believable without falling victim to the faux-gritty "realism" plaguing character-driven cinema today.

And while it is a heist movie, Dog Day Afternoon is first and foremost a character study, one than cuts far deeper than Spike Lee's overrated Inside Man (which doesn't earn its Dog Day references). Pacino turns Sonny into a man under severe pressure - nagged by his shrewish first wife (Susan Peretz) and burdened by his turbulent relationship with Leon, Sonny seems capable of both extreme sensitivity and violent rage (it's fascinating to read Sonny's real-life counterpart John Wojtowicz's response to the film). His famous "Attica!" outburst works as more than a then-recent reference; its an exclamation of his (and much of the country's) basic distrust of the system. As the crowd outside paints Sonny as an antihero, Pacino refuses to let him become a stereotype or a joke - he's an everyman pushed to his limits.

Pacino is ably supported by Durning, whose Moretti is an honest man trying to resolve the situation without violence (a more complex portrait of "The Man" than the one-dimensional hicks in Easy Rider). The ensemble playing the hostages are never less than believable, yielding achingly true moments like timid bank teller Jenny (Carol Kane) reassuring her husband over the phone that he can make dinner on his own. And John Cazale once again performs the trick of making a supporting character every bit as compelling as the lead (he even improvised his famous line, "Wyoming"). His Sal is alternately spooky, silly, pathetic, and tragic. Cazale appeared in only five features before his death, but those performances are enough to establish him as one of the all-time great screen actors. Even the bit players have classic moments, like the pizza delivery man who excalims, "I'm a fuckin' star!"

Revisiting the film after many years, I was suprised to find that the film deals with its "gay" material with candor and maturity unusual in films today. While Sonny's sexual confusion, and the responses of others (Sal asks news reporters to stop referring to them as "two homosexuals") are an important part of the film, Dog Day Afternoon is, in a larger sense, about a man unable to come to terms with himself. This is evident in the phone call between Sonny and Leon. Sarandon creates a vulnerable, unbalanced pre-op transsexual that manages to avoid stereotype, and as the two men talk, Lumet allows his camera to rest on their faces, in close-up. On their faces, we can see the entire story of a failed relationship - confusion, frustration, self-loathing, anxiety, and a lingering affection that never quite seems to fade. It's a rueful scene, and it's at the heart of a film about a tragicomic moment in the middle of a tragicomic decade. It's films like Dog Day Afternoon that give the 1970's its reputation as the greatest decade in American cinema, but I suspect that it was the exception even it its day; art this truthful and humane is all too rare even in the best of times.

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