Forty years ago today, Sonny Wortzik held up a bank on a hot Brooklyn day. It did not go well. Dog Day Afternoon (1975) was nominated for six Oscars -- the kind of nominations that go to well liked contemporary pictures that aren't thought of as particularly "visual" achievements -- winning only for Best Original Screenplay, but it's actually quite beautiful to look at. Credit, then, to director Sidney Lumet who understood the frantic extremes of humanity better than most auteurs, the casting director and the fine actors who are riveting yet absolutely recognizable as people who might actually be bank tellers, cops or pizza delivery boys and the cinematography by Victor J Kemper whose camerawork and lighting ably capture the flickering nuances on faces and add considerably to the film's sweaty moody desperation.
Consider these two shots: the first is Carol Kane as a bank hostage and Lance Henriksen as an FBI man.
They're shots that define what "Character Actor" means or at least what it should -- God, what faces!
Even out of context you want to know their stories. They're people with real character. They're characters who somehow exist outside the movie you're watching merely by contributing indelibly to it in their own small way. The shot of Carol Kane, who plays "Jenny", appears within a series of compelling closeups of the hostages on their way to the airport. It's their last group experience and curiously (and wonderfully) Lumet and his team choose to isolate them; even those trapped together by circumstance for a shared experience, are also experiencing solitary journeys. Is Jenny thinking of her husband and the dinner she didn't make? Or is she dreaming incongruously of escape by way of extended hostagedom, jetting off to Algiers with Sonny and Sal?
Yet it seems perverse to discuss Dog Day Afternoon's ensemble and the art of screen acting without zeroing in on Al Pacino. My runner up choice for Best Shot is early in the movie. Sonny is having great trouble controlling the sassy bank tellers -- Dog Day Afternoon manages an absurd amount of humor without losing its core drama of emotional desperation -- and the phone keeps ringing. He and the bank tellers are all utterly shocked by the most frequent sentence ever uttered after a telephone ring.
It's for you."
This day is not turning out the way the bank tellers had planned. It's not turning out the way the bank robber planned. And the movie keeps on surprising the moviegoer too with its judiciously parsed bits of "is this story for real?!?" reveals.
The direction's racing thriller heart, the screenplay's fearful angst "I'm dying here", and the movie's pulsating humanity all come to a head in Al Pacino's unusually absorbing characterization of Sonny. The iconic actor has frankly never been better and really should have won the Oscar (sorry, Jack). We know Sonny is in way over his head from his very first stumble with his gun (clumsily hidden in a flower box), but Pacino never lets that first impression -- or any subsequent impression, really -- be your last of him.
My favorite scenes and most of my favorite closeups of Al Pacino come during back-to-back phone calls with his two wives: transgendered lover Leon (Oscar nominated Chris Sarandon) and the mother of his children Angela (Susan Peretz). He's always been a man divided. Two more examples: he calls himself an "outcast" late in the movie even after playing up the The People's Criminal charm by winning over the rubbernecking crowd, and he half smiles with acknowledgement when the bank manager calls him out on his seriously faulty self-image 'you're no angel of kindess'. He leads two lives but oddly Sonny treats both wives vaguely the same with psychotically threatening behavior and exasperation at their neediness (even though he's constantly expressing his own). This life-altering afternoon is Sonny's nightmare Dividing Day -- he'll be separated from both of them for good by the time the credits roll.
Dog Day Blogging
The Family Berzurcher "Stress, Disappointment, and Bigotry"
Film Actually a little chit chat, a little cooling off
Antagony & Ecstasy on one of the best scenes in Al Pacino's career
A Blogwork Orange focuses on John Cazale's work as "Sal"
Serious Film "Shotgun in a box"
Okinawa Assault "Sonny yells back, the best use of Pacino’s lung power because there’s a whole city block to fill with his voice."
Arf She Said "Sonny walks around clutching his handkerchief like a blankie, this stained talisman that he thinks will be his protection but is instead signalling surrender."
Pussy Goes Grrr Sonny's first breaking point. More to follow.
Encore's World "He doesn't have a plan. It's all a whim!"
Thank you to everyone who participated in this third season of "Best Shot", whether through commenting, watching along silently at home, or (above all) choosing a shot and sharing it with the world. It's been a challenging group journey, and a rewarding solitary one. I hope you'll be back for season 4 which will kick off in 2013 once Oscar season wraps.