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Hit Me With Your Best Shot: "Dog Day Afternoon"

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.

Best Shot: He can't live. With or without them. Note the omnipresent wedding ring,always picking up the light as wife #1 complains about wife #2

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.


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Reader Comments (22)

I so wanted to jump in on this one since DDA is a tip-toppy favorite for me, and a movie I love to teach. I'm eager to read everyone else's pieces, though. This was your first time seeing it, right, Nathaniel?

August 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNick Davis

It was. I was keeping that secret since i was embarrased so SPOILER ALERT ;)

August 22, 2012 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Nat: Of the nominees, yes. Jack's role in One Flew is barely the equal of Michael Caine in The Man who Would be King (who should have been nominated), let alone Pacino in Dog Day. However, I would not argue an acting win for Jack if it was for The Passenger.

August 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

Have you ever read Lumet's "Making Movies"? It's a terrific book, the best I've read on the nuts and bolts of filmmaking. He has as an extended passage about the shooting of the scene you highlighted and what was involved in getting that performance on screen. Highly recommended.

August 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMichael C.

Now that it's all done, I wanted to thank you officially for how much of a blast I've had playing along this season. And brilliant choice of a finale; I had forgotten just how sophisticated Lumet's visual language really was in this movie, and while I don't think I'll ever like him better than The Godfather, Part II, I'd forgotten exactly how career-peak great Pacino was, too. Glad you finally got to see it! And looking forward to doing this all again next year!

August 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTim

Didn't mean to call you out! Isn't the movie amazing??

August 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNick Davis

One of my favorite movies. My favorite shot is Sonny outside, shouting "Attica! Attica!" The moment where he feels like he's in control. That one moment...and then it's gone.

August 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDeborah Lipp

I am weirdly ecstatic that I actually saw a movie classic before you did. This is only because I don't think that this will ever happen again.

DDA for me, is just perfect. And Pacino is perfect in it. It's one of these things where I will always forgive him for whatever ham-fisted shtick comes up next, because I will always go back and think of DDA.

August 23, 2012 | Unregistered Commentercaroline

I saw this because a local channel shows post-67 classics on Saturday nights. Like way way back when I was in college. Top two Lumet, second to Serpico.

Care for a late night submission?

August 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPaolo

One of the best performances ever, yes, but still not Pacino's best, The Godfather Part II. If Best Pictures From The Outside In ever comes back, you will realuze that ;-)

August 23, 2012 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

I'm so bummed life kept me from the first round of conversation with this movie, which is one of my all-time favourites. My own excessive (sorry) entry is here. I'm with Tim, I feel like it just doesn't get the same cachet as other 70s big name movies and I would love to see it more widely recognised. Every time I go into an op shop I look for a copycat suit. It is my dream to one day to to a dress-up/Halloween party as Sonny.

Obviously we need diversity in queer representation and film, and I think that movies like DDA are especially few and far between. DDA seems to hit a singular place where the protagonist is queer and his/her queerness is really important, and queer issues inflect and infuse the film and are part of what makes it great, but are also not its reason for being. It almost makes me think that the lead character of any mainstream thriller or action movie could be queer....forty years later.

August 23, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterarf_she_said

my biggest hope beyond participation from other bloggers for this series is that The Film Experience readers are clicking around and reading the other pieces. I can't really deemphasize how much this series has opened my eyes to the fact that we all see movies with different eyes. I'm often a bit surprised at which shots are chosen and I ALWAYS learn something unexpected from reading the complete set of entries.

Arf -- absolutely agreed on the queerness. I think it's one of the reasons the movie still reads so fresh... unlike so many other movies, it's not the focus which allows humanity to be the single focus and humanity isn't radically altered in the space of 40 years the way political ideas or social mores sometimes can be. LOVED your piece (and the last one too) and really hoping you go all in next season ;)

Deborah -- that one moment and then it's gone indeed. I wish you would join the series... although i guess it' maybe not the right fit for "basket of kisses" .... hmmm, how can I tie it in to Mad Men?

Michael C -- going on the book queue immediately

August 23, 2012 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

first pic of god in the carrie remake i am getting piper laurie vibes.

August 23, 2012 | Unregistered Commentermark

Nat who would receive nominations from you out of the supporting players sarandon,durning,cazale and penelope allen for supp actress,would love to know.

August 23, 2012 | Unregistered Commentermark

This is in my top five list of favorite movies. I've seen it at least a half dozen times but still remember that thrill of the first viewing and the first scene in the bank of Pacino struggling to get the gun out of the box. The first of so many perfect momemnts.

I am completely inept internet-wise and have no hopes of being able to participate with a screen shot but I live a few blocks from where the film was shot and meant to send you a picture of what that street looks like now. The buildings are all the same and if you squint your eyes you can almost see Pacino riling up a crowd with shouts of "Attica."

August 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAR

I am embarrassed to say that I still have not seen Dog Day Afternoon, and if it weren't for a meddling sister I would have seen this and had an entry for last night. Ah well, you know what they say about best-laid-plans! I still LOVE reading all these entries - many have made me look at some films that I thought I knew pretty well from a completely different angle, and still many others made me look at films that I had all but forgotten with fresh eyes. And the rest, well, they just made me want to see the movies for the first time!

August 23, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

AR -- oh good god, it's not to late. take a pic :)

DENNY -- i'll still include you if you do one late. you just won't get as much traffic

August 23, 2012 | Unregistered Commenternathanielr

I agree with you ENTHUSIASTICALLY that this is Pacino's shining hour. He's always been one of those very visceral performances for me and each move that Sonny makes is a part of this downward spiral he's on - and you can't help but be moved, devastated even by the way he performers here.

Your choice for best shot (and the final close-up of his face at the end) were my fourth and fifth choices. The camera is way up in his face, but Lumet's direction never gets awkwardly, or sentimentally close. We feel for Sonny not because his direction is forcing us to, but because his cool presentation of the "facts" move us to.

(Thanks for a great film to end the series on. Not as obviously "visual" at first glance, but rich with good shots.)

August 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew K.

DDA is my all-time favorite film. A true masterpiece IMHO.

August 23, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterbrandz

It is, genuinely, one of the best American films ever made. Better than Taxi Driver. Perfect acting, the crispest editing of a motion picture (seriously, has anything ever surpassed this?), and subtle, present direction. Jesus, I love this film.

August 24, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBeau

Lumet was on a roll in the 70s before the unfortunate Wiz fumbled past the curtain. Beginning with Serpico in 1973, and continuing with Murder On the Orient Express (1974), DDA (1975) and Network (1976), he was on a hot streak not seen since Wyler. These movies showed not only his versatility with styles and themes, but an impeccable skill with actors. DDA also shows Al Pacino at the top of his game. His bravery with acting choices has really stood the test of time and ties everything together in this mad human drama.

August 24, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

I just got watched this movie again, having seen it once years and years ago. I'm not sure why I like it so much. Reading about it makes me realize the many incredible things about it. To the above poster, I would LOVE to see pics of the street where it was filmed. After viewing I read some trivia that noted there is no music (except for the opening). I didn't notice this while watching. The lack of music gives it an odd quality, such as Hitchcock's "The Birds" had no music soundtrack.

August 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJohn C. King
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