Dog Day Afternoon

Dir: Sidney Lumet
1976
Dog Day Afternoon was one of two DVDs I bought
for Abel’s Christmas present (people always buy him food, not knowing what else to get him; Mom suggested DVDs), but being a used copy, we watched it before wrapping it up. Sidney Lumet’s job was to take a sensationalist story (two incompetents try to rob a bank, one of whom wants the money for his lover’s sex-change operation) and turn it inside out, making the outlandish universal. With Pacino, he succeeds, and then goes further into doom and despair. Sonny and Sal’s attempts are funny at first, but as the day wears on and the AC and lights go out in the building, death seems right outside the door, cheered on by the bread’n’circuses New York mob.
The film now is a documentary glimpse into a New York that opened up to us only in the 70s, before being reformed and reshaped in the 80s. DDA’s opening five minutes show life in the city, c. 1976 (set in 1972, nobody worries that 1976’s film “A Star Is Born” hangs on a marquee). It was a move borrowed from the New Wave, and rarely seen these days, but sets up the wider context for a film that mostly takes place in two locations: inside and outside the bank. And look closely, for wandering among the crowd is Sonny’s wife, who we won’t see till much later–fiction intermingling with fact.
Pacino’s performance is tempered here with equal doses of anger and passivity–and it’s his star power that allows us entrance into the more disturbed or delusional aspects of Sonny’s personality.
The film pulses along between slow pools of calm and thrashes of activity (the series of lightning fast cuts that follow Sonny’s gunshot out the back window shows that you can cut quick and still be comprehensible). The script has time for dialog that exists apart from furthering the plot. And the supporting cast stand out as real people, not central casting drones (in particular the frizzy haired teller who is always doing something idiosyncratic when the camera passes over her.
Lastly, we come to identify with Sonny so much that in the end we feel his sadness when the hostages–supporting characters in Sonny’s head movie–refuse to acknowledge us or him once he is arrested. He’s lost his chance, his friends, his family–and mostly he’s lost center stage.

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