Jul 26, 2011

On DVD: Dog Day Afternoon

Warning: You are about to read an unfettered, crazy mad rave about this movie, which I believe is a moral duty to see. There are spoilers ahead and I don't care.

As yesterday was the day gay marriage laws took effect in New York, what better tribute than this American masterpiece by Sidney Lumet, which is about everything: the Vietnam War, social injustice, powerlessness, sexual and racial politics, prejudice, love, loyalty and crowd control. This is the greatest movie about everything going wrong, and one of the greatest underdog movies ever.
I had not revisited this movie since I saw it in my teens, when by the end I was utterly bereft and crying like a banshee. Dog Day Afternoon is one of the saddest movies ever made. And it is about a bank robbery. It is very funny, taut and gorgeously well made. Lumet is the closest thing in American cinema to the Italian Neo-Realists. But since this is sort of a heist movie, it has a racing pulse too. Written by Frank Pierson, it is a masterpiece of tone.
Dog Day Afternoon is the quintessential New York movie, breathtaking in its spunk, its chutzpah and its humanity. Probably the best movie about New York, period. Forget about Woody Allen and his romantic, sanitized version of uptown. The opening sequence of Dog Day Afternoon with garbage strewn streets, the masses cooling off in Coney Island, 1970's New York in all its decay, is a true love poem to the grit of this town.
Everybody is incredible in this movie. Lumet was one of the greatest directors of actors. He had a gift for the authentic and watching his movies is like chomping on a great pastrami sandwich at Katz's, so spicy and juicy and satisfying.
The first time I saw it, I was so affected by John Cazale's performance as Sal, that I had forgotten that he barely speaks in the movie. His is one of the greatest silent performances in film. And when he opens his mouth, he is genius:
Sonny: "What country do you want to go to?"
Sal: "Wyoming".
According to Lumet, this was improvised. He claims that he burst out laughing so hard when he heard Cazale say it, that he was afraid he had ruined the take.
Charles Durning, as the police detective, is awesome. Chris Sarandon, as Leon, Sonny's (Al Pacino) "wife", super awesome (whatever happened to him?). The women and the manager at the bank, awesome. 
I love the spicy language, which is not just random, pointless profanity -- Lumet had the ear of a gifted rapper. I love the details: A policeman snickers when Leo is brought in to the command center. After many hours waiting the police munch on food.  The framing of tiny, bathrobed, Leo, hidden behind a policeman as he speaks to Sonny on the phone. The head teller who says matter of factly: "we are having a bank robbery". The girl who chews gum who seems to be thrilled to be part of it all. The way she plays with Sonny's rifle, feeling right at home in the company of the bank robbers. The crowd that cheers Sonny when he performs for them and throws money at them, but boos him and taunts him when they find out he's gay.
Pacino is unbelievable in this movie. If the people who hate him today (you know who you are) want a refresher on why he is one of the greatest American actors ever, they should see him in this.
What a character he creates. Sonny is a bit of a psycho and one of those people who has a knack for stirring up trouble. He is mercurial and somewhat delusional. He's a Vietnam Vet, and married to two people, a chubby loving wife and to Leon, who wants a sex change operation, which is the reason why Sonny robs the bank. But Sonny is like a human grenade of chaos. It's not evil chaos but the chaos of desperation. He has his ideas about justice, and he is not wrong, but he is also somewhat grandiose, goodhearted, but a loose cannon. Pacino is so expressive, he devastates just by using his eyes. He is funny and on fire when he works up the crowd, surprising even himself at their reaction ("Attica! Attica!"), enjoying his moment of glory when he has the police at his feet, for once in his life getting what he wants. But he breaks your heart in the scene where Leon is ungrateful and exhausted with him, and even more when he watches the hostages walk away without even looking at him one last time. You can see it in his eyes when he becomes conscious of the mess he is in. In one look there is an entire reckoning of his crazy, vain mistakes, of all the stupid shit he's done throughout his life. It is astounding.
As he says to his mother "I am a fuckup and an outcast". And so it is. A hero for all fuckups.

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