Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

by | Mar 2, 2006 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews | 0 comments

Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

Starring: Al Pacino, John Cazale, and Charles Durning

Studio:  Warner Brothers
Video: Enhanced for 16:9 Widescreen Television
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Languages: English and French
Subtitles: English, French, and Spanish
Extras: The Making of Dog Day Afternoon: a four-part 30th Anniversary Edition Documentary: Explore the actual events that inspired the movie, Casting, Filming, and Aftermath; Commentary by Director Sidney Lumet; Vintage Featurette on Lumet: Film Maker; Theatrical Trailer
Length: 2 hours 4 minutes
Rating: *****

Two down-on-their-luck guys from Brooklyn enter a local bank one hot summer afternoon in 1972 with a thinly rehearsed notion of robbing the place.  Their plan goes miserably awry, and soon the police quickly surround them outside. Not a particularly unusual real-life event to base a feature film upon, right? Only in his case, one of the robbers is a troubled gay man desperate to get enough money for his male lover’s sex change operation.

Add this to the mix: the standoff between the police and the robbers which ensues lasts for 13 hours and captivates the attention of throngs of New Yorkers, most notably many members of the gay community who gather outside the bank and wildly cheer on Sonny Wortzik, a suddenly anointed “hero” who happens to be holding 11 people hostage.

Did I mention Al Pacino, easily the most eloquent, passionate American actor on the scene at this time (and for years to come) agrees to play the lead as Sonny?  Now are you interested?

Dog Day Afternoon, an incredibly rich and finely acted piece of moviemaking is the film described.  It has now been rereleased on DVD by Warner Brothers and for many reasons, is a worth a second look some 30 years after director Sidney Lumet brought his camera crew and set to Brooklyn.

Reason number one: Pacino’s brilliant performance as Sonny – and how this caliber of acting elevates the other actors.  From the initial moment in the bank where he violently fumbles with opening the package disguising his military assault rifle,  Mr. Pacino’s focused intensity remains at full throttle.  Other actors prepare for roles; Pacino invests a measure of raw emotion and energy into every scene rarely matched (Only Jack Nicholson and Dustin Hoffman come to mind in terms of their overall effectiveness)

Attica!, Attica!, Attica!  Sonny Wortzik (Pacino) screams at the top of his lungs, inciting the crowd of onlookers outside the bank into hostility towards the police, as well as sympathy for his own situation.  (Attica was the site of a New York prison riot in which over 40 inmates died from police brutalities)  Pacino’s piercing cries (a suggestion from the assistant director) have become a trademark of his volcanic performance in the film.  At moments like this, it almost seems the criminal behavior of Pacino’s character deserves sympathy, instead of the appropriate response from the law.  This, of course, is in large part due to Pacino’s layered characterization of Sonny – a highly emotional man in conflict with himself and how to proceed with his relationships.

The charged confrontational scenes between amateur criminal Sonny Wortzik (Pacino) and Detective Sergeant Eugene Moretti (Charles Durning) serve as further examples of fine acting between both men.   Durning plays the part of a well-intentioned, though ineffective, Brooklyn-born detective with vim , becoming visibly agitated and enraged after being tricked by Pacino.  The anger which emanates from this veteran actor on screen, an absolute sense of vitriol from being outsmarted by a criminal, should serve as a training video for aspiring actors.  Durning rips off his jacket, exposing his hefty (and unarmed) stomach to Pacino in order to indicate that at least one of them  is playing fairly in their negotiations.  This is a film , though the level of real emotion generated by both artist more resembles first-rate stage acting. John Cazale, as Sonny’s simple-minded partner Sal, Chris Sarandon in the role of Leon, Sonny’s lover, and James Broderick, a stoic yet formidable FBI man named Sheldon who replaces Moretti as the top cop at the scene all contribute to the fine acting roundtable.

Reason number two: exemplary screenwriting.  This reviewer nor viewers are not aware of the actual drama that enfolded during this bank robbery in Brooklyn, but screenwriter Frank Pierson heightens the tension by inserting multiple layers into his script.   Pierson’s script brings Sonny’s mother, his gay lover, and his heterosexual wife onto the robbery scene in order to persuade Sonny to give up.  Steadfastly and to his detriment, Sonny refuses to listen to anyone and while his fate seems foretold, Pierson has crafted a script in Dog Day Afternoon, with all it’s dramatic tensions, like the fuse of a bomb slowly waiting to explode. 

Reason number three: superior direction.  In this DVD version, director Sidney Lumet reveals that parts of the screenplay were improvised and then rewritten into the scenes.  In other words, the director preserved the work of screenwriter Frank Pierson (1975 Oscar winner for best original screenplay), and allowed  the artistic contributions of cast members to enhance the storytelling. Add to that the outstanding recreation of the scene – all shot on location in Brooklyn using 300 paid extra actors for the crowd which Lumet directed, and viewers can appreciate how the scope and vision of one artist can greatly influence his final creation. 

This two-disc special edition DVD of Dog Day Afternoon also contains The Making of Dog Day Afternoon and commentary by Sidney Lumet.  Viewers learn that Pacino accepted and turned down the role of Sonny, finally agreeing to the part after successfully advocating the elimination a screen kiss between himself and (Leon) Chris Sarandon.  Pacino was the first major star to portray a gay male on screen, even though a love scene was not involved.  Both extras further detail what I would describe as a rare five-star performance in filmmaking.  Ah, to recall the great 70s era of cinema…

— Jim Fasulo

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