Monday, August 29, 2016

Dog Day Afternoon: Ferocious as the Day it was Unleashed

Robbers as folk heroes are not a new phenomenon. The Robin Hood mentality goes back to the Old West, or Bonnie and Clyde during the Depression era. In 1975’s Dog Day Afternoon, Sonny and Sal are heroes for the cynical Vietnam/Watergate era.

This media event took place in August, 1972. The movie was released three years later.
The story of the real bank robbery appeared in Life magazine as The Boys in the Bank. The article’s title was a play on a recent groundbreaking gay film called The Boys in the Band. The pun refers to the so-called brains of the bank heist, John Wojtowicz, called Sonny in the film. He is gay and is holding up the bank, in part, to finance a sex-change operation for his partner, Leon. The other robber’s real name is used, Salvatore Naturale. “Sal” is mostly silent, but said to be trigger-happy.
R., the real robber; L., Pacino as "Sonny."
L., Sidney Lumet always worked fast; he came in
3 weeks ahead of schedule with 'Dog Day Afternoon!'
They want better lives, lots of money, and a plane out of the country. Don’t we all! This pipe dream goes disastrously wrong from the start. What should have been a quick hold-up turns into a chaotic stand-off, which becomes a media circus, and ends in tragedy.

Lumet, a life-long New Yorker, makes this film a melancholy valentine to the Big Apple. Dog Day Afternoon captures ‘70s New York City in full urban decay. Though the film is set during August of ’72, by the time the film was made, Vietnam and Watergate continued to drag on, adding another layer of malaise to the urban blight.

The director wanted the “truth is stranger than fiction” story to avoid turning into a freak show, but also not whitewash the film. Lumet didn’t want to add invented elements to the script, but considered Dog Day Afternoon a dramatic piece, not a documentary. “The truth could only help us up to a point,” said Lumet, believing the film had to work as a drama. “After that, it’s under the same obligation as any artificially created piece…It is not the truth.”

Same-sex marriage and transgender identity, at the forefront of today’s gay issues, but so ahead of its time in 1975, is handled matter-of-factly here. Pacino and Lumet were concerned about how audiences would react to the revelation of Sonny’s current romantic partner. They didn’t want Sonny’s sexual identity to be played for laughs or turn audiences against the gay characters.

Though Penelope Allen was terrific as the mouthy teller, it was Pacino who got to taunt the cops with "Attica! Attica!"
Every dog has its day, or in this movie, every character wants their day in the sun. From Sonny down to the preening pizza delivery boy, everyone wants their 15 minutes of fame that New Yorker Andy Warhol once predicted. The raucous crowds who are the robbers’ audience are a warm-up for today’s reality TV. The fickle crowd first cheers the robbers on, then turns unruly when they learn Sonny is gay, only to have gay protesters arrive, showing their support. This mentality goes all the way back to the Romans, giving their thumbs up or down! If this event happened in 2016, everyone would have their cell phones out, capturing it all on video.

Lumet didn’t cast his actors for colorful personalities, he wanted reality. This was the director’s goal for the entire film. He believed that the outlandish story of the bungled bank robbery by such misfit amateurs could easily become a cartoon.

Sidney Lumet’s take was that the makers of the film or audiences did not know the real people. So Lumet looked for actors who were unaffected and real, and that the action of the story would give them extra dimension. By Lumet’s design, many of the actors had worked together before, adding to the familiarity that the bank staff and police squad would respectively have with each other. Like Mike Nichols, Lumet loved to rehearse his actors, uncommon in film. And with Dog Day, Lumet held three weeks of rehearsal instead of his usual two. The director wanted everyone on the same playing field, from star Al Pacino, down to the actor playing the pizza boy.

Pacino's Sonny dictates his will, acknowledging both wives, when the characters and audiences find out the robber is gay.
Pacino is at his most soulful and most powerful, as Sonny. Realizing how intense the part would be, Pacino initially turned it down, just coming off the demanding The Godfather: Part II shoot. If it wasn’t for Jack Nicholson and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, I believe Al Pacino would have won the Oscar for Dog Day Afternoon. I think this role shows off Pacino at the peak of his powers, before he became the blowhard hambone of Scarface and Scent of a Woman. This was Pacino’s ‘70s career pinnacle. After this came a series of over-the-top duds to end the decade: Bobby Deerfield, …and justice for all.—and the infamous Cruising.

John Cazale as Sal, another memorable role in a short career.
Chris Sarandon made his film debut as transgender Leon. After his screen test, Lumet asked him to be “a little bit less Blanche DuBois and a little more Queens housewife.” Sarandon got an Oscar nomination for his efforts.

John Cazale offers superb support as sad-sack Sal; Penelope Allen is wonderful as Sylvia, the tough head teller. Cazale was one of Pacino’s best friends and Allen and her husband took Pacino in when he left home to become an actor—that’s why the rapport feels so real! Charles Durning has one of his best early roles as the cop who has to deal with chaotic Sonny. James Broderick, Lance Hendrickson, Carol Kane, and a fine ensemble of character actors make you believe you’re watching the real deal.

Chris Sarandon in his first film as Leon, Sonny's current lover.
Sidney Lumet was cooking on all burners with Dog Day Afternoon. Seeking as much realism as possible, Lumet opted for naturalistic lighting, with no color palette for sets and costumes. He even encouraged much of the cast to wear their own clothes.

Lumet did not want a Hollywood musical score to intrude on the film’s reality, either. The music is incidental—actually, accidental. Editor Dede Allen used the Elton John song, Amoreena, from 1970’s Tumbleweed Connection, as filler for the film’s establishing shots. Lumet liked it so much, that he kept the tune in the movie.

Pacino as Sonny, watching his heist go from bad to worse. Great juxtaposition of characters here.
The director works so skillfully on such a large scale, with the bank staff inside, the growing crowds on the street, flanked by police squads, all escalating to the getaway finale. It’s mind-boggling when you think that Sidney Lumet’s first feature was 12 Angry Men, with the action consisting mostly of jurors, trapped in a room together!

Lance Hendrickson as an FBI agent not to be trusted.
If you want to see a film that captures a city and an era, you can hardly do better than Dog Day Afternoon. Thanks to Sidney Lumet seeking raw realism, and with the spontaneous combustion from the cast, Dog Day feels as current as the day it was released.

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