Saturday, January 28, 2017

CANON OF FILM: "DOG DAY AFTERNOON"

DOG DAY AFTERNOON (1975)

Director: Sidney Lumet
Screenplay: Frank Pierson, based upon a magazine article by P.F. Kluge and Thomas Moore



Does anybody even remember what "Attica" was even a reference too? The Attica Prison Riots in 1971, wasn't so much a riot as it was a hostage takeover of the prison by the prisoners, many of whom felt they were treated unfairly and after four days of negotiations and double-digit casualties on both sides, the Police agreed to 28 of the Prisoners' demands. This occurred, remember during the Black Civil Rights movement, and shortly after the murder of George Jackson, the Black Panther member who was killed by San Quetin guards after an escape attempt. Prisoners were prosecuted for their actions, but their demands were given into, and the incident, was one of the big ones that shined a light on police brutality in prisons, and eventually led to several changes in the penal system. Okay, that last part, not really, but it did put a microscope on the actions of police and guards, and for awhile, bringing that up would put the fear of God into the police, if for no other reason, than because it would make them, think twice before acting somewhat more recklessly and aggressively than they probably might've beforehand.

I don't have any knowledge of the actual Chase Manhattan robbery, other than a few Wikipedia notes, and of course, watching "Dog Day Afternoon" a few times over the years and I have no real idea whether or not Sonny (Al Pacino) or the real-life Sonny, John Wojtowicz, screamed "Attica!" "Attica!" at the police, during his infamous botched bank robbery, in front of cops, passers-by, and of course, television cameras, but it's effective in the movie, and it's been parodied to death ever since. Based on a real incident Sonny, along with a partner, Sal (John Cazale, in one of his only four career feature film roles) hold up a Chase National Bank. Sonny had worked for a bank before, and knows the ins and outs, but eventually, the hastily-drawn together plan, doesn't quite pan out, and soon enough, it's a hostage situation. By all reports, a fairly delightful one, but still, the bank employees are all taken hostage and the Police, led by Sheldon and Moretti (James Broderick and Charles Durning) begin their interrogation. Meanwhile, John becomes a huge hit with the local media, as the events play out live on network television in New York City. It's sorta now commonplace to see possibles major crimes is action being shown live on television and on the news, we've probably limited the more blatantly exploitative news pieces to the cable news networks nowadays, but there's still occasional exceptions. I still remember spending half a frustrating night watching a Ford Bronco chased down a highway, annoyed that Game 7 of the NBA Finals was reduced to the bottom-right corner of the screen, but this incident, was really one of the first major ones television documented in real time.

Television has always been a somewhat regular theme in Lumet's work, partly because he was one of the first filmmakers who started there and then broke out into feature films. His first movie, "12 Angry Men', was in fact based on a teleplay that originated as an episode of "Studio One", and the power of the medium, particularly in the '70s; it's no coincidence he made "Network" right after "Dog Day Afternoon". The other thing that's a common motif in Lumet's work is making movies based in one location. Yes, New York, of course, but locked-in stories are a staple of his films too. "12 Angry Men", "Fail-Safe", "Dog Day Afternoon", "Murder on the Orient Express", "Long Day's Journey Into Night", most of his movies, especially his best films have some element invovling characters that are basically trapped in the same location for the majority of the film, if not the entirety of it. "Dog Day Afternoon", perhaps best meshes these themes perfectly. Two of the most memorable scenes, involve the cameras and attention they bring. One, involves a pizza delivery guy who screams that "He's a Star!" when he delivers the pizza, and one scene where the head bank teller, Sylvia (Penelope Allen), who's given the chance to leave, decides she'd rather stay with her girls . It's actually amazing how funny the movie is; you can read the movie as a comedy; it's absurd, strained from the bizarre reality of what would've otherwise been a fairly normal day for all involved had something not suddenly just gone horribly wrong.

"Dog Day Afternoon" was nominated for six Oscars, winning for Frank Pierson's screenplay, and Pacino has often talked about this performance as one of the few performances, he just had immediately. As in, he knew the character and didn't even do research, saying he doesn't know how or why that happened and that it's never happened since, and after when he tried to do re-shoots after shooting, he couldn't recover him. The character I always remember is Sonny's lover, Leon (Chris Sarandon) who also got an Oscar-nomination, basically for one scene. He comes onto the scene halfway through the movie, where we learn that Sonny is gay, and that he was robbing the bank in order to pay for Leon's sex change operation. Something that Leon didn't ask him to do, but, like Pacino, there's a chance that Sonny was just, possessed by this desire. He wanted to take care of everyone, those who knew him said, that that's his ultimate goal. He doesn't want people killed, he wants to give his lover what he can't, and that would involve going to extreme lengths.

Makes sense that he would become a nightly news star, for keeping a bank hostage, anybody else would've just shot and killed everyone and escaped quickly or die trying. "Dog Day Afternoon", holds up amazingly well today. In fact, it's almost more mysterious now than it probably was then. Audiences at the time, had heard of the story and knew what Attica was, nowadays, it helps to look it up and have all the information that I just gave you, but seeing the story develop naturally without any foreknowledge going in, other than probably knowing that he screams "Attica!", it's surprising on how many levels the film works on. It's a mystery, cause we're learning about this character as we go. It's a thriller, it's a cops and robbers movie, it's a comedy, it's a commentary on the media and entertainment culture-, that part rings more true than ever unfortunately, and a bunch of other things, and it's a great early portrayal of homosexual characters in Hollywood films, that honestly is pretty unique and realistic. I've never heard anyone complain about these character being stereotypical gay characters, in fact, that's part of why it's a great reveal when we do find out. You genuinely don't see it coming, and it's not a reveal as in, just a trivial like, "Oh my God! He's gay!", it's smart and subtle and even that has a lot of dimensions to that. This is a movie that could've gone exploitative at many different points, but doesn't, and that's what makes this movie about a very specific incident and a specific time and place, surprisingly timeless.
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