Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Dog Day Afternoon

There's a quick moment in 1975's DOG DAY AFTERNOON that perfectly captures what I love about '70s cinema.  Bank robber Sonny Wortzik (Al Pacino, in one of several career defining performances) is dealing with a room full of hostages, a nearly empty vault, unsteady partners in crime, and a mounting crowd outside.  Soon the fracas becomes a media event.  First Brooklyn Savings Bank begins receiving phone calls, mostly cranks.  "Kill them! Kill them all!" one voice suggests before Sonny slams down the receiver. 

It seems like a throwaway bit, but the essence of it is what I think director Sidney Lumet was going for.  An audible summary of the long, cruel hangover of the 1960s.  The alleged peace and love mantras and subsequent "Me" decade giving way to dejection, hopelessness, nihilism.  The news was filled with story after story of domestic acts of terrorism, sieges, and attempted assassinations in those days.  Vietnam veterans facing hostility back home.  By the mid 1970s, many Americans had become sufficiently jaded as to have some sort of collective death wish.  Lumet's inclusion of this hit and run phone call is vital as it encapsulates the attitude of so many. As if this mystery person just said it all in but a few words.  This moment is also perfectly emblematic of the darkness that permeated many Hollywood features in those years.

Lumet's film was based on the Life magazine article "The Boys in the Bank" which detailed John Wojtowicz and Salvatore Naturale's failed heist in 1972.  It is reported that the film, scripted by Frank Pierson, sticks closely to the real life events documented. What was planned to be a quick robbery became a real circus, a prototypical NYC event that would encompass several social issues: sexual orientation, socioeconomics, ethnicity.  Wojtowicz planned the theft to finance a sex change operation for his lover, Leon (Chris Sarandon).  But planning (and good sense) was what was lacking, leading the criminals to draw attention to the scene fairly quickly.  Whose idea was it to burn those Traveler's checques, the resulting smoke tipping off the neighborhood? Why hadn't Wojtowicz/Wortzik cased the bank a little more carefully, preventing their arrival when only about a grand in cash remained after the daily pickup?

Things rapidly go south, with a grand standoff among the criminals, the police, the FBI, TV crews, and a crowd that at first cheers Sonny on as he shouts "Attica! Attica!", referring to a recent prison riot, but then boos him when they learn he is gay.   Sergeant Moretti (Charles Durning) attempts to keep a handle on the situation.  The Feds bring Sonny's mother to the scene.  Some of the bank employee hostages begin to grow fond of Sonny and the other robber, Sal (John Cazale), not wanting to be rescued!  Maybe this was the spark of excitement their crummy lives needed.  Or possibly they felt a deliverance, an alliance with Sonny in his brazen anti-establishment fervor. 

In what could've easily been a noisy, didactic melodrama that spins out of control, Lumet maintains just the right pace and transitions tone seamlessly.  Pacino explodes in a seminal portrayal that has become legendary, even inspiring Tony Manero (John Travolta) in 1977's SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER to mimic him as he struts around in his underwear.  Pure '70s, all of it.

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