What was in the water in 1970s Hollywood? Something special, I think (maybe water being at the heart of Chinatown was a little nod to the truth). Whatever it was, it meant that so many of the films made in that era were amongst the greatest ever of their type, and few, if any, have been bettered (matched, maybe, but seldom surpassed). Various entries in the crime genre, and its attendant subgenres, are prime examples, and it is one such, in the heist-gone-wrong group, that we’re looking at now.
Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon features one of Al Pacino’s finest performances, in a decade full of outstanding Pacino performances, as he plays Sonny Wortzick, a real person who attempted to rob a bank in Brooklyn in 1972 in order to pay for his boyfriend’s sex change operation.
On a sunny afternoon in sweltering Brooklyn three armed men enter a bank as it’s getting closed up for the day. Things go almost immediately south as one of the trio declares that he can’t go through with it, leaving Pacino’s Sonny and John Cazale’s Sal to carry out the robbery. Soon, Sonny’s burning of the traveller’s cheque register draws unwanted attention to the bank, and a bank robbery turns into a hostage situation, with TV crews, crowds of onlookers and a harassed detective trying to resolve the situation while being undermined by other police units outwith his control.
Dog Day Afternoon has undoubtedly lost some of its power since its release in 1975, removed as it is from the simmering racial, sexual, economic and political tensions of mid-70s New York City, and its release only four years after the Attica prison riot, but it’s nonetheless captivating. Pacino is superb in the lead role; while we are always cognisant of the fact that he’s an armed bank robber, he engenders a great deal of sympathy and makes us believe that he’s impetuous rather than malevolent, and genuinely has no desire to harm anyone. It is also nice to be reminded (because it’s so easy to forget) quite how much subtlety Pacino can bring to a role.
As he did in 12 Angry Men, director Lumet has provided a masterclass in increasing tension amid sweltering confines (there’s no music, and all of the atmosphere comes from Lumet’s direction and Dede Allen’s editing): it’s easy to convince yourself that you can feel the sizzle of the heat of the pavement or the muggy interior of the bank alongside the characters. Lumet also allows his cast to inhabit their characters, and Frank Pierson’s excellent script to breath, allowing for moments of humanity and humour that never feel forced, but are rather the believable products of real people being in that stressful situation.
It’s almost farcical at points, from the teller chiding Sonny that he’s not a very good planner, and did he just rob the bank on a whim; the guy who bailed early complaining about how he’ll get home if he can’t take the getaway car; more than one teller seeming to be more concerned by the fact Sonny has a potty mouth than a loaded rifle; Sonny himself being cheered on by the crowds gathered outside; to the husband of one of the staff calling the bank and asking if the robbery will take long. There is always an undercurrent of tension, though: it’s clear that while the bank staff may be sharp-tongued, they’re also just trying to cope with their situation, and the facts of loaded guns, a slowly unravelling Sonny and an on-edge Sal are never far from their thoughts, and the moments of levity feel natural, real, earned: a quip to cut the tension as a result of situation, not script. The characters, robbers and hostages together, share a camaraderie and understanding that comes from similar status and prospects, rather than accelerated Stockholm syndrome.
One other thing worth noting is quite how progressive it is (for a 1970s major studio picture): while the news reports change (after more information leaks out of the situation) to emphasising that “two homosexuals” have taken hostages in a bank, Sonny’s being bisexual is treated almost matter of factly, and there is little gay stereotyping, certainly not of the type particularly prevalent in the 1970s. There is, perhaps, a slight femininity to Chris Sarandon’s Leon, Pacino’s boyfriend, but while there is a momentary tittering from the assembled cops when he tells Charles Durning’s Detective Moretti that he and Sonny were married by a priest, it is otherwise regarded dispassionately.
Dog Day Afternoon is intense, naturalistic and brilliant, and, in unexpected ways, heroic and hopeful. A film I have always loved, and one I’m thoroughly delighted to find I enjoy just as much after what is probably a fifteen year gap.
This 2006 Spike Lee Joint takes a similar framework of cops surrounding robbers and turns it into an altogether more mysterious affair than the character piece of Dog Day Afternoon.
We’re introduced to Denzel Washington’s Detective Keith Frazier with the cloud of an internal affairs investigation hanging over him, but he’s nonetheless called on to lead the police response to a bank robbery turned hostage situation. Clive Owen’s Dalton Russell and his gang have rolled up to a Manhattan bank, announced their intentions and got to work dressing the hostages in the same boiler suit get-up as they sport, but don’t seem all that obsessed with the cash, strangely enough.
The bank’s owner, Christopher Plummer’s Arthur Case, is worried about the situation for more than just the obvious reasons, and hires a fixer in the shape of Jodie Foster’s Madeleine White to see that certain things stay buried.
The awkward part in all of this turns out to be Detective Frazier, who understandably does not like being told to look the other way or to stop pursuing paths of investigation, balancing this along with managing the response to Russell’s changing demands, even as his suspicions of their ultimate intent grows, all the way to the unexpected ending where they appear to melt away into a crowd without having taken anything.
Of course, things are not what they seem, and the path to the ultimate reveal of what’s going on has a few twists and turns and is never less than entirely engaging. It helps, of course, that so much of the film features Denzel Washington and Clive Owen, both of whom I’d happily watch reading a phone book, and the top rate supporting cast – Foster, Plummer, Willem Dafoe, Chiwetel Ejiofor: there’s no-one slacking on this production.
Spike Lee is a filmmaker that I always intend to watch more of, and somehow never do, so I’m not well placed to judge the Spike-Lee-i-ness of the film, but I can say that it’s really well shot, paced and edited, so that’s a good thing, I suppose.
I’m a little surprised to see that Russell Gewirtz wrote this. Surprised, because this is a very interesting story with snappy dialogue, and he also wrote Righteous Kill, which was very much the opposite. I suppose in less talented hands the dialogue might not play quite so well, but thankfully there’s no shortage of safe pairs of hands here.
There’s perhaps little in the way of capital A artistry here for Inside Man to echo down the ages, but it’s a really enjoyable heist based mystery and a great way to spend a couple of hours. I recommend you do so.
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