Thursday, November 8, 2018

Reserved Seating Goes All Pacino: DOG DAY AFTERNOON

by Adam Riske and Rob DiCristino
The review duo who wants a jet to Wyoming.

Adam: Welcome to Reserved Seating. I’m Adam Riske.

Rob: And I’m Rob DiCristino.
Adam: Our All Pacino series returns after a one-month break (Mr. Pacino hasn’t delved much into the horror genre) and back in prime form with his 1975 classic Dog Day Afternoon, directed by the great Sidney Lumet. The film was inspired by a Life magazine article by P.F. Kluge named “The Boys in the Bank,” which detailed a similar robbery of a Brooklyn bank in 1972. Some of the character names were changed for the film adaptation. In the film, Sonny (Al Pacino) and Sal (John Cazale) botch their first bank robbery, which soon escalates into a hostage situation. Over the course of one long day, we get to know Sonny and Sal, their motivation for the robbery, the police officers (led by Charles Durning) and FBI agents trying to negotiate a peaceful resolution, and the employees of the bank who act like real people and react to the situation in surprising ways. Dog Day Afternoon is one of the esteemed movies of the 1970s, a hit financially and at the Academy Awards (it won a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for writer Frank Pierson) and further cemented Al Pacino as one of the most influential actors from his generation.

This was my second time seeing Dog Day Afternoon. I remember thinking it was good the first time I saw it, but it wasn’t a hallmark '70s film for me like The Godfather or The Last Detail are. It just didn’t hit me on a deeper level for some reason. This second viewing was the one where everything clicked. Dog Day Afternoon is a complete banquet of a movie where the acting, writing, directing and just spontaneity of it all combine into a fantastic film, where you feel completely satisfied afterwards. My initial resistance to loving the movie was probably my movie allergy to hostage films. I really don’t like them in large part because they follow so many of the same beats (how could they not?) and, when done well, turns into a situation that hits me too close. What I mean is the characters want out and I (as a viewer) want out just as much as they do. The prospect of being held in one location against your will is a nightmare to me personally (#Walkout).
Dog Day Afternoon is so strong that those concerns melt away. I like that the media isn’t a focal point, but just an inevitability on the side. I really like that John Cazale’s character morphs throughout the movie into something darker and darker to the point where he’s basically the Grim Reaper of this situation (i.e. the only reason anyone would die in this event) and I love the stranger than fiction element of the robbery’s motivation. For as much as Sonny is a screw-up, he lives a fascinating life and Al Pacino’s incredible performance makes it so you know everything you will ever need to know about this man by the end of the film. He’s an amazingly stand-up guy, but an emotional wreck with massive impulse control issues. I’ll further describe him by utilizing one of our favorite shared sayings, “He feels everything.” I put Sonny in the pantheon of movie characters I love such as Tony Manero: both were born with a big heart, but unfortunately it didn’t come with an instruction manual.

Rob: I absolutely adore Dog Day Afternoon, and I don’t think I’m out of line calling it one of the best American films ever made (though it’s conspicuously absent from the AFI’s top 100). I’m much less adverse to hostage movies than you are — my love for bottle episodes is well documented — but I understand how repetitive they can get and how rare it is to see one that delivers on its premise in a satisfying way. Dog Day Afternoon, though, is note-perfect and so, so human. Outside of just being a great movie with great characters, it’s this incredible sociological study of a time and place in American history. I love the subtle — and not so subtle — commentary on the economy, on fame and the media (especially the way it distorts reality), and what it means to be a human being in a world as crowded and indifferent as ours.

Adam: I’m glad you brought up the sociology aspect. One of my favorite things about older movies in general is going back to a place and time before you were born and understanding what it was like at least in attitude. What were the norms? How did people interact? I want to get back to this topic later after we’re done talking about Dog Day Afternoon.
Rob: Speaking of cultural norms, though: One thing that stuck out to me on this viewing was the language, the way everyone is shouting over each other and having to repeat themselves over and over just to be heard. The dialogue has that uniquely ‘70s quality to it that I can’t quite describe: Frankness? Grit? Whatever it is, it has a rhythm and cadence that feels so authentic. The whole world of Dog Day Afternoon feels so incredibly authentic. It’s one of those movie worlds that just takes you over and sucks you in. It’s all rooted in Pacino’s performance as Sonny, a guy you already mentioned as having a gigantic heart that overwhelms his logical processes when he needs them most. Until the reveal of Chris Sarandon’s character, we’re constantly asking ourselves why someone like this — someone who takes the time to pay the guy delivering pizza to his hostage negotiation, someone who wants those hostages to be as comfortable as possible — would even commit this crime. That reveal makes everything clear in the most heartbreaking way.

Adam: Do you want to hear the greatest thing ever? The real-life guy that Pacino is playing took the money he earned for rights to this story and gave enough of it to his wife, Eden (the Leon of the film), to pay for her sexual reassignment surgery. Also worth noting: how great is it when Pacino says about Sarandon that he loves him “more than any man has loved another man” without even the slightest hint of self consciousness as a character or as an actor? We joke, out of love, about Al Pacino all the time, but sometimes...he just wows me with his range, vulnerability and sense of play with his fellow actors.

This movie is loaded with great performances. Besides Pacino, who is the one or two that stuck out most for you in this viewing? Also, don’t you love how deftly the movie shifts in tone? Some of the day sequences are triumphant and playful, but once it gets dark, the film begins to adopt that as a mood -- this can only end poorly for Sonny and Sal and their desperate delay of the inevitable is tragic and increasingly more frightening. When they’re loaded in that bus on the way to the jet, there’s none of that earlier goodwill between the bank employees and their captors.

Rob: One great performance that stands out to me is Penelope Allen as Sylvia, the head teller. She has this amazing moment where, when the NYPD negotiator (Charles Durning) grabs her arm to pull her away from Sonny, goes, “What’s this? Let me go!” and goes back inside with the rest of the girls. “They’re my girls,” she says, “and I’m sticking with them!” The crowd outside cheers, and she gives them this little wave and nod. This is just one of so many of those genuine human moments in Dog Day Afternoon. Every frame has this amazing working-class ethos. Sylvia is in a tough situation, but she’s no victim. She knows that this is part of the job, and she probably even understands why Sonny and Sal are doing what they’re doing. We’re all just out here getting along the best we can. She sympathizes, to an extent. She’s going to play her part and see things through.

The shift in tone is seamless. I was dreading leaving the bank from the moment Sonny asks for the jet, and that tension builds slowly and surely until the end. It’s crazy how fast the bank goes from this foreign, hostile location our antiheroes are trying to negotiate to a tiny bubble of safety from the harsh outside world. We never want them to leave, and when they do, we know they’re fucked. The pacing of that last sequence is amazing, too. They get just far enough where we think they might make it.
Adam: I’m a big fan of the Charles Durning performance. He’s such a naturalistic actor. I marvel at people who can do that. I can’t remember the exact moment but in the middle of the movie he flubs a line and Lumet leaves it in which is great because it just adds to the realism of the situation. I trip over words daily or try to say two things at once and it comes out all wrong and movies so rarely do that. I also really liked Sonny’s ex-wife, Angie (Susan Peretz), who is a person all of us have met where she’s fragile and emotional but in a human way that elicits my sympathy much more than derision. I love when Pacino tries to squash when she calls herself fat. It gives a little glimpse into their relationship. He’s a mess but she’s an even bigger one and he’s able to help her in ways he can’t do with other people. It’s another reason why someone like Sal would take orders from Sonny. For better or worse, Sonny is ready to step up and clumsily take care of everything.

Rob: I love this reading. Very well said.

Adam: I’m not going to have a classy way of saying this but I really fucking love when an older movie clicks with me like this. It’s even better because I can talk to my parents or someone who was around when this film was set about the era (era) or what the reception of the movie was like when it was originally released. When I hear about people our age diving into classic film, I rarely get a sense of what they’re getting out of it (I’m genuinely curious). For me, I’m always chasing the time I saw Paul Newman’s Rocky Graziano biopic Somebody Up There Likes Me and had an entry point to talk to my grandpa about his love of boxing from that time period.

Rob: That’s awesome. I was thinking about what you said earlier about diving into films from bygone eras (eras), and I realized that, for whatever reason, I have this weird attachment to post-war British films like Brief Encounter and The Third Man. I have no idea what hits me about that time or that culture (I don’t know anyone from post-war Britain or have any reason to connect to it), but the mannerisms and language just feel homey to me.

Adam: Anything else you want to mention about Dog Day Afternoon? Outside of The Godfather, this is my favorite Pacino film we’ve covered thus far in this series. How about you?
Rob: I might even venture so far as to say that, while The Godfather is a better movie, I might actually prefer Pacino’s performance in Dog Day Afternoon. I’m so glad we came back to our Pacino series with this one. I’ve probably watched it once every two years or so since I first saw it, but I’m starting to feel like I should watch it more often.

So, it’s a very enthusiastic Mark Ahn for Dog Day Afternoon. What do you want to cover next time?

Adam: Next week we’re going to mix it up and have a conversation about movies and moods. For example, what do we want to watch when we’re sad, celebratory or want to relax, etc., and we’ll also get into the seasonality of movies. We all know October is for Horror, but what other genres feel right at other points in the year? Until next time…

Rob: These seats are reserved.

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