Criterion Prediction #273: Dog Day Afternoon, by Alexander Miller
Title: Dog Day Afternoon
Director: Sidney Lumet
Synopsis: Mercurial Sonny (Pacino) and his unhinged cohort Sal (Cazale) stage a bank robbery in order to pay for Sonny’s partner’s gender confirmation surgery. However, once the police arrive, Sonny and Sal hold the staff hostage and a media frenzy erupts as crowds of people swell around the spectacle.
Critique: The heat can make you crazy, and the heat in the city can make you insane. Dog Day Afternoon is a quintessential summer movie alongside Do the Right Thing or Taxi Driver; every shirt is colored with sweat stains, every forehead is damp. As if the conceit of a bank robbery turned fraught hostage negotiation weren’t the fertile ground for dramatic exploration, Dog Day Afternoon is perceptively realized with a seasonal atmosphere and, most of all, humanity. Lumet always gets it right. The subtle artist whose body of work is one of stealthily rendered authorship, not given to aesthetic bravura or trademark stylistic flourishes, Lumet’s cinema is cultivated humanism, poignant characterizations, and an eye cast toward the paradoxical nature of bureaucracies and law enforcement.
Furthermore, this is an actor’s director; you’ve got Pacino at his energetic, wild-eyed best, the always reliant (three years prior to his untimely passing) Cazale channeling some haunting, manic energy and, in another instance of savvy casting, Durning. Throw in a young, beautiful Chris Sarandon, Kane, Henriksen and a smattering of stalwart character players who normally shine; under the casually eloquent tutelage of Lumet, their veneer is blinding.
There’s a vitality coursing through the entirety of the film, that Hollywood new wave, 70s-era cinematic vigor, which is only bolstered by Pacino’s propulsive sincerity. And yet there’s a measured sense of patience as if tempered by this intuitive otherness. Our introduction to the film is our introduction to Sonny (and the unnerving Sal) and, like so many memorable Lumet characters, we catch glints and glimpses of depth as their machismo façade is peeled away; once Sonny’s motivations come to pass, the story hits its stride. Even the film itself wears something of a false face. Dog Day Afternoon undoubtedly eschews genre and convention, superseding its heist-thriller machinations as it vaults towards its human core. The ironic juxtaposition is deftly maneuvered; once the excitement settles, the drama envelops us to the point where we’re wholeheartedly invested in Sonny, his life, his partner and their need for gender confirmation surgery. Sonny is unpredictable, dangerous and dangerous to know but we understand that this is someone who is the victim of their own impulsive recklessness. The type who is constantly tumbling from one calamity to another, doing so with hotheaded gusto. And yet we don’t pity or condescend to any of the characters; the tension, anxiety and innermost tumult pangs with resonance and the film gets to us without declarative obviation. Just as Miriam is twirling Sonny’s rifle, doing mock military formation exercises, the audience has surpassed the narrative pressure points, settling into the collective frequency where people treat each other as people.
Why It Belongs in the Collection: As the Criterion Collection continues to present us with hallmarks of the American New Wave with big titles such as Raging Bull, Easy Rider, Two-Lane Blacktop and Midnight Cowboy, it would make sense to see a little more Lumet, namely one of his most celebrated films (among many), get a spine number. Also, in conjunction with the Masters of Cinema contingent, there’s been an uptick of Lumet’s work; Long Day’s Journey into Night, The Offence and, more relevantly, Serpico. So, it wouldn’t be a shocker to see Dog Day Afternoon preview across the pond with Eureeka and, as many of us know, if something tracks with the Masters of Cinema collection then the Criterion treatment isn’t far off.