Top Fifty Films of the 70s — Number Thirteen

#13 — Dog Day Afternoon (Sidney Lumet, 1975)
Occasionally in the nineteen-nineties, I had to explain to friends that Al Pacino was once indeed a great actor, capability of shrewdness and subtlety in his performances. Presumably this shouldn’t have been that hard to do, considering he was one of the most acclaimed actors of his generation. But he had taken most of the eighties off (and his few offerings during that decade were not especially notable, with outright disasters such as Author! Author! and Revolution and even Scarface largely without the cultish fan base it would eventually acquire), leaving his prime work outside of the immediate frame of reference of most of my peers. Then he won the Oscar that had been long denied him for a flagrantly hammy performance in 1992’s Scent of a Woman, thereby receiving a resounding ratification of all his worst inclinations as an actor, led by a tendency to turn up the volume, as if trying to keep himself awake in a film that ultimately had little to offer him. Whenever I mounted my defense of Pacino’s art, I always had a secret weapon: Dog Day Afternoon.

Directed by Sidney Lumet, the film was inspired by a 1977 Life magazine article about a Brooklyn bank robbery. The resulting story was simple enough in Frank Pierson’s screenplay. Three men attempt to rob a bank on a bright summer’s day, only to be beset by misfortune, beginning with the one of the criminals immediately losing his nerve and fleeing the scene. That leaves Sonny and Sal, played by Pacino and John Cazale, to fumble through their supposed big haul, which is further hampered by the discovery that the daily cash pickup has already happened so there’s very little money actually in the bank. Before long, the police have gathered across the street and a prolonged stand-off takes place, with Sonny and Sal holding onto hostages in the hopes of bargaining for an escape.

Lumet was an absolute master of wrenching the unique toil of urban life into riveting, intelligent entertainment, and Dog Day Afternoon feels like the veritable peak of that aspect of the director’s approach. Using the admittedly extraordinary circumstances of a botched bank job, Lumet still manages to hone in on the aspects of the character interaction that are most simple and even mundane. In particular, Pierson and Lumet add weight to the story by connecting with the way that people do their job, from the bank employees whose day has been disrupted, sometimes stirring irritation as much as fear, to the police officers trying to bring this situation to a bloodless conclusion. The latter group is led by a police sergeant played by Charles Durning, perfectly showing how easily anxiety and urgency can get swirled together into a an indiscernible mass.

Strong as all the elements of the film are, Dog Day Afternoon is absolutely owned by Pacino. He artfully, respectfully plays a character who is just smart enough to recognize how his foolishly constructed plans are crumbling apart, no matter how he tries to wrap his hands around it and hold it in place. Pacino affects a scratchy, whiny voice and uses every bit on his characters physical fidgeting, but he never pushes it into the sort of almost freakish caricature that would crop up too often later in his career. He honors the character fully, knowing that desperation informs the person but doesn’t necessarily define him. With the added clarity that comes from Lumet’s precise, thoughtful directing, Pacino brings his broader choices inside to find everything that’s real and true in the character and the film.