Today’s Indie Inspiration: Dog Day Afternoon.
There are a number of good reasons to see the film: the excellent screenplay by Frank Pierson; the performances by Al Pacino, John Cazale and Charles Durning, to name only three of several great ones; and Sidney Lumet‘s direction, which is truly masterful. It’s an undisputed classic, and its core virtues provide invaluable lessons for independent filmmakers.
Lumet never stopped thinking like an independent director with a meagre budget; the movie quickly establishes its time and place on the streets of New York with ‘stolen’ shots of regular people just walking around, living their lives. Although it is a story with tragic dimensions, it always remains human-sized and funny. We enter the bank with robbers Sonny, Sal, and Stevie, and it’s immediately clear just how hapless they really are. Stevie (Gary Springer) balks right away, telling Sonny he can’t go through with it. Sonny (Al Pacino) insists that he leave them their getaway car. Stevie asks, “But how am I gonna get home?”
Just as there is nothing slick about the robbers, the police and the FBI outside the bank are equally regular men. Charles Durning especially comes across like a cop who is on the scene to just do his job, simply trying to get through a bad day in a heat wave, with the least amount of grief and damage. This is all about actors and story, absolutely the province of small movies, not about a Peckinpah style hail of gunfire.
This is a hot summer’s day in NYC. Crowds can turn ugly in a second, and there is a quick undercurrent of sideshow audience about the gathering crowd. Lumet loved making movies in New York, and often said a major reason was that he could cast all the extras from the endless pool of professional NY actors, which he felt was extremely significant. Seeing believable behaviour in every corner of the screen was very important in a film where the crowd is essentially a character in its own right.
While the police, press and crowd raise the pressure from the outside, most of the action takes place inside the bank as Sonny frantically improvises his way through the increasingly drastic situation. John Cazale’s Sal is pale, desperate, and maybe even hoping for violence. When Sonny bluffs about shooting hostages, Sal takes him aside and says “I’ll tell you right now – that I’m ready to do it.” He comes across more like Sonny’s strange friend without personal cause in this robbery, just along for the ride. Yet his response is heart-breaking when asked what country he’d like to fly to once they get the jet they’re demanding. And funny. “Wyoming.” he says. Cazale improvised the line.
The crowd outside doesn’t see the Sonny that is inside the bank. His negotiations with the hostages are touching and funny as he tries to alternately threaten them and make sure they are happy and comfortable. Dog Day Afternoon depicts a true story; unable to interview the real-life Sonny, screenwriter Frank Pierson said his key to the character was being told that Sonny was caring, the kind of man who would take care of you, saying to the hostages “I’m a Catholic and I don’t want to hurt anyone…”
What you have is a big story that takes place in mostly one location, with lively and finely observed writing and performances. Lumet keeps it real with almost no soundtrack and natural lighting – even the interior bank scenes are lit almost exclusively with existing fluorescents, very unusual for 1975.
Tonight I have a rare opportunity to see it on the big screen in celebration of its 40th anniversary. I urge you to see it projected if you can, and if you can’t, treat yourself to watching the Special Edition at home.
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