Combustible Celluloid
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With: Al Pacino, John Cazale, James Broderick, Charles Durning, Lance Henriksen, Chris Sarandon, Penelope Allen, Sully Boyar, Susan Peretz, Carol Kane, Beulah Garrick, Sandra Kazan, Estelle Omens, Marcia Jean Kurtz, Amy Levitt, Gary Springer, John Marriott
Written by: Frank Pierson, based on an article by P.F. Kluge, Thomas Moore
Directed by: Sidney Lumet
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 125
Date: 09/21/1975

Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Bank Statements

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Surely one of the most iconic movies of the 1970s, Sidney Lumet's Dog Day Afternoon is a grubby, hard-edged example of what that decade had to offer moviegoers. Al Pacino stars as Sonny, who walks into a bank with his partner Sal (John Cazale) in order to rob it. Their third helper panics and leaves, and someone (we never find out who) calls the cops, and before long, we have an all-day, and all-night standoff. (This leads to the much-anthologized clip of Pacino screaming "Attica! Attica!" to the hovering crowds.) Lumet and screenwriter Frank Pierson don't run a precision show; they're less concerned with the details of the robbery than they are with the volatile emotions roiling underneath. One of the things that makes this a groundbreaker is the fact that Sonny is doing the robbery to pay for his husband's sex-change operation; yes, he's gay, and the movie makes no bones about it. Others treat him with fear and suspicion, but Sonny himself knows what he wants. (Chris Sarandon even earned an Oscar nomination as Sonny's husband.)

Sal is painted as an explosive killer, but really he just seems scared, and really nearly petrified. The New York bank tellers are not particularly shocked by the robbery, and they talk to Sonny as if it's just another business transaction. Charles Durning is particularly great as the cop who tries to negotiate with Sonny, but can't seem to keep the situation under control, like trying to block water with his fingers. Inside the bank, the air conditioning is cut, and the robbers and hostages grow increasingly sweaty and disheveled. As Sonny's suit and tie give way to loose-hanging shirt-tails, he absently hangs onto his white "truce" handkerchief. True to the filmmaking style of the era, things do not end well, and the entire one-set show and the nasty little finale leave a kind of existential darkness on the viewer; what is everything really all about?

Warner Home Video released a 40th anniversary Blu-Ray edition; I can't say if it's the same transfer as the 2007 release, but it looked pretty spectacular to me, in its grungy way. Extras include a Lumet commentary track and a four-part, making-of documentary, both of which seem to have been on the 2007 disc. But this one contains an essential bonus: Richard Shepard's terrific 2010 documentary I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale. Here's my original review:

Just take a look at the cast list for this documentary: Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Robert De Niro, Gene Hackman, Richard Dreyfuss, Olympia Dukakis, Carol Kane, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Steve Buscemi, and Sam Rockwell, plus directors Francis Ford Coppola and Sidney Lumet. What got them all to turn out for this documentary? They all wanted to talk about John Cazale, who died in 1978 at the age of 42, and may have been one of the cinema's greatest actors.

Cazale only made five films, but despite the fact that those five films are The Godfather (1972), The Conversation (1974), The Godfather Part II (1974), Dog Day Afternoon (1975) and The Deer Hunter (1978), he's still not very well known today. He's mostly an actor's actor, appreciated by those who study him and worked alongside him. Pacino in particular says he learned more from Cazale than from anyone else. This documentary from the unsung American director Richard Shepard (Oxygen, The Matador, The Hunting Party) tries to bring a little attention back to this national treasure.

It begins with one of those TV talk show-type things: Shepard goes out into the street with a video camera. He flashes a famous still of the Corleones from The Godfather to people on the street and asks if anyone knows the name of the guy who is standing next to Marlon Brando, Al Pacino and James Caan. No one does. From there, Shepard mostly concentrates on clips from those five films -- as well as some TV footage and bits from some short films -- to illustrate Cazale's genius. We see the clips, and then Cazale's colleagues and fans describe what happened behind the scenes, or why Cazale's particular approach worked. They all talk about his eyes, how they could convey hurt, and how he was unafraid to portray weak characters, like his infamous Fredo Corleone, without fear of being seen as weak himself.

The heart of the film comes after Dog Day Afternoon; according to stories, Cazale began working on a Shakespeare in the park production and fell in love with his leading lady. He told Pacino that she was the greatest actress in the world, and he was right: she was Meryl Streep. I had no idea, but these two had a passionate and true love affair, up to the point that Streep stayed by his side on his deathbed. Shepard cannily lets others tell this story, and carefully intercuts with Streep as she downplays it. She's smiling and fondly remembering her friend, but it's easy to read the depths of her feelings.

This is an extraordinary work; it runs just under 40 minutes, but the devotion, adoration, love and joy expressed here is clear and true. And, of course, it makes you want to watch (or re-watch) all five of those films again. The documentary premiered last summer on HBO. Now Oscilloscope has released a DVD, complete with a commentary track by Shepard, extended interviews with Pacino and playwright Israel Horovitz (Author! Author!), and a pair of old short films starring Cazale.

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