Saturday, May 1, 2010

1975 - Dog Day Afternoon

Once again, I have been waylaid from my duties here at Matt vs. the Academy. And once again, it is due to an exciting work opportunity.

This week, I spent time in Peekskill, New York, on the set of Mildred Pierce, an upcoming HBO mini-series, based on the novel by James M. Cain. Coincidentally, this production is linked to this blog for two reasons. First, it is based on the same source material as the 1945 Best Picture-nominated Joan Crawford film of the same name, which will be reviewed right here in due course. Second, it stars Kate Winslet, who appears in a number of films on the Best Picture honour roll.

The character I played had the not-at-all demeaning moniker Starched Collar Man #2, which perhaps gives you an indication of his importance to the plot. Nonetheless, the entire experience was incredibly exciting, if for no other reason than I rubbed shoulders (and will share the screen) with Ms. Winslet. Although I did not have the chance to chat to her at length, I did have short conversations with co-star Mare Winningham and director Todd Haynes.

I will attempt to catch up on lost time by speeding up my movie-watching agenda (no promises, though). Today, I found some time to watch another 1975 Best Picture nominee...

Dog Day Afternoon
Sidney Lumet
Frank Pierson
(based on an article by P.F. Kluge and Thomas Moore)
Al Pacino, John Cazale, Charles Durning, Chris Sarandon, James Broderick
Academy Awards:
6 nominations
1 win, for Best Original Screenplay

On a hot summer's day in 1972, Sonny Wortzik (Pacino), along with two accomplices, walks into a bank in Brooklyn, New York, in order to steal some cash to pay for his boyfriend's (Sarandon) sex-change operation. Within minutes, one of his accomplices chickens out, hightailing it out of there. The other, Sal (Cazale), is a bundle of nerves, dangerously close to blowing everyone's brains out. What should have been a quick theft quickly turns into a media circus once the cops arrive, headed first by Detective Meretti (Durning) before being turned over to the FBI and Agent Sheldon (Broderick). With dozens of cameras and hundreds of onlookers, Sonny attempts to outwit the scheming cops while dealing with his nervous accomplice, his hysterical ex-wife, his overbearing mother and his suicidal lover.

In different hands, Dog Day Afternoon could easily have been a laugh-out-loud farce, but director Sidney Lumet and his talented cast play every scene entirely straight. On paper, the unfolding events are absurd. Indeed, if it weren't based on a true story, it would be utterly implausible. Yet, the absurdity of the story is its most fascinating attribute. And since it is not played for laughs, it is all the more humorous.

This film is also a particularly interesting character study. Pacino (pictured) is nothing short of superb in his Oscar-nominated portrayal of Sonny, perfectly capturing both his righteousness and his insecurity. And Sonny is a complex guy to play. Not your typical protagonist, his own desperation confuses him. He tries to be tough, but his compassion always seems to get in the way. He's well-meaning, but he's obviously made a horribly stupid mistake. In the end, we find ourselves sympathising with a bank robber and not minding that we're doing so.

The anti-establishment tones throughout the film are highlighted by the way in which the gawking crowd tease the cops as they try to negotiate with Sonny. It could also be said that this sideshow event was, in a way, an early version of reality TV. The events unfold on the news, bringing more and more people down to the bank to get a look at the "stars". When a pizza delivery boy arrives on the scene, he is absolutely overjoyed to be a part of the spectacle.

Pacino is supported wonderfully by John Cazale, showcasing the brooding and potentially explosive nature of Sal. Chris Sarandon earned an Oscar nomination for his emotional turn as the confused Leon. Charles Durning's sincere performance as the detective reaches its captivating heights during an amazing exchange with Pacino after Sonny fires a shot. And James Broderick owns his stoic portrayal of the no-nonsense FBI agent. Also look out for The Sopranos' Dominic Chianese playing Sonny's father.

Even though the real Sonny was serving time in prison by the time the film was released, he still received money from the production company for the rights to his story. In the final irony to this whole saga, that money was used to finally get his boyfriend that sex-change operation. You can't make this stuff up.


  1. Having previously watched Barry Lyndon, I adjusted from pastoral, period beauty to urban grit au natural. You don't see Sidney Lumet movies for pretty - for the most part, Lumet doesn't do pretty. Using naturalistic lighting outside and florescent lighting inside, this is one great example of 70s contemporary film-making.

    Al Pacino dominates the film. Receiving his fourth consecutive acting nomination, he had the misfortune to be up against Jack Nicholson (competing head to head with him for the third year in a row). If anyone was more overdue than Pacino, it was Nicholson, and with Cuckoo's Nest the more prestigious film, it Pacino would have to wait for his Oscar.

    Good catch Matt on Dominic Chianese - if you blinked you missed him. It was nice to see all three: Pacino, Cazale and Chianese together again after their Godfather II roles. Just comparing the scenes of Pacino and Cazale in both these films is an acting class in and of itself.

    All in all, if not a classic film, it was wonderfully done and broached topics mostly skirted around before.

    Nice story on Mildred Pierce. You're still not listed on IMDB as Starched Collar Man #2 (neither is Starched Collar Man #1), but I'll keep checking. Is Mare Winningham going to get any of the great lines that Eve Arden did in the original? I guess Haynes isn't shooting it in B&W. His use of color and design in Far From Heaven was spectacular.

  2. It's true about this being an acting class. That's a big reason I love so many of these films from the 70s. Pacino, Hoffman, De Niro, Nicholson, Hackman, Streep. No greater teachers.

    Embarrassingly, I haven't actually seen the original Mildred Pierce (yet!), so I can't compare Winningham's and Arden's Idas. For that matter, I haven't actually read the entire Todd Haynes version, even though they sent me all five parts to read. I kinda figured Starched Collar Man #2's journey didn't really pervade the other episodes :-) I think I'd rather wait to see it completed anyway, and have a read of it then. And nope, I'm pretty sure this version won't be B&W, unless they treat the film in the editing room.