Sunday, April 17, 2011

Dog Day Afternoon: A Video Essay

I considered Sidney Lumet one of the great directors whose films shaped my sensibility when I was young and became interested in movies. So it was certainly a blow to me when he recently passed away. I decided a fitting tribute would be to do a video essay for one of his classic films. I had planned to tackle another one of his films later in the year, but this was one that came together quickly in the last week. I hope this essay appropriately responds to the auteurist film writers out there who did not quite give the man his due because he did not have a style that called attention to itself.

Please note that there are some SPOILERS, particularly past the 10 minute mark. Then again, if you haven't seen the movie yet, then you probably should.


Craig said...

Have you seen the John Cazale documentary I Knew It Was You? It shares a lot of what Cazale brought to the movie (and the other four he made), including that he ad-libbed the "Wyoming" line and nearly caused Lumet to ruin the take from laughing off-camera.

I've only seen Dog Day Afternoon once straight through, but hope to do so again. I think it's Lumet's best. Network is his other seminal work, but that's usually regarded (not without reason) as Paddy Cheyefsky's movie, with Lumet having enough sense to get out of the way. I think the free-flowing rhythm of Dog Day Afternoon makes it his best-directed movie. I also like Lumet for pulling an Altman at the end of his career by making a film as energetically cynical as Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. He was always great with actors, and I can only wonder what he thought of Pacino's transformation from the subtle, nuanced performer of Serpico and this film to the bug-eyed wack-job onscreen today?

Steven Santos said...

I did see the Cazale doc. The special features doc on the "Dog Day" DVD has Lumet joyously recalling that moment as well. It was a great choice for Cazale as an actor to say that line, but also look at Pacino's reaction and Cazale's reaction to Pacino's reaction. A moment that is on the surface a joke, but quite sad as well. Underplayed by both actors.

I actually would put "Dog Day" as Lumet's third best with "Network" on top and "Prince of the City" (which I hope to do later this year for its 30th anniversary) being his second best. Outside of Soderbergh, I don't see him noted enough as an influence on today's filmmakers. But, as I said in the post, especially growing up in NYC, his movies were some of the true adult movies that shaped my views on filmmaking.

Also glad that he ended his career with "Before the Devil", which, oddly enough, ends with that great shot of Finney walking into the light.

Craig said...

Spike Lee has cited Lumet as an influence too. Which, for Lee to publicly acknowledge, is saying something. It's strange that Soderbergh sees Lumet as an influence, given how little he's evidently learned from him lately in terms of character and story. Soderbergh has said he's now interested only in form; no wonder moviemaking feels so empty to him in only his late-40s, while Lumet found pleasure in it all the way through his 80s.

It is amazing to think of the considerable amount of baggage that Pacino and Cazale brought to Dog Day Afternoon from the Godfather pictures, and how none of it matters. I don't even think about their other characters when I watch it.

I recall Prince of the City being tough, complicated, one of Lumet's most ambitious films. It's been so long I don't remember much about it, so I look forward to your vid-piece and the chance to see it again.

I've still never been to NYC, but Lumet's movies always make me feel like I have.

Steven Santos said...

I forgot about Spike Lee who was actually tweeting major tributes to Lumet last weekend. He cited "Dog Day" as an influence on "Do the Right Thing" and "Inside Man".

To see how the dynamic between Pacino and Cazale as actors completely changed from the "Godfather" films to "Dog Day" is truly something to appreciate.

John said...

Wonderful work sir! I look forward to more video essays,an exciting form of film criticism you handle masterfully. Guess the internet is good for something, cheers!

Jason Bellamy said...

This is terrific. It's been a few years since I've seen Dog Day Afternoon, but your essay surfaces all that I cherish about it.

Your observation about the lack of romanticism over New York in the opening montage is right on the money. It's nice to see New York portrayed as a place instead of the place.

As for Pacino, I wonder if the Attica rant is what ignited the fuse in the overacting that was to come. Thanks to Lumet's camera work, there's still so much silence and nuance to Pacino's performance here. Of course, silence and nuance rarely makes Hollywood clip reels. The Attica scene is appropriate here, don't get me wrong. But when I watch Pacino in character in those phone conversations it makes me weep for the quiet actor that (for the most part) left us.

Jason Bellamy said...

Oh, and one more thing: "Wyoming." So fucking heartbreaking.

Steven Santos said...

Jason. I think even Pacino has been quoted that he considers himself more of a performer today than an actor. Back then, he knew when to modulate his performance given the moment. Not only in the phone call scenes, but a scene that I actually had in the essay, but had to cut out, where Sonny dictates his will.

I actually blame "Scarface" and then "Scent of a Woman", as the two key roles that turned Pacino into more of a performer than an actor.

William said...

Great piece Steven. I can honestly say Lumet and this film might have be the seed for me. I just remember being young, like you, in New York, and seeing these people explode on screen and somehow understanding that it wasn't just a movie, people were responsible for making that happen. It is a film that is so alive to this day. Wrought with tension, anxiety, people on the fringes of society. So, so great.

I also saw the Cazale doc as a double feature with DDA at BAM not too long ago. I remember reading a quote from Steve Buscemi in Premiere Magazine about 25 years ago that said all he wanted to do was have a career like John Cazale.