As a young boy living in a low-rent apartment complex, Judge Dennis Prince once spent a tense afternoon locked in the hall bathroom after his mom accused him of pilfering quarters from the coin-op laundry funds.
"Y'know, the guy who kills me—I hope he does it cuz he hates my guts, not cuz it's his job."
If the production of the excellent Dog Day Afternoon appeared to be an aligning of the stars, figuratively and literally, there was still one star that was out of position. This admirable film was nominated for Best Picture of 1975 but had the misfortune to go up against the likes of Jaws, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Barry Lyndon, and Nashville. Just the same, this situation seemed to fit this film well and, while it went home without the big award, it still stands tall as a high mark to which current filmmakers should still aspire.
Facts of the Case
It seemed like just another normal day in Brooklyn, the citizens going about their daily duties in sleepy conformance despite the nagging unease that percolated deep inside them. In 1972, there was much to be anxious and agitated over, police and politicians appearing indifferent to those they claim they represent. Nevertheless, life goes on, somehow, in very dull and ordinary fashion. And on this particular city street, everything looks the same as it did yesterday, and the day before that, and the day before that—except for that weathered blue Dodge parked awkwardly curbside in front of the First Brooklyn Savings Bank. It's late in the day, by the banker's clock, and the guard prepares to escort the last account holder out into the waning afternoon. A pudgy young man emerges from the Dodge and peeks nervously into the bank window. He returns to the car, exchanges a few words with the other two occupants, prompting a lean man, his dark hair receding atop his pate, to emerge with briefcase in hand, making his way into the bank. In another moment, the third occupant exits the Dodge—he's shorter than the previous man, similarly dark-haired, tightly clutching a long gift box under his arm. The first man makes his way to the bank manager's desk, opens his briefcase, and points a gun at the manager's heart. The other man fitfully wrestles with his gift box, revealing a rifle as he shouts, "All right, freeze! Nobody move!" The man, Sonny (Al Pacino, Serpico), wrestles with the box ribbon as it mocks his attempt to threaten the startled bank employees. The other man, Sal (John Cazale, The Deer Hunter), appears better contained, though his darting eyes suggest an undermining impatience. The pudgy fellow, Stevie (Gary Springer, Jaws 2), can't go through with the robbery and bails out on the other two. No matter, because Sonny and Sal have it all under control—that is, until a phone call comes in from the barber shop across the way, where Detective Sergeant Moretti (Charles Durning, The Fury) wants to speak with Sonny. And so begins the unraveling of Sonny's half-baked plan, a 30-minute job that will now take the Brooklyner through every high and low of his lifetime, all played back to him on the street out front and over the television airwaves, blurring the lines between who's a hood, who's a hero, and if life ultimately is only worth a few thousand bucks.
So much has already been said about Director Sidney Lumet's 1975 masterpiece, Dog Day Afternoon. Inspired by a true account, as reported in the pages of Life magazine in 1972, the film provides a relatively faithful account of the actual events—a robbery committed by John Wojtowicz ("Sonny" in the film) intended to gain the funds needed to afford a sex reassignment procedure for his male "wife," Ernest Aron ("Leon Shurmer," as played by Chris Sarandon, in the film). Accompanying Wojtowicz was Sal Naturile, an 18-year-old portrayed by the more mature John Cazale. Their plan backfired, the robbery was botched, but the attempt sparked a starkly dramatic and culturally explosive confrontation between citizens and the establishment that presides over them.
Without question, the attitudes presented in this 1975 film still persist today. That is, Americans are mesmerized by (or conditioned, maybe, to tune in to?) whatever tragedy, travesty, or insignificant tryst is playing itself out via the multi-media outlets. No longer confined to just three major television networks and a few UHF offshoots, today they can experience every sordid detail as it occurs in real time via 24-hour satellite news feeds and an Internet that likewise never sleeps. Add to this the countless hours of "news analysis" programming and the tireless efforts of independent bloggers, and, well, that's entertainment.
It's shameful, but there it is, Mr. and Mrs. America (plus every foisted and fractured alternative of today's pre-nominal social titles, naturally).
But watching Dog Day Afternoon again gives us a renewed moment to pause. Despite any pre-conceived biases that might anticipate the film will appear aged and irrelevant, this simply isn't the case. In fact, the film holds up amazingly well and has plenty to say to "modern" audiences. It's a highly efficient and simplistic excursion into the destruction of one man, Sonny, who clearly tried to conform to society's rules but in the end just couldn't muster it. Should he have been treated with preference despite the fact that many others were getting along just fine? Probably not, but then there probably shouldn't be any shock and surprise when a destitute fellow like this succumbs to such drastic measures to keep himself alive. And that's what's happening here—a man is struggling, as if gasping for air itself, to survive in a nation where television is supreme, despair is top-rated programming, and somewhere, somebody is making large amounts of money on it all. While we'd refer similar modern day coverage as "informational," complete with exaggerated news alerts, agitated panel debates, and persistent on-screen tickers, it's the same sad situation, just prettied up for our tech-hungry mentality. Look at this film today and you'll find yourself dropped into Sonny's predicament, presented without flash, without feigned action sequences, and without a musical score outside of Elton John's "Amoreena" at the opening. It's undistracted and unflinching in its revelation of how a man's life can fly apart at the seams and how a nation in attitudinal conflict can exploit his misfortune without remorse or recompense. Although he's become a criminal, he doesn't want to hurt anyone and he doesn't want to die; he just doesn't seem to know what to do. His ineptness is this heist is evidence enough that he's a man who has apparently run out of options, save for swallowing the barrel of a loaded gun (and what through-the-roof ratings that would earn, yes?).
Credit the stellar cast here, already duly canonized over the past thirty-plus years for their precise performances. Pacino, Cazale, Durning, and especially Sarandon still captivate, and their on-screen work here can just as easily hush a viewing audience today as it could back in 1975.
But the immediate question at this moment is whether Dog Day Afternoon benefits from another Millennial primping—high definition. In regard to the foregoing statements about the manner in which today's technology presumes to add flash and visual appeal to otherwise aberrant activity—in this regard, the Blu-ray effect works admirably to faithfully present Lumet's original vision. By that, the transfer, using a 1080p / VC-1 encode, delivers the film in the cleanest and most pristine presentation ever. Offered in a 1.85:1 widescreen format, the picture is crisp and clear and visually engaging from start to finish. The original production design was sullen and somber in its tones, so don't expect much "pop" in this high definition transfer. What you can expect, however, is another excellent remastering of a vintage film, again proving how much visual information can be drawn out of those films we suffered with in their woeful VHS incarnations and early DVD issue. Here, the original texture of the film is restored, with many sequences offering never-before-seen detail in faces, hair, and clothing. The original film grain is also present; in this vintage setting, it's perfectly acceptable and preferable over any sort of digital dabbling. Truthfully, it's a stellar presentation that shows how superbly the new technology can faithfully preserve our cinematic treasures.
On the audio side, some might feel betrayed that there's only a Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono mix available (at 192kbps). Initially, I felt the same, wondering why the audio track wasn't expanded to further capitalize upon the Blu-ray audio bandwidth. However, upon viewing the film, it made perfect sense that the well rendered 1.0 mix was chosen to convey not only the original presentation but also to impart the constrained setting in which the film occurs. Remember, there are no musical cues so the soundtrack is made up of dialog and sound effects. They're perfectly balanced and they serve the image well.
Extras on this Blu-ray disc mirror those offered in 2006's 30th Anniversary two-disc DVD release. These begin with Lumet's running commentary, a very informative and enjoyable track from the legendary director. During the track, he admits he hasn't seen the film for a couple of decades and, subsequently, lapses into silence at times as he gets reacquainted with the result. Next up is a lengthy four-part documentary that exhaustively explores the film, the actors, and the production process. Next is a vintage featurette, Lumet: Film Maker, running the usual 10 minutes as originally presented between theatrical features. Last up is the original theatrical trailer. Unfortunately, the item overlooked both then and now is a reprint of the original Life magazine article, "The Boys in the Bank."
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If ever it was said that Dog Day Afternoon merely exploited violent situations for the sake of profit, that assessment would be accurate. Interestingly, though, while there are plenty of guns within sight, only two shots are fired over the entire course of the film. Nevertheless, the "violence" is apparent, unfiltered, yet is represented by the wanton aggression that comes from a persistent threat of force and retaliation. The affront by Sonny, Sal, and Stevie in the bank is violent in its invasive and assertive manner, of course. But the army of uniformed and plain-clothes police officers, flanked by armored SWAT troops, absolutely threatens to decimate the perpetrators in a rain of unbridled bullets. Sonny plainly confronts Moretti over the trigger-ready cops surrounding him: "he wants to kill me so bad he can taste it!" And, to that point, what's most violent in the film is the apparent lack of control on both sides of the situation. Sonny struggles to pacify the morose Sal, tenuously keeping him from opening fire upon the bank employees while Det. Sgt. Moretti barely keeps the police on site from triggering a mid-town massacre. And, as the gathering crowd's attitude sways with every revelation on the street and as reported on the airwaves, they, too, brim with a barely restrained violence that could easily manifest itself in a riot. The film is violent, but it is an aggression that has been smoldering over recent societal transgressions (Attica being the one outwardly cited here) and that threatens to strike a fatal flashpoint at any moment.
It's reassuring to see the way an important film like Dog Day Afternoon can be so well presented in the high-definition technology. Better still is the restraint shown by the team at Warner Brothers that the allowed to film to be delivered in its original state without artificial fluffing-up. Most notable is the impact that the film has today. It's compelling and relevant and it looks great on Blu-ray. Again, given this was a nominee for the 1975 Best Picture award, this disc is a definite buy and an important inclusion into any film library.
While there's no pardoning of Sonny in his felonious endeavor, this new Blu-ray disc is found fully not guilty of any sort of aid and abetting (save for magnificently representing an excellent motion picture).
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Director's Commentary
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