The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Dog Day Afternoon

Over the last year or so I've tried to catch up on all the classic movies I've missed.  You know, those ones where people responded "WWWWWWWWWhat?" when you tell them you haven't seen them.  I never intentionally dodged these movies, I just never actively sought them out.  My problem in some cases is that I know these movies are held in high regard, and therefore expect more out of them.  Raging Bull more than lived up to expectations, Goodfellas was highly enjoyable, and Judgment at Nuremberg was a powerfully effective movie.  The latest one I've watched was 1975's Dog Day Afternoon.

I'll point this out first that I really enjoyed the movie, but I didn't love it.  Certain parts worked perfectly, like director Sidney Lumet filming this true story like a documentary in the New York locations the story took place and Al Pacino's incredible performance.  Lumet's pseudo-documentary style is appropriate for the story, giving the viewer a feeling of being a fly on the wall as the story develops.  My only real complaint is that in its effort to be truthful with the facts, the movie is a little long.  The first hour moves along at a quick pace, but somewhere in the second hour, the pacing hits a wall.  All the momentum built up is lost, and while the ending is worth the wait, it can't save or solve the pacing issues.

On a scorching hot summer day in August 1972, two men, Sonny Wortzik (Pacino) and Sal Naturile (John Cazale) walk into a Brooklyn bank with a rifle and a machine gun to rob the place.  Right away, nothing goes smoothly, starting with the bank having just over $1,000 after a deposit was picked up.  Minutes go by longer than they had planned, and the phone rings.  Detective Eugene Moretti (Charles Durning) is on the other end, and he wants to talk.  The bank is surrounded by police, and there's no way out. Sonny refuses and with eight hostages -- the bank manager, 6 tellers, and a bank guard -- starts to negotiate a way out of the mess he's gotten himself into.  Huge crowds form outside along with media and hundreds of cops, but a strange thing happens.  Sonny becomes a hero to the crowd, but no matter what he does, there's no easy way out of the situation.

The circus-like atmosphere that develops following the botched bank robbery is an indictment of the times, with Sonny blatantly playing to the crowds, like THIS well-known scene.  He screams at the police officers surrounding him to back off and holster their weapons.  At one point, he throws money -- fake $5 bills -- to the gathering crowds and becomes a fan favorite to them.  This is Pacino at his best in the role, a blend of calm intellect and brash outbursts all rolled into one.  I won't go as far as saying I was rooting for Pacino's Sonny, but the fact that he's even a little bit sympathetic is a testament to Pacino's acting.  This also earned him his 4th straight Best Acting Oscar nomination -- of which he won NONE -- and is a total departure from most of his other roles.

For such a big story, the cast is rather small which works surprisingly well.  It's a big story, but the key moments are these interactions between a handful of characters.  Cazale was only in six movies before dying at 43 of bone cancer, and he doesn't disappoint in any of them.  His Sal has a tortured past of which we find out very little, but it's shown he's not a very smart person and is much more of a follower than a leader.  Durning gets a flashier part as Det. Moretti, the police officer with the unpleasant task of negotiating the situation to save the lives of Sonny's hostages.  Unfortunately, Durning's Moretti basically disappears once the FBI shows up and is gone in the last 45 minutes.  Sully Boyar as Mulvaney, the bank manager, and Penelope Allen as Sylvia, the head bank teller, are the only hostages to make much of an impression.  Chris Sarandon received an Oscar nomination for his part as Leon, but I'll go into that next.

SPOILERS for this paragraph SPOILERS I don't know if it's a twist because the Netflix movie sleeve says it in the first sentence of the description -- thanks for that, Netflix -- but Sarandon is Leon, Sonny's lover/husband, and the reason Sonny planned the robbery.  He wanted to get money so Leon could have a sex-change operation because he thinks he's a woman trapped in a man's body.  This revelation comes about halfway through the movie and certainly comes as a bit of a shock (and that's knowing it is coming).  It isn't meant as a judgment that Sonny is gay or bisexual, instead Lumet just lays this all out for us to explain his motivations.  Sonny is married with kids, and when we see his background and personal life, it is clear why he's done what he has.  His wife is shrill, his mother overbearing, and the man he loves isn't all there in the head.  He has been pushed too far and knows nowhere else to turn other than this desperate ploy.

The real-life incident 'Dog Day' is based on took about 14 hours, and in the movie the pacing starts to drag once the sun goes down as the story tries to show everything that happened.  The real-life Sonny claimed only about 30% of the movie is true/factual.  Certain scenes go on too long -- especially conversations Sonny has with his wife, mother and Leon -- and had me looking for the fast forward button.  But still, the positives definitely outweigh the negatives, especially Pacino's performance and Lumet's direction.  I won't say it is a classic because there are some serious flaws, but it is still a great movie.

Dog Day Afternoon <----trailer (1975): ***/**** 

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