Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Long Day’s Journey into Night

Sidney Lumet, who died in 2011, directed Dog Day Afternoon in 1975. It’s his most concentrated and emotionally stirring work. Like Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973) and Taxi Driver (1976), and Lumet’s own Serpico (1973), Dog Day Afternoon plays its themes with compelling vigor, and its story arc (carried along by an expert script) is tuned perfectly to the movie’s gathering emotional and comic turmoil. Lumet uses the script and his great cast to balance the elements (crime, crowds, police, and spot-news press corps) against the enervated realism of a Brooklyn afternoon.

The movie is hugely successful at what it sets out to do. It drops you into a neighborhood bank as a heist is being carried out, immersing you in the comically pathetic tension of a botched day on the job. This may be the first movie ever to mine equal amounts of humor and pathos from a couple of numbnuts bank robbers. These guys aren’t superficially likable in that phony, audience-pleasing way that characterizes the scam artists in other heist movies, like The Sting (1973), Ocean’s Eleven (2001), and The Italian Job (2003). The more decent and pragmatic of the two, Sonny (Al Pacino in a career-making performance), needs the cash for his transgender wife Leon’s sex change operation (Chris Sarandon). Everything goes wrong for Sonny; he can’t catch a break. He’s like a Polish Alvy Singer, a bumbler whose good intentions put him in a nonstop pickle. With his deer-in-the-headlights stare and endless exasperation, he’s a comic hero of the Watergate era. (The character is based on the actual bank robber John Wojtowicz.)

Watergate hero. Al Pacino
What happens in the movie illustrates the ambiguity and confusion of the era’s urban counterculture, but Lumet doesn’t turn the events into a grandstanding metaphor of corruption—he’s working in a hyperrealistic vein. The two crooks, Sonny and Sal (John Cazale), are just young saps who get criticized and corrected by the people they’re robbing. The joke is in the criticism and suggestions for improvement coming from the hostages in the bank. The movie’s everyday realism keeps its inventiveness and jokes believable—that’s one of its strengths. Even the relatively few great heist movies of the past—Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1955), for example, or Jules Dassin’s Rififi that same year—have a slick shallowness at their core.

Lumet and his team combine just the right amounts of asphalt realism and expressionist distortion: the smoggy afternoon sunlight sinks into an Edward Hopper urban evening. As night falls, beads of sweat drench everybody’s face: the law enforcement negotiators, the hostages, the reporters on the scene. The air conditioner in the bank chugs noisily, its condensers and coils rattling with exhaustion. Everyone grows frazzled with the passage of what feels like real time in the movie. As the action moves between the two sets—the bank and the street outside—a mob in a news-feeding frenzy has gathered to cheer on Sonny as an anti-establishment hero and to jeer at police attempts to end the stand-off with bureaucratic efficiency. But in this comedy of errors, the crowd ultimately starts taunting Sonny and Sal for their personal problems. The tone alternates between frantic suspense and exhaustion, but Lumet maintains control of the material, guiding it to its remarkable conclusion at Kennedy Airport without whoring after phony climaxes or pausing for didactic “lessons.”

Dog Day Afternoon is unusual for Watergate-era movies because its point of view is that the street crowd’s response to Sonny’s plight—treating him like a rock star celebrity—is hollowed-out madness. You can see right through their cheering. They’re not committed to Sonny’s symbolic value as a countercultural hero standing up to the flunky pigs, but to the frenzy he is generating in them. Pumping their fists in the air as Sonny parades up and down the sidewalk outside the bank door, shouting “Tell them to put their guns down! Put the fucking guns down!” they’re not cheering for anybody or any progressive Sixties principle. In one great scene, Sonny tells the FBI agent Sheldon (James Broderick), “It’s your job, right? The guy who kills me—I hope he does it because he hates my guts, not because it’s his job.” How did Lumet know that movie audiences would be willing to see the bureaucratic rot beneath their own corrupted Sixties ideals?

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