[Originally published in Movietone News 47, January 1976]
The montage with which Sidney Lumet begins Dog Day Afternoon is at pains to get across to us just what things were like in Brooklyn at 2:57 p.m., August 22, 1972, right before a minor bank robbery became a major Event. The montage—shot and assembled as if nothing had changed in film since 1967—emphasizes people, their clothing, their attitudes, their activities on a hot afternoon. But one shot doesn’t quite belong; it draws our eyes away from the peopled street to a theater marquee, held at top-center-screen, announcing A STAR IS BORN. That wasn’t a new movie in town in ’72; and its revival at the time has no bearing on the events of Dog Day Afternoon. Lumet is really interested in the four words on the marquee only because they summarize his attitude toward the subject of his film, a sexually eccentric neurotic who attracted national attention that afternoon when he held up a bank, took hostages, and demanded a jet airliner to fly him out of the country. Never one to trust an audience, Lumet holds the shot about three times as long as necessary for us to get the point. It’s a mistake he has made frequently throughout his career, bloating many otherwise promising films. Hold too many shots too long, even by just a couple seconds, and before you know it your movie’s an hour too long. Like Dog Day Afternoon.
Lumet’s inept guidance of Dede Allen’s usually brisk editing, his apparent inability to bring himself to cut away, is explained by his obvious fascination for his “Star” a-borning—Sonny—and the star who plays him, Al Pacino. As with most of Lumet’s films, the strength of Dog Day Afternoon lies in its acting; and, as with most of his films, its weakness lies in the director’s tendency just to back off and watch, as if whispering breathlessly to us, “Isn’t that terrific acting!” I have often wondered if Lumet is a good actor’s-director who simply hasn’t had many good cinematic ideas, or if he is an altogether poor director who, whether out of weakness or simple good sense, lets the strongest actors take control of most of his work (James Mason in The Deadly Affair and Child’s Play, Rod Steiger in The Pawnbroker, Pacino in Serpico and this, just about everybody in Twelve Angry Men and The Hill, just about nobody in Fail Safe and Murder on the Orient Express). But Pacino fans who go to Dog Day Afternoon looking for their actor to win the day are in for a couple surprises. For one thing, Pacino, like Steiger’s pawnbroker, can’t be trusted for so long at the center of the circle of attention drawn by so worshipfully acquiescent a director as Lumet: as often as not he becomes an insufferable ham. The other surprise is that Charles Durning, as a city cop trying to talk Sonny out of his bank job, acts circles around Pacino in scene after scene.
About halfway, Durning’s character fades into the background (maybe someone noticed he was stealing the show), to be replaced by the icy blankness of a Nixonian FBI man (James Broderick). From there on it’s got to be Pacino’s film, because he’s got no competition (and only minimal support from the just-add-water pathos of John Cazale, who’s still playing Fredo Corleone, sincere halfwit); and that’s when the going gets dull. Frank Pierson’s screenplay, so far a strong admixture of comedy, pathos, and social relevance, in descending order of polish and merit, begins to bog down in redundancy and overemphasis. Lumet just keeps watching. But in what sense is this Sonny a “Star”? His bank job becomes a carnival (though Victor J. Kemper’s lumbering, spastic, overdone establishing shots could have been improved with a study of Charles Lang Jr.’s fluid overviews in Wilder’s Ace in the Hole), and then a forum for social relevance (Sonny, TV, and mostly Lumet manage to relate the robbery to Vietnam, Attica, gay liberation, sexual oppression, sexual repression, parental domination, police brutality, and nagging housewives of both sexes). I remain, alas, unimpressed. For even if Pacino’s overplaying of Sonny is a valid interpretation of the character, Lumet’s reticence still fails to give it the sympathetic context demanded by his film’s framework and premise. A star is not born, not this time.
DOG DAY AFTERNOON
Direction: Sidney Lumet. Screenplay: Frank Pierson. Cinematography: Victor J. Kemper. Editing: Dede Allen.
The players: Al Pacino, John Cazale, Charles Durning, James Broderick, Chris Sarandon, Sully Boyar, Penny Allen, Carol Kane
Copyright © 1976 by Robert C. Cumbow