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Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

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Today’s cinema adventure: Dog Day Afternoon, the 1975 Sidney Lumet feature about a real-life bank heist gone wrong, in which a troubled Vietnam war veteran attempts to obtain the money needed for his gay lover’s sex change surgery and ends up at the center of a hostage situation that turns into a media circus. A prime example of seventies “New Hollywood” cinema, this gripping gem achieved much popularity due to its anti-establishment undertones and the performance of Al Pacino, who was at the height of his rising stardom. Director Lumet, also at the peak of his career, steadily drives the brilliant Frank Pierson screenplay by allowing the story to unfold through the characters, resulting in a slow-but-steady paced film that remains emotionally grounded as it moves through the escalating complications of the plot, building tension by keeping us invested as it moves towards its inexorable conclusion; in addition, by focusing on the immediacy of the human element, Lumet succeeds in creating a microcosmic fable with complex political and social overtones woven into its fabric without ever letting these larger themes overwhelm the immediacy and intimacy of its simple story. The power of the film as a whole is seamlessly connected to the magnificence of Pacino’s embodiment of the likable loser at its center; his sharply honest portrayal allows us to instantly connect with the core of his character as he wavers between gullibility and cynicism, despair and determination, kindness and cruelty- seemingly the entire contrasting myriad of human emotion. It’s hard not to be on his side, no matter how ill-advised his actions may be; we share his giddy thrill when he stirs the crowd with his chants of “Attica!,” and we feel the crushing pressure as he tries to negotiate an acceptable way out of the no-win situation he is in- both in the bank and in his life. Backing him up is a quietly brilliant cast of supporting players, from John Cazale as his slow-witted accomplice and Charles Durning as the police negotiator trying to diffuse the situation, to the ensemble of bank-employees-turned-hostages who convincingly bond with their unwilling captor. Special praise, however, should go to Chris Sarandon, as Pacino’s gender-swapping lover, who delivers his two scenes with a sensitivity and a dignity that provide the bittersweet heart upon which the entire plot hinges. It is worth mentioning, in fact, that the homosexual elements of the film are handled with objectivity and a marked lack of stereotyping- a fact made all the more remarkable by the era in which it was made, which helps to make it stand as strong today as it did upon its first release nearly forty years ago. (As a side note, it is interesting to know that the film’s real-life inspiration, John Wojtowicz, used his proceeds from the sale of his story to finally fund his lover’s sex change; so in a roundabout way, his scheme ended up being successful after all). All in all, Dog Day Afternoon is one of those classics that define an era, a representative work from a time when American cinema blended realism with art to create a kind of visual poetry, a document testifying to the character of our culture and capturing the essence of our concerns. Not only that, it is a reminder of a time when Hollywood gave us stories that grew out of the people in them instead of relying on gimmicky, formulaic plots with the people grafted in- and though I’m not one to bemoan the passing of the “good old days,” it’s certain that today filmmaking establishment would be completely unable- or at least unwilling- to create a film with the kind of simple, non-CG-powered thrills provided here. Of course, you don’t need all these justifications for checking it out. The only reason you need is the best reason of all: it’s a damn good movie.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0072890/

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