Monday, September 21, 2015

Walking a Fine Line on a Summer Afternoon

"That's all they're interested in — it's a freak show to them. I can't control it, Sal — let 'em say what they want. Forget it. It don't matter."

Sonny (Al Pacino)

After all these years of working in and around the news business, I guess this sort of thing shouldn't surprise me. But the events depicted in "Dog Day Afternoon," which premiered on this date in 1975, were based on real events, and it was one of the strangest stories you will ever see or hear.

A couple of men really did rob a bank in Brooklyn in August of 1972, and they concocted an elaborate scheme that was re–created in "Dog Day Afternoon." Their plan was to get enough money to finance a sex–change operation for Al Pacino's lover, Chris Sarandon.

But things went wrong from the start. In the first place, they arrived too late in the day. The daily cash pickup had already occurred, and there was very little money in the bank. To make up for it, Sonny decided to take some traveler's cheques, but he made a big mistake when he tried to prevent the cheques from being traced by burning the bank's register, which sent smoke billowing out of the building, alerting a neighboring business to trouble in the bank, and the police were notified.

As people gathered outside the bank, it became clear that a simple getaway was not possible so Pacino and his accomplice Sal (John Cazale) bargained with the police. Pacino asked for a helicopter to land on the roof. The helicopter would take them out of the country. Well, that wouldn't work, Pacino was told, because the roof would not support a helicopter.

So Pacino demanded to be taken to the airport where they would select a jet to take them out of the country.

But that pattern persisted. Every time Pacino's character tried to do something to prevent something bad from happening, there was a roadblock of some kind. Or there were diversions. Sonny had an uncomfortable phone conversation with Leon, his lover who wanted a sex–change operation.

Ultimately, the episode was brought to an end on the airport tarmac. Sal was shot in the head, and Sonny was arrested. Subtitles informed the viewers that Sonny was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Leon eventually got his sex change, and Sonny's ex–wife and children were on welfare.

"It's an actor's picture," wrote Roger Ebert. "[Director Sidney] Lumet and his editor, Dede Allen, take the time to allow the actors to live within the characters; we forget we're watching performances. Although the movie contains tragedy and the potential for greater tragedy, it is also tremendously funny. But Frank Pierson's Oscar–winning screenplay never pauses for a laugh; the laughter grows organically out of people and situations."

It would have been easy to exploit this story, but Lumet resisted that temptation and produced, instead, a movie that simultaneously observed both the human comedy and the deadly serious stakes of the situation.