Cops and Robbers

This is it! The third season of The Film Experience’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” series ends tonight with a bang, not a whimper, courtesy of Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon (1975). (Thankfully, HMWYBS will return in 2013.) Dog Day Afternoon’s not necessarily what I’d call a “beautiful” movie, but it is a sensational one in every sense of the word. In its efforts to recreate a failed 1972 bank robbery, the film brings a whole city block to life—sweaty, colorful life—and it’s teeming with dense, jagged shots of the bank’s interior. Shots like the one above.

I love the visual zigzagging here, from Sonny (Al Pacino) to his gun-toting accomplice Sal (John Cazale) to the bank manager behind him, and how we’re vaguely aware of background details like the flag and those blinding fluorescent lights, but the focus is squarely on Pacino and his disbelief. He’s supposed to be robbing a bank, for chrissakes, but what are the words coming out of his mouth?

All right, who has—who has to the go to the bathroom here?

It’s that sad, funny clash between efficiently committing a crime and being a basically decent human being.

I’m also a fan of this aerial shot from Sonny’s first showdown with the cops. This is the moment he goes from “bumbling crook” to Brooklyn folk hero, using hostage negotiations as an antiauthoritarian soapbox. He’s switched from shouting “Attica! Attica!” to “Put the fucking guns down!” and now a more general, frothing-at-the-mouth cry of “You got it, man! You got it!” Pacino struts and twitches like a bug-eyed rooster, his gestures so huge and angry that we can read them from the air. The shot reveals a growing ring of cops around the bank, but he’s unafraid. For once, the lone Vietnam vet has all the power.

But this is my favorite shot in Dog Day Afternoon. It’s right after Sonny’s first phone call with Sgt. Moretti, when he learns that cops have him “completely by the balls.” As the movie’s tagline says, “The robbery should have taken ten minutes”; now it’s developing into a stand-off with no obvious end game other than Sonny’s arrest or death. The news overwhelms him. He slumps to the floor. (And Sal, taking a cue from Sonny’s desperation, immediately does the same.)

The rest of the movie gives us shot after shot of a sweaty, exhausted Pacino. But this is his first breaking point, before he has a chance to get up and be re-broken. His first glimpse of how fucked he is, and how long he’s going to be cooped up in this sweltering bank. The shot makes satisfying use the bank’s architecture, too: that ugly gray flooring on either side of Pacino, and the column mercifully propping him up. This is his workplace now—his crime scene, his cage.

Head in hand, Sonny’s a one-man Pietà. And his troubles have only just begun.

5 Comments

Filed under Cinema

5 responses to “Cops and Robbers

  1. Great post! Isn’t that the same column he leans against to dictate his will? A merciful column indeed! I love the way you highlight the humour at the start there. DDA is a really funny movie, in just the saddest way possible.

  2. Even more than us both choosing the same shot, what REALLY gets me is that we both talk about that gray floor. I, too, like that you point out the bits of humour although the humour just makes me even more devastated because in that way it sort of establishes the banality of life. He’s trying to carry out a robbery here, and in movies and books they’re either very exciting, or very sinister but here it’s just a series of silly, innocuous errors one after the other making this such an effective contemporary tragedy.

    More in the vein of a Miller tragedy where a quasi-buffoon engages in activities making his life even more ridiculous (than a Sophocles tragedy of a “great” man’s fall).

    Also, Pacino’s face is SO expressive here. I love his expression in that first shot.

  3. @arf_she_said: Good eye! Especially with the sheer number of mobile long takes, they really worked the layout of the bank. One hell of a set.

    @Andrew: You couldn’t ask for a more anti-romantic crime movie than DDA. I think Michael nailed it in his write-up: “[W]hat was clean and efficient in his mind became sloppy and overly complicated in execution with the box clinging stubbornly to the barrel the gun.” Sonny clearly has all these ideas, gleaned from pop culture, about how the robbery is supposed to go down. He just didn’t count on 1) a string of ironic disasters and 2) his own catastrophic incompetence.

    Arthur Miller’s a good point of comparison. Things rarely go as we think they’re supposed to. And man, Pacino’s face! He goes big without going too big, in all the best ways.

  4. The ‘you got it man’ shots remind me of Network and how this movie is a more succinct version of Network, a story about cluster fucks and fifteen minutes of fame without analyzing it. And it’s so energetic in bringing that message across whether we’re closing up on Sonny or we’re watching him from far away up in the air.

    The Miller reference made me also remembering that Lumet has a theatre background and he filmed this with a stage, although a more complex and layered one, in mind.

  5. John C. King

    Good post. Reading about this great movie makes it even better.

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