"What you are about to see is true -- it happened in Brooklyn, New York on August 22, 1972." So are the words that preface 'Dog Day Afternoon,' and for once, the based-on-a-true-story tag is not misleading or sensational. Hollywood may have a long history with exploiting news headlines for box office, often abusing the truth and clouding history in the process, but every once in a while, a film comes along that uses a real-life incident to tell a genuinely human story with compassion and insight. 'Dog Day Afternoon' is one such movie, and one of the still-sparkling gems of the 1970s.
On that hot summer day in 1972, Sonny Wortik (Al Pacino) and two accomplices enter the First Brooklyn Savings Bank at approximately 2:57 p.m., just minutes before closing time. It was supposed to be a ten-minute bank robbery, but a series of fast-moving complications, missteps and outright bungles end up turning it into fourteen-hour siege. As the police and the media descend upon the bank, the frenzy outside begins to exceed the drama inside. The story fluctuates between the frightening and the funny, until the unforeseen climax, where, finally, no one is laughing anymore.
Director Sidney Lumet had teamed with Pacino once before (for 1973's 'Serpico') and their pairing here is even more successful. Lumet makes the absolutely right decision to center the narrative almost solely from inside the bank, as this is Sonny's story. Even if we don't agree with his actions, or fully understand his motives, we can't help but empathize with him. And even as the most potentially sensational aspects of the story unfold (some so seemingly absurd you would never believe them if they hadn't actually happened), Pacino makes them ring true with his flawless portrayal of a genuine, three-dimensional character. It's a tough tight-wire act for a film with an anti-hero as ultimately self-destructive as Sonny. The fact that Lumet and Pacino manage to succeed so seemingly effortlessly is what makes 'Dog Day Afternoon' an absolutely riveting film.
It's interesting that with all the controversy that greeted 'Brokeback Mountain' last year, over thirty years earlier we had a film that (in many ways) tells a parallel tale. Sonny is staging the heist to pay for a sex change operation for his lover (Chris Sarandon). Yet Sonny is also married, living a seemingly "normal" other life in Brooklyn. Scandalous, for sure, yet Lumet and screenwriter Frank Pierson do not treat it as such. Instead, this is simply a portrait of a man who wanted to make everyone happy. Sonny is a product of his upbringing -- bred from birth to be a people pleaser, and as Lumet and Pierson methodically reveal details that paint a portrait of his background, it becomes clear how he got himself into this predicament. His greatest strength -- his purely innocent desire to love and nurture -- becomes his fatal flaw, as he begins to mistake the rabid attention of the media and the police for the much-needed approval he seeks. Yet Sonny is not portrayed here as some sort of wanna-be reality TV star, or a pathetic thrill-seeker. Instead, Pacino receives such unexpected empathy from the audience because he makes us understand -- with subtle brilliance -- that Sonny's deeds are a tragedy of misguided emotion, not malice.
'Dog Day Afternoon' also works fantastically well as a thriller. It is truly unsettling and suspenseful from the first frame. Lumet has a way of disorientating us by never resorting to cliches. Sonny is not a good bank robber; in fact, he's completely inept. It becomes comical, especially as the Lieutenant assigned to the case (Charles Durning) turns up the heat, and the media maelstrom outside threatens to explode. Yet the humor adds to the tension, rather than distracting from it, or turning the film into camp. The atmosphere in the bank compresses to such an extent that it is like being trapped in a submarine about to implode. Relentlessly realistic, and impossible to take your eyes off of, 'Dog Day Afternoon' ends on a note that shocks, disturbs and leaves a residue that lasts long after the end credits fade. In fact, it is still resonating thirty years later.
Having not seen Warner's recent DVD reissue of the 'Dog Day Afternoon,' my most recent experience with the film was on a murky and muddy VHS tape. Given that, both the HD DVD and the Blu-ray are revelations. Sure, 'Dog Day Afternoon' is still a gritty '70s picture, but no film over thirty years old should look this good.
Warner again offers its usual identical 1080p/VC-1 encodes on both the HD DVD and the Blu-ray. The image is framed at its original 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio, and the print has been very nicely cleaned-up. There is grain present throughout, but it's appropriate to the film's era, and only adds to the realism and impact of the picture. The visual palette is subdued at best -- colors have a documentary look, but are actually quite vibrant, with strong primaries -- especially during brightly-lit sequences. Blacks also hold up well, even in dark scenes, which tend to gray out on older titles, but remain deep here. Contrast has a slightly hot quality, but it matches the film's mood (this is called "Dog Day Afternoon," after all). Detail is superior for a film of this type, and I was quite impressed throughout with the depth to the image.
Unfortunately, I was disappointed by the level of edge enhancement applied to the transfer. It's obvious from the first shot, where you can see shimmering on the high-contrast lines of a ferry crossing over to a harbor. It certainly keeps the image razor-sharp, but the cost is an artificial look that almost seems too modern. The jaggies continue to distract throughout, clearly apparent in the shimmering patterns on costumes and other fine textures. It's enough to knock down the video rating a notch, but it's not fatal. All things considered, 'Dog Day Afternoon' still looks great, and is another very fine catalog remaster from Warner.
For whatever reason, Warner was not able to remix the film's original audio source elements, so we're left with only a cleaned-up Dolby Digital 1.0 mono track (at 196kbps).
There's not much to say about this one. 'Dog Day Afternoon' sounds fine, although obviously there is no envelopment or atmosphere to speak of. Dialogue sounds good, with only the lowest tones a bit muffled, but still intelligible. There is not great depth to dynamic range, with low bass typical for a '70s film (i.e., it's rather flat). There are no major audio dropouts and the like, however, and high-end is surprisingly free of tinniness or harsh edges. No great shakes here, but perfectly listenable.
The last few years have seen something of a Sidney Lumet resurgence on DVD. Several of the director's classics -- 'Network,' 'All the President's Men' and 'Dog Day Afternoon' -- have enjoyed deluxe special edition remasters, all of which boasted excellent new supplementary material. The 2006 two-disc 'Dog Day Afternoon' special edition was no exception, including a wonderful set of supplements featuring contributions from of the film's major players. It's a testament to the quality of the film that so many turned out to pay it such eloquent respect, and thankfully those supplements have found their way to the film's high-def debut.
Lumet's solo screen-specific audio commentary is one of the best I've heard in a long while. His enthusiasm is simply infectious. He seems to have the energy of a filmmaker half his age, and a wisdom twice that. He details virtually stage of the film -- from producer Martin Bregman bringing him the project, to the casting, to capturing the film's gritty texture by shooting entirely on location. Particularly impressive is his frank and open discussion of the role of improvisation during the making of the film, which resulted in many of the film's classic moments, such as Al Pacino fumbling as he first opens the gift box to bring out his shotgun. Lumet's commentary alone would have been worth the price of admission.
"The Making of 'Dog Day Afternoon'" does what the best of these sort of documentaries do: it convinces us of the film's status as a classic, and its continued relevance. It is comprehensive, witty, and very well produced. Amazingly, it is not redundant with the commentary, offering even deeper perspective on key aspects of the production. Bregman starts things off, and remains an inspiration for his compassion in shepherding a project that probably seemed about as commercial as filming the phone book. Re-assembled cast and crew, including fresh interviews with actors Al Pacino, Chris Sarandon, Charles Durning and Lance Henriksen, plus editor Dede Allen, screenwriter Frank Pierson and (of course) Lumet, don't come off as self-aggrandizing in their praise of each other or the bravery they displayed in focusing on the human element of the story rather than its sensationalist aspects. Though there is no making-of material -- only a few stills -- the pace never drags, as the editing is sharp and these are the rare talking heads I could have listened to for hours. Note that the 56-minute doc is presented in 4:3 full screen and 480i video only, and is presented in four separate sections (there is, sadly, no "Play All" function): "The Story" (12 minutes), "Casting the Controversy" (13 minutes), "Recreating the Facts" (21 minutes) and "After the Filming" (11 minutes).
Also included is the vintage 1975 featurette, "Lumet: Film Maker." Running 10 minutes, this one is typical of such promos from its day, with rather ominous, dramatic narration and refreshingly grainy, shot-on-film production footage. In addition to the above participants, the featurette also includes interviews with the film's late director of photography Victor J. Kemper and assistant director Burtt Harris.
Rounding out this excellent set is the film's original Theatrical Trailer, presented in 480i video only.
'Dog Day Afternoon' is a true classic, Controversial, incisive and intelligent, it's a story that works on multiple layers -- and it's executed flawlessly. Warner delivers an HD DVD release that thankfully does the film justice, with a fine remaster and terrific supplements. If you want to understand why the '70s continue to be regarded as a lost golden age of American cinema, look no further than 'Dog Day Afternoon.' It's a must-see.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.