Dog Day Afternoon: Stress, Disappointment, & Bigotry
*Written for the “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” series at The Film Experience*
Al Pacino’s work in the 1970′s will always be one of the most impressive streaks of virtuoso performance in any art form. His work in both Godfather films, Serpico, and Dog Day Afternoon rank among the finest acting exhibitions post-Brando. Pacino took a risk by portraying Sonny Wortzik, but created an unforgettable portrait of stress and disappointment.
Dog Day Afternoon has a traditional Hollywood climax at the end, but the emotional peak comes earlier. The audience watches Sonny speak to the two loves in his life — one man, one woman — for almost 14 minutes. While his lovers are held in wide shots and middle shots with the occasional close-up, Sonny is always held in a tight frame the entire time. The difficulty of sustaining a character during a phone conversation for this duration cannot be exaggerated. Remember that, when filming, Pacino isn’t hearing another voice on the phone. At best, the other end is represented by a reader standing off-camera. [Edit: A reader just informed me that Pacino and others were on the phone with each other during shooting. A rare, fantastic call by Lumet.]
The “best shot” above comes at the very end of this masterful segment and we see the burden of kindness begin to crush Sonny to death. Sidney Lumet is not necessarily a great director. With 12 Angry Men, Network, and Dog Day, the films for which he is most remembered, Lumet basically succeeded in realizing a breathtaking script. His imagery is mostly tame and rarely adventurous. Surely, his ability to crank out acceptable (and sometimes extraordinary) renderings of the best Hollywood writing is what made him so indispensable to producers. This frame is not bold or particularly revealing, but it does demonstrate Lumet’s ability to recognize a gold mine when he finds one.
Pierson’s script and Pacino’s performance combine to create one of the best character studies of the decade. It’s a true human tragedy amplified by Pacino’s intense internalization of bigotry.