Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: 'Dog Day Afternoon'

I've always been a big fan of The Film Experience's series 'Hit Me With Your Best Shot', but have never had the motivation to participate, whether it be because of the film choices or (the more likely scenario) a grand abundance of laziness. But Dog Day Afternoon - a film that I have loved for most of my life - has pushed me out of my apathetic hovel and led me to add to the series.

I've seen the film close to twenty-five times and I've always thought it was a masterpiece, but like all great films, each viewing brings some small detail to light, making the film that much more great. As I sat down to watch it again, pondering which shot to use, I was most struck by the performance of John Cazale. Which is why I went with this shot:

Watching this film for the millionth time, it was this shot that stuck out to me so strongly. They've already been inside the bank for quite some time at this point of the film, but the FBI has stepped in and turned off the electricity. Threatened, they look outside and see FBI agent Sheldon (a terrifically underplayed James Broderick) calling for Sonny to come outside.

I've always loved this shot, but this time around it caught my eye because what it said about Sal. Sonny stands front and center, the obvious leader within this troubled duo. But it's Sal that stands armed, equipped with the assault rifle. Sonny doesn't even think to get a fire arm. It is Sal, after all, who was always ready to commit either murder or suicide if their plan didn't go off as planned. He never truly bought into Sonny's pipe dream of a getaway jet to Algeria, but his incompetence allowed him to be talked into it. But when their defenses go down, its Sal who falls back onto his instincts. Grab the gun, be ready to fire.

This is further emphasized later in the shot, when Sonny exits and Sal cocks the gun, ready at a moment's notice to unleash a violent flurry that he seems to be counting on.

I've always adored Cazale's performance in this film (as well as all his performances in his tragically short five-film career), but this was the first time that I noticed how much we in the audience believe that Sal is capable of violence. We never even see him fire a shot (we Sonny and Murphy - Sal's eventual assailant - fire the only two shots in the movie), but we can tell from all the nervous energy in his eyes that he'd be more than willing to shoot himself out of any situation. And that shot is the epitome of that fierceness that 's prevalent throughout the entire movie.

It's Sal's gullibility and basic unintelligence that is eventually his downfall. His instincts to defend with force serve him well in his situation, but he is undercut by Sonny's frenetic scheming with the law. He puts his trust in Sonny, but Sonny has enough problems on his plate to really pay off on that trust. Sal allows himself to buy into Sonny's plan of escape. That they can actually do it. Even his solemn death at the end of the film, stems from his gullibility, taking instruction from Murphy (Lance Hendrickson) to keep the gun pointed up, even though we all know that it leaves him totally defenseless.

Al Pacino's performance is this film's most endearing and celebrated quality, and so it should be. It's a brilliant bushel of anxiety braced ferocity that blows non-stop for the entire film's 125 minutes. Many would even call it the finest of his illustrious career (if anything, we should definitely rank it higher than that overrated clown suit of a performance in Scarface - sorry, as a Cuban-American, the inauthenticity makes me bitter to this day). But Cazale is so heartbreaking in the co-lead role of Sal. There's something almost childish about how he's willing to believe in those around him, even though his inner thoughts seem to possess something much more sinister. By the end, you're more sad that Sal gets blown away than Sonny getting arrested.

Watching the film with this perspective, you can see how master Sidney Lumet frames almost all of Sal's shots to be submissive. Always looking down helplessly at Sonny, or off in the corner watching, but not participating. He probably is the character that Lumet plays most of his camera statements off of.

One last shot, only because the original shot I chose was so, so dark:

One of my favorites, Sal's sole moment of defiance, castigating Sylvia for choosing to throw away a moment of health and smoke a cigarette. But the shot, the way it isolates him alone on the other end of the table, far away from anyone else in the room. It stays there as he slowly builds the confidence to tell Sylvia how he feels about her fleeting cigarette. But she challenges him, the audacity it takes a armed robber to challenge someone else's morals. So, then we cut in a little closer.

"You gonna smoke the cigarette or what?"


arf_she_said said...

Great choices! Cazale is magnificent in DDA. I love the way Lumet gets his big forehead out there, makes him weird and vulnerable.

Squasher88 said...

Nice post. It really shocked me when I realized that Sal is ready to kill someone. Another great John Cazale performance.

jkingqm said...

Nice observations. I just watched the movie again last night for the first time in decades so am online looking for information.