Thursday, 23 August 2012

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Dog Day Afternoon

There’s an early scene in Dog Day Afternoon when would-be bank robber, Sonny, heads to the bank vault to make off with some cash only to realise he’s too late and it’s already been shipped elsewhere. This would suggest that the old adage “better late than never” is wrong. But, here I go with my late post for the season finale of Nathaniel’s Hit Me With Your Best Shot taking a look at Sidney Lumet’s excellent Dog Day Afternoon.

The film is a simple one; Sonny Wortzik attempts to perform a simple heist on a Brooklyn bank. The money’s not there, minor events lead to things going awry and before long he’s engaged in a standoff with the police. We know things will end badly. Even if we’re not familiar with the resolution of the true story on which it is based, we know that things will eventually go awry for Sonny – the man without a plan. The entire uneasy tone of the film telegraphs the end...

         “What is it? Did you just barge inhere... He doesn't have plan. It's all a whim.

It’s what the head teller is telling Sonny there when he realises that the police are on to him – one of a series of debilitating disappointments he’ll face within the next hundred minutes. I considered that shot as an option for my favourite because it reveals a significant element of the machinations of this bank robbery. Sonny is not so much without a plan as he is without the decisiveness essential to pulling off a bank robbery with hostages. He bonds with the hostages and there reaches a point where – as much as he tries to convince us that “he’s running the show” – we realise he’s not. That shot is early on, but Sonny is on the floor in a compliant position with Mulvaney’s (the bank manager) feet at the forefront of the shot, and Penelope Allen’s head teller arms akimbo observing him like a displeased mother.

Dog Day Afternoon moves me so much because Pacino’s performance, and Lumet’s direction so effectively captures the everyman desperation of Sonny’s situation. “Why rob a bank?” he’s asked. And, although it sounds like a quip, Sonny’s “it’s where they got the money” is such an efficient indication of a random man with nowhere to go. It doesn’t even depend on the specifics of trying to get the money for his boyfriend to get the sex-change operation, there’s a desultory sadness in the way Sonny carries himself, in the way his eyes seem so wide but so lifeless. He’s at rock bottom, but not in an obtrusively dramatic way where he gets a series of scenes to indicate a “breakdown”. It’s a desolation brought on by quietude whereby we might look at Sonny and think, maybe, a series of unfortunate roadblocks could lead us on that unfortunate journey to rock-bottom where he is.

It’s why THAT was almost my best shot. His face obscured by the hand he’s using for support after being dealt another blow. It doesn’t matter that the face is that of Pacino (arguably, at his height of popularity in that decade). Dog Day Afternoon is significant just because of how it depends on namelessness and facelessness. The officer bargaining with him cajoles him into giving a name. “I gotta call you something,” Moretti says. He’s so unaware that names don’t even matter. That could be anyone in there after being moved to tipping point.
Ultimately, I turn to a shot less than eighteen minutes into the film. Just looking at the shot reminds me of the overwhelming sadness I always feel when I return to this film. The foreboding existence of despair (ahead and behind) is ever present. Sonny is on the floor, distraught that his plan has already gone awry and the camera shoots him not from below, and not even from vantage but from above making him look that much more pitiable. His eyes are closed as he probably wonders, “How did I get here? How will get out?” – an observation that would be as identifiable to anyone with their backs against the wall  (in the seventies, or in the contemporary world). And his back is against the wall, literally. The gun is in his hand but it’s not even fully shown as if to suggest – what could a rifle possibly do when things are this bad? The wedding band on his finger jumps out (married he is, but to whom?) suggesting to us -  this is not necessarily a degenerate. He's a married man. Sure his tie is gaudy but he's man in a suit like so many of us. And then he’s flanked on either sided by the dun colours of the bank floor – representative of a colourless world he's flanked by ...waiting to envelope him in gloom.

Head over to Nathaniel HERE. Other bloggers pitch in on their favourite shot in Dog Day Afternoon.


Tim said...

Absolutely fantastic dissection of your shot in that last paragraph. I've been loving all of your Best Shot entries, but I think this might be the best of them all.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

tim thank you kindly. this just might be the film that moved me most of the series this season (even if i maybe like singin in the rain more). it's just overflowing with societal implications. it's so weird how it's not talked about more, it's so current.