On a hot Brooklyn afternoon, two optimistic nobodies set out to rob a bank. Sonny (Al Pacino) is the mastermind, Sal (John Cazale) is the follower, and disaster is the result. Because the cops, crowds, TV cameras and even the pizza man have arrived.
"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 10-minute bank robbery, but a series of fast-moving complications, missteps, and outright bungles end up turning it into a 14-hour siege. As the police and 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 absolute right decision to center the narrative almost entirely 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 with seemingly little effort is what makes 'Dog Day Afternoon' an absolutely riveting film.
It's interesting to note that with all the controversy that greeted 'Brokeback Mountain' in 2005, exactly 30 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 police for the much-needed approval he seeks. Yet Sonny is not portrayed here as some sort of wanna-be reality TV star or 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 clichés. 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 40 years later.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
The 40th anniversary edition of 'Dog Day Afternoon' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case inside a sleeve. A 50GB dual-layer Blu-ray disc contains the movie and several supplements, and a standard-def DVD includes a documentary on actor John Cazale and more supplements. Video codec is 1080p/VC-1 and default audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu without music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
The biggest disappointment of this 40th anniversary edition is no new transfer, but it's tough to complain too much, because Warner's existing 1080p/VC-1 rendering of 'Dog Day Afternoon' still looks very, very good. Peter Bracke called the transfer a "revelation" when he reviewed the original Blu-ray edition back in 2007. "Sure, 'Dog Day Afternoon' is still a gritty '70s picture," he wrote, "but no film over 30 years old should look this good." The remastering that was done several years ago holds up well, with nary a nick or scratch cropping up on the pristine source material. As Bracke earlier noted, "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."
While Bracke carped a bit on the transfer's high level of edge enhancement, I didn't find it annoying at all. He said it lends the movie an "artificial look that almost seems too modern." I respectfully disagree. As presented here, 'Dog Day Afternoon' retains its natural appearance and gritty urban aura. Costumes and fine textures remain rock solid, shadow detail is quite good, background elements are easy to discern, and flesh tones are stable and true. Would we all have liked Warner to upgrade this transfer for the film's 40th birthday? Of course! But to be honest, it's not really necessary. 'Dog Day Afternoon' looks about as good as it ever will right here.
What Warner did upgrade for this 40th anniversary release was the film's audio, at last providing a lossless track to replace the Dolby Digital mono audio on the previous release. The sound is still mono, but the DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 track boasts lots of presence and depth, enhancing the immediacy of the boisterous crowd scenes and allowing subtle details in the quiet bank to shine. Dynamic range has been increased, bass frequencies have more oomph, and all the priceless dialogue is clear and easy to comprehend. (Other than the opening song by Elton John, which sounds great, there's no music whatsoever in 'Dog Day Afternoon.') No surface noise or age-related pops and crackles crop up, but a bit of distortion occurs during the final airport sequence. While the improved audio isn't reason enough to upgrade, if you already own a previous high-def edition of this film, it's nice that we now have high-def sound to complement the high-def picture.
All the extras from the 2007 Blu-ray release have been ported over to this 40th anniversary edition, along with a new DVD documentary tribute to actor John Cazale.
Blu-ray Special Features
Audio Commentary - Bracke called Lumet's solo scene-specific audio commentary "one of the best I've heard in a long while" and "worth the price of admission." He termed his enthusiasm "simply infectious" and marveled at his energy and wisdom. Lumet details virtually every stage of the film, from producer Martin Bregman bringing him to the project up through the casting and capturing the movie's gritty texture by shooting entirely on location. Bracke was particularly impressed by Lumet's frank and open discussion of the role of improvisation during the making of the film, which resulted in many classic moments, such as Pacino fumbling as he first opens the flower box to bring out his rifle. Anyone interested in the art of moviemaking should certainly give this high-quality track a listen.
Four-Part Documentary: "The Making of 'Dog Day Afternoon'" (SD, 57 minutes) - According to Bracke, the four featurettes that comprise this absorbing documentary convince us of the film's status as a classic, as well as 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...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 sensational 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 57-minute doc is presented in 4:3 full screen and 480i video only 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)."
Vintage Featurette: "Lumet: Film Maker" (SD, 10 minutes) - Running 10 minutes, this 1975 featurette 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.
Theatrical Trailer (SD, 3 minutes) - The film's original preview, dotted with plenty of marks and debris, really makes us appreciate the quality of the movie's transfer.
DVD Special Features
Documentary: "I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale" (SD, 40 minutes) - He only made five movies, but all of them - 'The Godfather,' 'The Conversation,' 'The Godfather, Part II,' 'Dog Day Afternoon,' and 'The Deer Hunter' - received Best Picture nominations (and three of them won). And though he was never the most recognizable actor, often disappearing into the supporting roles he played, John Cazale (who sadly died of cancer in 1978 at age 42) made an indelible impression upon audiences and his fellow thespians, and this forthright celebratory salute honors the man and his work with insight, grace, and reverence. Clips from all his films are included, along with rare photos and emotional reminiscences from some of the biggest names in the business. Francis Ford Coppola, Sidney Lumet, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Steve Buscemi, Richard Dreyfuss, Gene Hackman, John Savage, Olympia Dukakis, Sam Rockwell, and - most touching of all - Meryl Streep (the love of Cazale's life and with whom he spent his final months) share stories and reveal intimate tidbits about this underrated performer, while praising his staggering talent. This absorbing 2009 documentary is a great addition to this set and a lasting testament to a quiet man who wielded tremendous power on screen.
Audio Commentary - Director Richard Shepard sits down for a thoughtful commentary about 'I Knew It Was You' and his commitment to making a film about his favorite actor. Shepard talks about the project's genesis, how he got it financed, his admiration for Cazale, and how he hoped his film would have "more energy and artistry" than a Biography Channel profile. He also discusses Streep's initial reluctance to participate (and how Cazale's brother "guilted" her into it), as well as director Michael Cimino's refusal to be interviewed, and speculates on what trajectory Cazale's career would have followed had he lived. If you enjoy this documentary, you'll also find this lively commentary interesting.
Extended Interview - Al Pacino (SD, 20 minutes) - Pacino calls Cazale the "go-to person when you needed help," recalls how they toiled as bike messengers together while struggling to break into the business, examines his working method, and shares a couple of nice anecdotes in a lengthy selection of outtakes from his interview.
Extended Interview - Israel Horovitz (SD, 23 minutes) - The noted playwright, who knew Cazale since their youth, admits he misses the actor terribly, talks about Cazale's risk-taking on screen and on stage, and observes he made other actors better or worse because he was so good. He also reflects on Cazale's attitude toward his cancer and reads the eulogy he wrote for the actor in this extended interview.
Vintage Short Film: "The American Way" (1962) (SD, 10 minutes) - A bearded 27-year-old Cazale appears in this largely silent black-and-white comedy that lampoons an array of great American pastimes and traditions, but ends with a coincidental yet nonetheless disturbing harbinger of New York City terrorism.
Vintage Short Film: "The Box" (1969) (SD, 10 minutes) - Cazale photographed - but does not appear in - this amusing black-and-white short film that chronicles the unsuccessful and frustrating attempts of an average joe to watch his brand new television set.
Unless you're a diehard John Cazale fan or have been yearning for a lossless audio track, there's no need to upgrade to the 40th anniversary edition of 'Dog Day Afternoon.' The solid, vibrant video transfer remains the same, as do the disc supplements, and although the bonus DVD is a nice plus, it's not worth plunking down $20 for this celebratory reissue. Lumet's film, however, remains a classic, and stands as one of the exemplary examples of gritty 1970s filmmaking. Pacino and his fellow actors deliver blistering portrayals, and Lumet's top-notch direction keeps us riveted from the opening frames to the very bitter end. If you consider yourself a film fan and have never seen 'Dog Day Afternoon,' this disc is a required purchase, but if you already own a previous version, keep it on your shelf. Judged on its own merits, this 40th anniversary release earns a high and hearty recommendation; just don't consider it any kind of worthy upgrade.
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.